Hockey Preview: Penn State Vs. Michigan State

By Kaitlyn Dividock on November 24, 2017 at 11:34 am
Denis Smirnov and Nate Sucese discuss strategy as they reset.
Adrianna Lacy/Roar Lions Roar

A physical Sparty team (7-5-1, 1-3-0 B1G) comes to Happy Valley this weekend as Penn State (7-7-0, 2-4-0 B1G) prepares to face its fifth Big Ten opponent and try to make some headway in the conference standings.

Michigan State Spartans
7-5-0 (1-3-0 B1G)
7:00 p.m. ET – FRIDAY, NOV. 24
8:00 p.m. ET – SATURDAY, NOV. 25
Read: Two Future Nittany Lions Sign with Penn State

The Lions are just above the Spartans in the B1G race at the fifth and sixth seeds respectively, with only three points separating the two teams. If Penn State wants to make a statement, they'll sweep Sparty at Pegula this weekend. However, Michigan State is arriving hot off the coattails of an impressive sweep of Ferris State. And while they did put up six total goals on the Bulldogs, the Spartans' offense wasn't the main highlight of last weekend's success; it was their physicality.

They won puck battles, showed a willingness to give and take hits, and were tough along the boards on their way to two straight out-of-conference victories. Looking at this through a college hockey lens, you'd wouldn't usually see this type of gritty play take such a front seat in a team's strategy. Michigan State did find success with it, but it didn't come without its challenges and flaws.

Penn State has the obvious offensive advantage in this matchup, but don't expect the Spartans to lay down without a fight as it tries to come out victorious on the road. Here's our scouting report:

Forwards Outlook

Currently holding the national freshman scoring lead is phenom Mitchell Lewandowski, who's been electric for Michigan State this year. In 12 games, he's already recorded 17 points (9 goals, 8 assists) and a .265 shot percentage on 34 shots on goal. So not only does Lewandowski fling a lot of pucks on net, he manages to make them count on the scoreboard too. He also leads the team in power-play points. Against Ferris State, Lewandowski tallied four points and was awarded the NCAA Third Star of the Week for his performance against the Bulldogs. In comparison, Andrew Sturtz, Penn State's high-flying offensive power and team leader in points, has less than the freshman with 16.

Guy Gadowsky should also keep an on Calgary native Taro Hirose, who's currently the second-highest points scorer for the Spartans. The sophomore has 15 points (three goals, 12 assists) and had the second-most points accrued by a freshman since 2009-10 last season with 24 total – 14 of those came in Big Ten play. This feat earned him the Most Outstanding Rookie Award. Hirose also has five multi-point games so far this year.

It's worth noting that Brennan Sanford has a solid past weekend. The junior tallied a short-handed goal and was helpful in the penalty kill. He might make some noise as well.

Defense Outlook

Piggybacking off the physical play point I made earlier, I'd expect the defensemen to continue to throw their bodies around during this series – especially on Friday to set the tone that they'll light you up if given the chance. Carson Gatt was a name that stuck out to me over Sparty's series with Ferris State. His physical play was abundant and he even stated after the game how much he played into the tougher role.

“We knew it was going to be like that on their ice, that they wanted to play it physical,’’ Gatt told team writer Neil Koepke after the win. “We responded pretty well and played physical back to them. It was a tough, hard-fought game and that’s good for us.’’

The senior has nine points on one goal and eight assists. The defensive corps as a whole is pretty decent though. They cover their gaps well and don't allow for many easy looks.

GOalies Outlook

Michigan State goaltender John Lethemon has been having a pretty great season so far. With a 7-3 record, he manages a .919 save percentage while only allowing an average of 2.17 goals against. Needless to say, he's a tough guy to push pucks past. It doesn't help that the defense in front of him is also tough to crack with how well they've played this year. Penn State may have some issues scoring this time around, as it usually knocks in around four goals per game.

Player To Watch

I'm going with Lewandowski. He's read hot right now and leading all freshman en route to staying atop the national scoring leaderboard. Lewandowski notched his sixth goal in his last four games against Ferris State. The kid's on a roll.

Series Prediction

With Denis Smirnov still projected to be out another two weeks because of his mono diagnosis, the Lions will have to continue figuring out ways to put the puck in the net. Sturtz is still fresh, Brandon Biro has played well offensively, and I think the defense is finally starting to come together and cover its gaps.

That being said, this Spartans team worries me. So because of that hesitation, plus the way we've seen this Penn State team crack under some offensive pressure, I'm going to predict the Lions come away with a split for this weekend. Let's go with a 3-2 loss night one, and a 4-2 victory on Saturday. I hope I'm wrong.