What winter break?
Penn State returned to the ice after a month off to take on Wisconsin, a team desperate for points in the Big Ten standings. The Nittany Lions seized control of the game moments after the first puck drop and never let go. They were helped by a shorthanded Badger team that skated seven defensemen while its best forward was off playing for Team USA at World Juniors in Buffalo, but good teams know how to take advantage of that. Penn State, dare I say, is good.
Evan Barratt got things started when Wisconsin took an early penalty -- less than two minutes into the game, he beat goalie Jack Berry to take a 1-0 lead. The Nittany Lions dominated possession but not shots -- Wisconsin plays a similar game with high shot counts, but Penn State was able to generate higher quality chances. One such high-quality chance was a Nate Sucese breakaway nine minutes into the game that doubled the lead. Penn State probably could have scored more in the first 20 minutes…
...and seemingly knew that, so it scored 11 seconds into the next period. Chase Berger’s sixth goal of the season added to Penn State’s lead and momentum. That momentum turned into a shorthanded goal less than four minutes in -- it was Sucese’s second goal of the evening and it chased Wisconsin net minder Jack Berry from the crease. Kyle Hayton replaced him and shut Penn State out for the rest of the period.
Penn State didn’t let up in the final period, despite not burying the puck. Hayton turned away a decent number of odd-man rushes, with Sucese and Andrew Sturtz each having a couple chances to score. With the game winding down, Tarek Baker broke up Peyton Jones’ shutout, but it was the only mistake the sophomore goalie made. Sucese snagged an empty-net goal late to finish his hat trick and wrap up the 5-1 win.
- The Nittany Lions came out hot and stayed hot. They were the better skaters and were much more aggressive than the Badgers all night, and that allowed them to score early goals in the first two periods.
- I, and probably plenty of other people outside the program, was pretty skeptical of how the team would return after the winter break. After all, they were unbeaten in eight straight games before not playing hockey for a month. It turns out I was wrong and stupid to be concerned. Erik Autio returned from injury and the team looked completely rejuvenated from the first half of the season, and they absolutely cruised over Wisconsin.
- Despite the score never really being that close, this was a scrappy game with a decent amount of extracurriculars after the whistle. The only major result from the scrums was a 4-on-4 at one point, but keep an eye out for a very energetic game tomorrow.
- There have been six hat tricks in Penn State program history, and all were at home. (Glen, Bailey, Olczyk, Smirnov, Robinson, Sucese)
- Luckily for Penn State, Wisconsin was without Trent Frederic in this game. Luckily for all Americans, he was busy scoring four goals against the Czech Republic to earn a 9-3 win and a bronze medal at World Juniors.
- Kyle Hayton was one of the best goalies in college hockey through the first three years of his career at St. Lawrence but has struggled since transferring to Wisconsin. Berry had been pretty solid lately and got the start in this game, but promptly got yanked. Hayton was very impressive, however, and stopped every shot he faced. I imagine he’ll start tomorrow and I’m expecting a great game from him.
- The series ends Saturday at 7 p.m. in Pegula Ice Arena. We’ll be covering the game live from the rink, or you can catch it on the Big Ten Network.