This is a big one, folks.
No. 9 Penn State (10-4-1, 2-3-1 B1G) is desperate to snap a three-game winless streak, as it welcomes a dangerous foe in No. 5 Notre Dame (10-4-1, 4-2-0 B1G) to Happy Valley this weekend. This series has major conference implications. The Fighting Irish, after their shaky start to the season, have finally righted the ship and are sitting just behind No. 7 Ohio State at second place in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions have limped into conference play despite a strong out-of-conference showing, sitting eight points back from first place after stomaching several blows from the Wolverines, Buckeyes, and Badgers in consecutive series.
If Guy Gadowsky and this team can look back on these two games with Notre Dame with a split or even, dare I say, a monumental sweep, the Big Ten standings will look a lot less daunting for a Penn State team all the way down in fifth place.
Scouting the Fighting Irish
Notre Dame, 2018 National Champion runners-up, opened the year with a mediocre 4-4-1 record, stunning both the team and the fanbase, despite doing the same thing a season ago. The Irish lacked continuity in their forward lines and defensive pairs, and their power play didn't possess the same kind of wow factor. However, since that slight trip up, Notre Dame has been on a tear, especially within conference play. It split both series with Michigan and Ohio State, swept Michigan State at Munn Ice arena, and are riders of a six-game winning streaking coming into their two-game slate with the Lions.
Penn State has had a great deal of trouble dealing with the highly-touted Fighting Irish ever since Notre Dame joined the Big Ten last season. In fact, the Lions have yet to defeat the Irish in conference play, falling to 0-4-1 in 2017-18. Penn State has beaten them in the past (the all-time record between these clubs is 5-5-2), but has ultimately struggled when it counts vs. the Golden Domers.
Last season, the Irish had respectable excuses for the poor way they began. Injuries plagued them, and there wasn't much depth to be had past the top three forward lines. This year, Notre Dame's poor start was solely on their inability to score, and that's mainly due to the amount of talented players they lost to either graduation or the NHL draft. Notre Dame lost its top two scorers in the offseason in forwards Jake Evans and Andrew Oglevie, who scored 46 and 39 points, respectively.
To replace that top-tier scoring, junior shutdown player Cal Burke, to a bit of a surprise, has stepped up and currently leads the way for Notre Dame on the score sheet. He has collected 17 points (nine goals, eight assists) in 15 games played, is well over a point-per-game pace, has a stellar 18.8 shooting percentage, and holds the team-high power play goal tally with four. Senior duo Dylan Malmquist and Joe Wegwerth, who's shooting percentage is an unreal 20 percent right now, trail Burke slightly with 13 points (five goals, eight assists) and 11 points (seven goals, four assists), respectively.
Even with these impressive numbers, Penn State's electrifying offense still tops Notre Dame in total shooting percentage at .127 over .105. That's a crazy number.
Bobby Nardella is all you really need to know about the Irish defensively. After last season ended, Nardella, an offensive-minded defenseman, was expected to automatically fill the hole left by the 2017-18 team's third-leading scorer Jordan Gross. And boy, has he. Nardella is second in points on the team, with 16 (five goals, 11 assists) in 15 games played, he leads the team in assists, and he also possesses a point-per-game line. As for his defense -- it's solid, and head coach Jeff Jackson often uses Nardella in important, late-game situations.
It'd be smart to keep an eye on junior Andrew Peeke as well, as the puck-moving blueliner strings together a lot of his helpers from the point.
Cale Morris, once again, has been nightmarish between the pipes for opposing teams. In 12 games played, the sophomore netminder has a stellar .939 save percentage that's ranked fourth nationally, a 7-4-1 record, and a minuscule 1.83 goals against average that's ranked 10th nationally. For college hockey, a league where scoring comes first while defense takes a back seat, Morris's numbers are unreal. He was sensational during his freshman campaign, where he won the 2018 Mike Richter Award (most outstanding goaltender in Division I hockey), was a finalist for the Hobey Baker (college hockey's Heisman), and was one of the major reasons this Notre Dame team almost beat Minnesota-Duluth in the National Championship game last season.
Morris is riding a four-game win streak, and during that stretch, he's put together a .965 save percentage while only conceding four goals. He is very, very good.
Keys To a Penn State Win
The Nittany Lions' top-ranked offense has to continue succeeding an its ridiculous rate. The Folkes-Barratt-Limoges line has shown no signs of slowing down and were scorers of five of Penn State eight goals last weekend in Madison, Wisc., against the Badgers. The trio also added eight assists, totaling 13 points in just two games. If you're going to beat Cale Morris, this is the line that's capable of doing it.
It also doesn't help that Notre Dame is tied with Bowling Green as the top-ranked defense in the country -- one that has allowed only 16 goals at 5-on-5 in 15 games. That's comes out to an outstanding 1.67 goals per game on average clip. The Lions must pepper Morris to death and force at least three or four pucks through, while also holding together in their own zone (something that they've struggled with all season), otherwise this series is blouses.
One upside for Penn State is Notre Dame's struggles on special teams. With the man-advantage, the Irish have only converted 9-of-58 chances, equaling a lowly 15.5 power play percentage. That ranks them dead last in the Big Ten and 45th across the nation. Stop the Irish power play, hold together on defense, and sing a little prayer.
Kaitlyn: This series is going to be very draining. Notre Dame has what few powerful teams do -- an elite goaltender and a defense that can swallow you whole. Even teams like the Lions, who possess several offensively-gifted guys scoring almost two points per game, getting pucks past the red tape is going to be extremely difficult. Break down Morris, and the game is theirs. My most optimistic guess is that Penn State splits the series, taking the first game thanks to some hometown raucous. Game 1: 3-2, Penn State. Game 2: 5-4, Notre Dame.
Sam: Those defensive problems we were all worried about at the start of the season have become an issue, and I’m a little worried that we could see more third period break downs this weekend. It’s going to take Penn State’s best team effort to compete against the Irish, and thankfully the offense is still good. The Lions are going to control the majority of the zone time and should be able to beat Cale Morris a few times. Hopefully it’ll be enough to get a win out of the series. Game 1: 4-2, Penn State. Game 2: 3-1, Notre Dame.