After failing to sweep the bottom-dwelling Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing last weekend, No. 18 Penn State (14-13-5, 7-10-5 B1G) has really dug itself a deep hole when it comes to the NCAA Tourney seedings.
Currently standing at No.17 in the PairWise rankings, just one slot out of going dancing, the Nittany Lions must sweep their final regular season opponent to avoid getting locked out of the top-four teams in the Big Ten conference. If you need a refresher on Penn State's path to the post-season, here's an explanation from last week.
That opponent is the No. 8 Golden Gophers (19-13-2, 10-10-2 B1G), the team the Lions opened Big Ten play with back in October, and who just managed to take three points from Ohio State last weekend. That was a series Penn State really could've used a Buckeye sweep to assist them in the conference table. Bad luck keeps plaguing this team, it seems. Couple that with Penn State's lowly split with Sparty, and this team is hurting. Now, the Lions have to make their own luck on home ice against Minnesota to avoid spiraling out of contention for good, and given the offensive fire power the Gophers have, it won't be an easy feat.
Basically, the Gophers need only one point to lock up home ice for the best-of-three Big Ten quarterfinal series. If the Lions allow a sweep, the Gophers can climb the conference standings to third place at-best, but could fall back down to sixth if the Lions can win both games in regulation. If the Lions want to play hockey inside Pegula Ice Arena again before next fall, two wins are crucial for fourth place honors. Anything less is unacceptable.
This series is huge, and it just so happens to be held in Hockey Valley, in front of what will no doubt be another sell-out crowd. Here's our breakdown of the current Golden Gophers:
Obviously everyone's eyes will be focused on Casey Mittelstadt, who was responsible for a large part of Team USA's success in the 2018 World Juniors (it bodes well for you when you're named MVP of the tournament). But lately, Brent Gates Jr., an Anaheim Ducks prospect, is on a serious tear, with a goal in three-straight games and a point in the past four Minny contests. He has six points (three goals and three assists) in that span.
Tyler Sheehy is another forward to look out for. Not only is he top-four in points on the Gophers team with a team-leading 12 goals and 12 assists, but he also makes his scores count. The captain is tied for the NCAA lead of most game-deciding tallies, with five of his 12 goals being game-winners.
Junior Tommy Novak is also lighting up the stat sheet, but not with goals; he's an assists specialist. He has six helpers in his last four games and surpassed his career high with 22 assists so far this season. Novak is now just two points shy of breaking his points ceiling of 27, the amount he managed to corral back in his freshman season in 2015-16.
Ryan Lindgren traveled with Mittelstadt to Buffalo and earned World Juniors bronze, so of course he'll be a factor on the blue line, but it will be more so due to his defensive play. Not that this stat counts as much in this day and age in hockey, but his plus-minus rating is a decent plus-two on the year.
On the offensive side of things, senior Steve Johnson leads all defensemen in points with three goals and 12 assists. But most of Minnesota's scoring comes from its highly touted top forward lines.
What this defense is excels at is helping out their goaltender and playing tough in front of him, which brings me to...
Mat Robson is playing out of his mind lately, and that isn't good news for Penn State. The sophomore boats a 7-2-1 record this year and was just recently named the Big Ten Second Star of the week after making a ridiculous 59 saves on 61 shots in the Ohio State series. This includes a 38-save night, which ties his single-game career best.
That's not all. Robson is only allowing an average of 1.53 goals against, which is good for second in the nation among goalies with 10 games in hand, and a .945 (!!!) save percentage. That's phenomenal and should be terrifying for Guy Gadowsky, whose team is struggling to hit the back of the net in their usual, prolific fashion.
Keys To a Penn State Win
Control the gapping issues in the defensive zone that acted as the main peril to the Lions early-season struggles on the Golden Gophers big ice back in the fall. This time, Penn State has home-ice advantage, which it'll absolutely need to feed off of if it has any chance of pulling off a major sweep. Pegula's faithful knows the stakes of this series and the building will be rocking if the Lions pull out in front with an early lead and control the game play.
Similarly, the Nittany Lions top players seriously need to show up in these two games. Andrew Sturtz is a given, but I'm more concerned about Penn State's other scoring leaders. I want to see Denis Smirnov show some sort of life. I want Chase Berger to show Hockey Valley this team is for real. They can't lay another egg like they did against the Spartans -- especially not in Game 1. Fourth place in the Big Ten depends on it. Give me a hockey tuddy like this team gave us regularly last season, and I'll be happy.
Ugh. I want to say I believe in this team to pull off the upset at home, but I just don't think it's in the cards. The Lions aren't playing to their strengths anymore, and they've lost the edge that set them apart from other teams they so wonderfully took advantage of last season down the stretch.
Best case scenario for me is a split. Penn State finally wakes up in front of a full Pegula crowd and takes Game 1 by a score of 4-2, but ultimately drops Game 2 in a hard-fought heartbreaker 4-3 because I'm a masochist. Hey, I've been wrong before. Let's hope that rings true again come Saturday night. You can catch both games on the Big Ten Network. Puck drop is 7:00 p.m. and 6:30 ET respectively.