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Penn State Opens Season with an Upset of Wisconsin

The women’s college hockey season got started on Thursday night, with third ranked Wisconsin traveling to State College to take on Penn State.

This was supposed to be the year of the Big Three in women’s college hockey, with Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Minnesota all supremely talented, picking up top-ranked recruits, Olympians, and top transfers, allowing them to cruise through the rest of the field with ease.

But apparently no one told that to Penn State. The 14th-ranked Nittany Lions opened up the season at home with a 4-1(eng) win over 3rd-ranked Wisconsin.

So how did Penn State pull off the upset victory? And is time to radically adjust expectations for both teams? Here were my notes after watching the game.

-In what I expect will be a frequent occurrence throughout the season, I found myself asking “Wait.....that player(not That Player, she graduated) still has eligibility left?” a couple times in regards to Penn State players, especially on the blue line. Rene Gangarosa, Mallory Uihlein, and Izzy Heminger have a combined 11 seasons of college hockey under their belts, and each played what felt like a season’s worth of minutes in last night’s games.

And Penn State’s defenders were quietly fantastic. Their shot block numbers were pretty high—although all caveats about the infamously generous Penn State stat crew apply—but the thing to me that stood out as the difference maker in this game was how effective Penn State’s defense was at moving the puck out of their own zone.

Wisconsin got a few good chances off of rushes, but it never seemed like they were able to get any sort of sustained offensive zone time to really put pressure on Penn State. The Nittany Lions made plays when it was there to be made, and had simple glass-and-out clears when there was no other option. By my unofficial tally, Wisconsin was the team with a lot more D-zone turnovers that extended offensive zone time for the opposition than Penn State was.

From the Wisconsin perspective, the adjustment probably has to be made that they need to be a little more aggressive on the forecheck and start creating more turnovers to extend offensive pressure. Penn State has an excellent defense, but for all the talent the Badgers have, they made life way too easy for Penn State last night.

-Thursday night was quite an introduction for Penn State freshman Tessa Janecke. Janecke was the first line center for the US women’s U18 team this summer, and in my pre-tournament write-up, I said she wasn’t necessarily immediately noticeable. In hindsight, that’s pretty laughable, since you couldn’t help but notice Janecke last night. Janecke had two goals, two penalties, drew a penalty, blocked a bunch of shots, broke up a couple rushes, probably served concessions between periods, etc. She was everywhere all the time. Neither goal was necessarily a highlight reel skill play, but when you’re around the puck all the time, good things are going to happen eventually.

-Sometimes great goaltending is as much about the timeliness of saves as it is the quantity of saves. Penn State’s Josie Bothun didn’t end with a crazy stat line, and Wisconsin’s Cami Kronish was fine in net, but with play ending up fairly even, I think a couple key moments really swung the game.

First off, Bothun made a great save to stop Lacey Eden on a 2-on-1 on the very first shift of the game. Eden would eventually get one later in the period to give Wisconsin a 1-0 lead anyway, but I think would have been an intangible effect if the heavy favorites open up the game with a goal in the first minute.

Second, Wisconsin had somehow survived a very uneven first period with a 1-0 lead, and it felt like they were starting to find their footing in the second period with their best stretch of sustained pressure. But Tessa Janecke tied the game with a goal that kind of came against the run of play with a low-angle shot that beat Kronish. The broadcast feed never gave a good view of the shot, but given where it came from, it’s probably a save Kronish should make.

Almost immediately after Janecke scored to tie the game, Wisconsin got a power play opportunity and Bothun made a great save to rob a Wisconsin scoring opportunity. That’s a backbreaker type of goal if Penn State goes behind right after evening up the game.

-So the big question after last night’s game is how much should the opinion of Wisconsin be downgraded, and how much do we upgrade our opinion of Penn State.

We’ll start with Wisconsin. I still don’t have major concerns about the Badgers because it’s obvious that the talent is there. But they didn’t play anywhere close to that talent level last night. For a team loaded with national team prospects, I would say Lacey Eden looked like she belonged at that level and the rest were very meh.

The Badger power play went 0-fer last night, and outside of the aforementioned great save by Bothun, it didn’t feel like a particularly threatening 0-fer either. The Badgers were going with freshman Caroline Harvey running the top of the point on their power play, which probably makes sense in the long-term given her potential upside, but I’m not sure it’s all there at this point.

Similarly, I think it’s going to take some time for some of Wisconsin’s highly-touted freshmen to figure out what they can get away with at this level of play, and how they need to compete to have success now that they’re facing tougher competition.

I’m very high on Penn State after seeing the way they were able to go toe-to-toe with Wisconsin, even if it wasn’t Wisconsin’s best effort. There is a lot to like about this team. Josie Bothun is a workhorse in goal. The addition of Tessa Janecke is huge, and gives them some secondary scoring depth behind Kiara Zanon. I also thought freshmen Maddy Christian and Kendall Butze had some promising moments in the game. But what really stood out was the defense. You just can’t replace talented veteran defenders like Gangarosa and Uihlein and Heminger.

The past few seasons Penn State has been a very good CHA team, but kind of on the fringes of the national tournament picture. I think this is the year that they make the jump. They look like a legit top-10 team capable of playing with anyone in the country.