It has been a long and laborious Big Ten campaign for Penn State Men’s Hockey this season. The Nittany Lions had a strong non-conference campaign which saw them defeated once in ten contests, which included four total matchups against two current top-15 teams: Arizona State and Clarkson University. However, Penn State’s success did not translate into the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions posted a record of just 7-9-1-1 against opposition within their own conference. Five of those losses came against teams outside of the top-20 in the pairwise rankings.
As head coach Guy Gadowsky searched for answers and continued to preach consistency to his players, Penn State slid from the top-10 to nearly out of the NCAA tournament picture. It seemed that despite having numerous NHL prospects on their roster, the Nittany Lions would go out quietly in the 2018-19 season due to their inability to put together back-to-back contests with consistent focus on both sides of the puck. However, when hope looked bleak, a familiar foe came coming at the right time.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers came to Pegula Ice Arena this weekend with a bitter taste in their mouth. Coach Bob Motzko and company had their season ended at the hands of the Nittany Lions last season. They were swept not only at the end of the regular season, but in the first round of the Big Ten tournament in the confines of “Hockey Valley.”
Going into the weekend ranked No. 24 in the pairwise, Minnesota essentially had its season on the line once again: in the same venue, against the same team. The Golden Gophers had every reason to be up for this weekend set – and that is what makes the result for Penn State that much more impressive.
An elusive sweep
The Nittany Lions finally captured their first sweep of Big Ten play this season against, you guessed it – Minnesota, by winning Friday’s contest, 7-2, before finishing the job Saturday, 6-2. The Golden Gophers were thoroughly dominated by Penn State throughout both games of the series. To begin, Minnesota was averaging 4.5 goals per game in the two weeks prior to this series. However, Penn State’s defense was conceding a Big Ten-worst 3.77 goals per contest leading into the series. They held the Gophers to only four total goals throughout the two games. This was the consecutive defensive displays Nittany Lions supporters have been begging for throughout conference play. That was only the beginning.
Hobey Baker Award nominees Tyler Sheehy and Rem Pitlick had been producing at a fantastic rate this season. Both forwards had eclipsed 30 points entering Friday’s action and were among the top six in the Big Ten scoring race. Penn State’s defense came up big yet again, limiting the duo to only four combined points in the series.
Minnesota came into the series with the best combined special team units in the Big Ten. Penn State was incredibly successful, limiting them to only one conversion on five power plays. The Nittany Lions also scored three power-play goals of their own in five opportunities.
The domination did not stop there. Goaltender Peyton Jones has now conceded less than three goals in three straight games for the first time all season. College hockey’s leading offense also had its highest combined goal output for a series since October.
The bye week has appeared to help Penn State greatly. The fresh legs helped the Nittany Lions look sharper than they have all season en route to climbing out of the basement in the Big Ten standings. Gadowsky’s team now sits in fourth position, four points away from the second place Michigan Wolverines. With three weeks remaining in the regular season, Penn State will look to harness this momentum, continuing to pad its NCAA resume well into the Big Ten tournament.
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