Gophers excited to take on Big Ten hockey newcomer Penn State

Penn State lost its first two Big Ten hockey games against Wisconsin by finals of 7-1 and 4-3 in Madison in early December. Still, Travis Boyd (pictured) and the Gophers are taking the Nittany Lions seriously this weekend. 

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — A five-team college hockey league didn’t make much sense, so the Big Ten couldn’t start a hockey conference without a sixth member. That’s where Penn State came along by creating a new program, and Big Ten hockey was born this year.

The Nittany Lions became a Division I program for the 2012-13 season after years of playing as a club hockey team. That meant Penn State joined fellow Big Ten schools Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin as the conference’s sixth hockey program.

On Sunday, history will be made as the top-ranked Gophers face the Nittany Lions for the first time in school history.

"I don’t think there’s any question that when you can add a brand-name school like Penn State and the tradition that they have in their athletic department, it’s good for college hockey in the long run," Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said Friday. "The more you can bring in brand-name schools like that, I think that just helps."

It’s been a rough go so far for Penn State in the inaugural Big Ten season. The Nittany Lions enter this weekend’s matchup against the Gophers with only four wins on the year. Two of those victories came against Robert Morris, while the other two were against Army and Sacred Heart. Penn State lost its first two Big Ten games against Wisconsin by finals of 7-1 and 4-3 in Madison in early December.

Yet, while the upstart Nittany Lions have a long way to go before competing with the Big Ten’s more established programs like Minnesota or Michigan, the Gophers aren’t taking Penn State lightly during this weekend’s series.

"We’ve all been around in athletics enough to know that there’s the old saying, ‘Everybody’s eligible for a butt-kicking every time you play,’" Lucia said. "This I’m sure is going to be a big weekend for them. It’s their first-ever home Big Ten game. We’re coming in ranked No. 1; whether we deserve that or not, that’s debatable. I’m sure that’s going to help get their crowds all fired up and excited for the games."

Penn State did turn some heads last year, its first as a Division I program, when it beat Wisconsin and Michigan State on the road and also topped Ohio State at home. The Nittany Lions finished 13-14 overall, but haven’t had the same success so far during the 2013-14 season.

What PSU does have going for it is a brand new facility, the Pegula Ice Arena, which seats 5,782 fans. This marks the Nittany Lions’ first season playing there after a generous $102 million donation from the Pegula family. It’s not often that the Gophers travel to play in an arena for the first time, and this will mark their first time skating on the 200-by-85-foot ice sheet in Happy Valley.

"I watched them play a couple times when they were on the Big Ten (Network), but other than that, all I know is they’re new and that they have a really nice rink, so I’m actually looking forward to getting out there and playing in it because they have some good facilities out there," said Gophers forward Travis Boyd. "It should be a fun time going out there and playing."

Many fans were miffed when Minnesota left the WCHA — its conference for decades — for the new six-team Big Ten. Some reasons were obvious, including the financial benefit of joining a league with its own television network.

The hope is that more Big Ten schools will eventually create hockey programs to expand the league. Penn State did just that; now it remains to be seen if other universities will follow suit.

"Expanding the sport and expanding the Big Ten is definitely huge," said Gophers sophomore defenseman Brady Skjei. "Hopefully in some years we’ll get some more teams in the Big Ten and make it a good conference."

While Penn State might not pose much of a risk on paper, the Gophers know they can’t overlook the Nittany Lions because of their record. Minnesota also must not get ahead of itself by looking ahead to next Friday’s outdoor game against Ohio State at TCF Bank Stadium.

With the odd Sunday-Monday schedule — one quirk of the new Big Ten Conference — the Gophers won’t have a ton of time after the Penn State series before preparing for the Buckeyes. None of that seems to faze top-ranked Minnesota, however.

"Our team is focused on this weekend and playing Penn State," Skjei said. "We’ll worry about the outdoor game when it comes. We know that these six points are really important. We definitely need them. No one’s looking past this weekend, I’ll tell you that right now."

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