It’s deja vu all over again this weekend as Penn State has to beat a team for the first time in five tries in the Big Ten semifinals. If you can’t place why that sounds familiar, it’s because the Nittany Lions were in the same spot last year; after going 0-for-4 against Minnesota, they won in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament and rode that momentum to a championship and an NCAA Tournament win.
This year, Notre Dame is the roadblock. Even though Penn State has pretty much clinched an NCAA Tournament berth, it could use the momentum. The Irish have taken all four decisions this year by scores of 5-3, 1-0, 5-3, and a 2-2 tie/shootout win. Here’s why, and how that affects this weekend:
Notre Dame doesn’t often rely on its offense to win games, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. The Irish average fewer than three goals for per game, fifth in the Big Ten and 26th nationally. Their offense runs through some of the best players in the conference, but they aren’t backed up by much scoring depth.
Jake Evans, Andrew Oglevie, Cal Burke, and Cam Morrison lead the forwards in scoring and deploying just one of them is enough to make a line a threat. Evans, a senior captain and former seventh-round steal for the Montreal Canadiens, is sixth in the conference with 38 points in 34 games and was the only forward nominated as the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year. He has size, speed, and vision; he presents a different kind of elite center than a Casey Mittelstadt-type, but his two-way play and ability to win shifts in any zone is an issue.
In their first four meetings, Penn State allowed Notre Dame to tally shot totals of 19, 27, 37, and 34 -- 29.25 per game, about two fewer than what the Lions allow on average. Notre Dame doesn’t build its offense around high shot totals though, it is about generating high-quality chances. Penn State’s job is to focus on getting its best shut-down guys on the ice with Evans because if the top players are slowed down, the rest will follow.
The Irish have rolled out seven defensemen for a couple months and it’s produced successful, if not logical, results. 2.18 goals against per game is great, and the credit has to be split between the forwards, defense, and goalies. 35.65 shots against per game is bizarre and the second-worst total in the country.
Notre Dame has a deep corps, and both types of their defensemen are exemplified best by Jordan Gross and Dennis Gilbert. Gross is third on the entire team in scoring with 24 points in 34 games, while Gilbert’s 70 blocks lead the team and are sixth in the Big Ten. Five other solid players complement those two, and the sheer number of them means that three-plus pairings can roll out and keep each other fresh.
Of course, this team wouldn't be near where it is without one of the best players in college hockey, Cale Morris. He’s played 88 percent of his team’s minutes, tallying a .945 save percentage and a 1.92 GAA. Penn State fired an average of 46 shots per game in the teams’ first four meetings and scored a total of eight goals. The front-runner for the Mike Richter Award and a probable finalist for the Hobey Baker steals games and in a one-game series, should be expected to do that again.
Strictly because of Morris, it’s hard to pick against Notre Dame, especially in South Bend. Penn State is on a five-game winning streak, but the Irish had an extra week of rest to prepare for this game. I’m picking Penn State to significantly outshoot and probably outplay its opponent, but unless Peyton Jones is in the form he was last Tournament, Morris will be the difference-maker. I’m going 3-2 Notre Dame, and I hope I’m wrong.
The game is Saturday at 5:30 p.m. on ESPNU, at Notre Dame. The winner will meet Ohio State or Michigan in the Big Ten Final next weekend.