Gophers Hockey: Minnesota at Penn State preview

Happy Valley hosts Big Ten hockey and the #1 Golden Gophers for the first time.

Before last Saturday's game, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers received a boost to its ranks. Head coach Don Lucia, sophomore defenseman Brady Skjei (New York Rangers draft pick) and freshman forward Hudson Fasching (Los Angeles Kings), back from representing Team USA at the World Juniors, were available for the Mariucci Classic consolation. A night after only suiting up 5 defensemen, the trio helped enhance a team that had played big minutes coming off a shootout loss. (For Pairwise purposes the game was officially a tie.)

It helped. The Gophers defeated RPI 6-2, and with the gang back together, Minnesota (13-2-3, 3-0-1-0 Big Ten) travels to so-called Happy Valley for a new mystery. The team returns to Big Ten conference play against Penn State, the newest school to pick up the sport, Sunday and Monday.

Both games begin at 6:00 p.m. CT. Sunday's game is not televised (you can pay for a stream here) while Monday's will be broadcast on BTN.

It's the first time the Nittany Lions host a Big Ten school at the nearly 6,000 seat Pegula Arena, and also the first time Minnesota has ever faced Penn State in Division 1 hockey.

"As much as you prepare for another opponent, it's still trying to look at your own game this week." Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said about never facing Penn State, currently in its second season sponsoring Division 1 hockey. "It's not like teams play that much different. You got to be aware of what they're doing on the power play or the penalty kill, but I think there's nothing we haven't seen before so it's just making sure we have a good week in practice."

Penn State (4-10-1, 0-2-0-0 Big Ten) has been off since December 28, when the Nittany Lions lost 8-2 to Boston College in the 3 Rivers Classic Championship game in Pittsburgh. Although the time off may help wash away the sting, things haven't been easy in the sophomore campaign. This weekend against the Gophers continues a stretch where PSU plays 9 out of 10 games against ranked opponents.

It also means that Penn State, a team without a senior, has to face another dangerous offense. Expected starting goalie Matthew Skoff (freshman Eamon McAdam has also seen time in net this year)  has a challenge ahead. Minnesota is second in the nation in total offense, averaging 3.94 goals per game. It might be more difficult to stop the top-ranked team, though.

Unlike the Eagles, whose line of Johnny Gaudreau- Bill Arnold-Kevin Hayes is much of the offense, the Gophers' firepower is spread across its team. Third-liner Seth Ambroz (Columbus Blue Jackets) leads Minnesota with 9 goals, but 8 players have at least 5 goals. Each of those players would be at worst second in scoring on Penn State behind sophomore transfer Eric Scheid.

Last weekend it was juniors Travis Boyd (Washington Capitals) and Kyle Rau (Florida Panthers) that made scoring contributions. This weekend, who knows?

So the Nittany Lions, whose defense averages giving up 3.93 goals per game (53rd out of 59 teams) have a challenge ahead at home. That's one thing which Penn State has thrived upon in its young history.

"We've been around enough. Last year they won at Wisconsin, at Ohio State and Michigan State," Lucia said. "So they're certainly capable of beating us as we go in there this weekend and we're back on the small sheet so that changes the game a little bit. We have to make sure that we go in and play the way that our team needs to play."

One player that has a bit of extra motivation this weekend is Penn State junior Max Gardiner. The Minnetonka, MN native and St. Louis Blues draft pick was a Gopher in 2010-11 before transferring to Penn State.

"I've got some buddies on the team. I'm ready to go. I'm ready to battle," Gardiner told the Daily Collegian.

Gardiner's path is a similar one for Penn State players. Between transfers like Gardiner, Scheid (Alaska-Anchorage), Nate Jensen (Mercyhurst) (all 3 Minnesota natives) and getting young players to buy in, Guy Gadowsky has begun to create a culture in Happy Valley. It's one thing that Lucia has noticed.

"I think they're on the cusp of pretty much being where they want to be," he said. "I think you'll see that their recruiting will continue to improve now that they have the facility built, up and running and can bring in recruits to games.

"They have a great location. You put a 300 mile circle around their location and you're going to get to the East Coast, you're going to get to the Ontario area, you're going to get to Detroit. So there's a lot of good hockey players in pretty close proximity."

Still, the Nittany Lions have to face an explosive offense and find a way to beat Minnesota's reunited defense. Sophomore goaltender Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning) has not allowed more than two goals in his last four games. It's not going to be easy, but Penn State does have the power of the unknown and its fans see a new experience.

Either way we have ourselves a mystery.

--

Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation and College Hockey News. You can also follow him on Twitter --

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