Gophers brace for challenge from upstart Penn State hockey program

This year, upstart Penn State has lost just once at home and enters a weekend series against the Minnesota Gophers with an overall record of 15-9-4.

MINNEAPOLIS — When men’s hockey first became a Division I sport in 1947, the University of Minnesota was one of the flagship schools. The Gophers have since become one of the most decorated programs in college hockey.

Minnesota’s opponent this weekend, Penn State, didn’t become a Division I team until more than 65 years after the Gophers played their first Division I game. Last season marked the Nittany Lions’ first as a Division I program after PSU made the transition from a club team.

In year two of the process, Penn State is one of the upstart teams in the Big Ten and is challenging Minnesota and Michigan for the conference title. Ask the Gophers, though, and they’re not at all surprised by PSU’s sudden success.

"They’re a legit contender right now," said Minnesota defenseman Mike Reilly. "They’ve got some high-scoring guys. Obviously they’ve got a great rink, and their crowds, they sell out every night. It’s kind of turned into a little bit of a rivalry. We’re excited for that."

This weekend marks the Gophers’ second-ever trip to Pegula Ice Arena, Penn State’s shiny new arena that opened last season. It technically holds 5,782 fans, but the Nittany Lions sold out both games last year against Minnesota. A total of 5,999 fans crammed into the building last Jan. 12 for the series opener on a Sunday, and 6,154 fans made up an even bigger sellout the following night.

Minnesota won both games, by finals of 3-2 and 5-2, as the Nittany Lions struggled to an 8-26-2 record. This year, Penn State has lost just once at home and enters the weekend with an overall record of 15-9-4.

"I think the one thing we’ve seen when we went there last year is they’re selling out their building," Gophers head coach Don Lucia said Wednesday. "All of a sudden you look at them and they’re a veteran team. They have 17 juniors and seniors on their team. They have four guys under 21 years of age, so they’re older. They’ve got some guys playing good. Their top-end guys are in that junior-senior range where they’re scoring. I think their group of forwards probably have as many goals as anybody in the country."

Given the newness of Penn State’s program at the Division I level, it seems perhaps a bit odd that this weekend’s series could have such big implications in the Big Ten race. But that’s exactly the case as Minnesota attempts to keep its hold on first place. The Gophers are currently tied with Michigan atop the standings after sweeping the Wolverines last weekend.

Not far behind are the pesky Nittany Lions, who are tied with Michigan State for third place — just two points behind Minnesota and Michigan.

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"They’re having a good year, which is great to see," Gophers senior Seth Ambroz said of Penn State. "It’s always a tough environment to play in. I know the two games we played there last year, it was loud and pretty hostile. It’ll be a fun series. Obviously they’re right on our heels in the Big Ten. We want to go there and get as many points as possible, hopefully come back with two wins."

Penn State doesn’t particularly do anything exceptionally well but has managed to skate to a 7-4-1 mark in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions are 10th in the nation in scoring offense (3.39 goals per game) but rank 37th in scoring defense (2.75 gpg). Their power play ranks 13th in the country while PSU’s penalty kill is 32nd.

Despite numbers that appear less than stellar on the surface, Penn State has asserted itself as a contender in the Big Ten just two years into its Division-I existence. The Gophers have taken note.

"They’ve had great attendance, great fan support where they’re selling out every game. We saw that last year. It was a good atmosphere to play in, and I’m sure their kids get excited to play at home," Lucia said. "That’s a credit to their program that they’re sitting with one home loss on the season. That’s the big challenge for us is to go in there and try to win some games and get some points."

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