By Pat White GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.--After what has been an exciting inaugural season for Penn State men's hockey, it seems only fitting that the Nittany Lions conclude the year with their biggest test of the season.
The saying "save the best for last" rings true this weekend, as the Nittany Lions (12-13) travel to Madison to face off against future Big Ten opponent Wisconsin (13-10-7) at the Kohl Center.
The Badgers are ranked No. 18 in the United States College Hockey Organization poll this week. They are in the hunt in the very competitive WCHA and coming off a victory against second-ranked Minnesota last Sunday.
This season has been about improving every game and this series will be a measuring stick to see how far Penn State has come as a developing program.
Head coach Guy Gadowsky knows the Badgers are in a hunt for a NCAA tournament berth and will be treating it as a playoff scenario. He hopes his team brings the same heart and determination to the game.
"I think it's a great experience for our program," Gadowsky said. "With where they are nationally right now, we know we're going to get their best game. These are two big games for them and we know it."
One player who is particularly familiar with Wisconsin is sophomore forward Max Gardiner (Deephaven, Minn.). Gardiner, who played at Minnesota his freshman year, has played at the Kohl Center and knows that it is a hostile environment. He had the opportunity to play against his brother, Jake, who was a former Wisconsin defenseman.
"There is a lot of excitement," Gardiner said. "It's a hostile environment and a fun place to play and everyone's been looking forward to this weekend. It will be fun to get back in that arena and play Wisconsin."
Penn State is looking to establish itself as a competitive program in what will be an elite Big Ten hockey conference next year. The future Big Ten teams have a combine 23 National Championships between four teams. Michigan leads the way with nine and Wisconsin has won four. Wisconsin won its last national crown in 2006 and made a finals appearance in 2010 in a loss to Boston College.
The journey to becoming one of the elite teams in the NCAA begins with a test this weekend against the Badgers. Freshman defenseman Joseph Lordo (St. Louis, Mo.) wants to ignite the rivalry spark with a win.
"It's our last weekend and we want to go out and show them what the future is going to be like," Lordo said. "It's going to be a rivalry. We're a good team now and we want to focus on these games, but there is a message we want to send for the future [of Big Ten play]."
There will be a bit of an adjustment going from the Greenberg Ice Pavilion to the Kohl Center, which provides one of the biggest ice surfaces in college hockey.
Most hockey surfaces are 200 feet by 85 feet in dimension, but Kohl Arena is 200 feet by 97 feet. The extra space caters to speed, good board play and puck-movement, which may benefit Penn State.
Gadowsky preaches working hard along the wall, something Gardiner agrees will be a key to success against Wisconsin.
"It shouldn't be too big of an adjustment," Gardiner said. "There's a little more space to make plays and we'll have to jump on pucks a little quicker."
It's no secret that the Nittany Lions have been plagued by injuries this season, especially on the blue line, but Lordo's return last weekend gave the team a boost after dressing only four defensemen the past two games. Lordo said he feels good and is looking forward to skating on the big ice.
"I thought I played well [last weekend] and tried to get my feet moving," Lordo said. "I had a good result. You get more ice [with five defensemen] and I enjoy it to get into the flow of the game."
Gadowsky is hopeful that junior defenseman Nate Jensen (Shorewood, Minn.) can make his return against Wisconsin. Jensen would benefit with the larger ice surface because of his vision and ability to carry the puck up ice. Dressing six defensemen would take some of the burden off a defensive corps that has been taxed in the last few games.
Gadowsky gave the team an extra day off in preparation for the two game series on Sunday and Monday. He wants his team to be refreshed and focused after a busy weekend of THON, senior night and two games against a good Oklahoma squad.
If and how the extra day off and possible return of Jensen will affect the team is yet to be determined. One certainty is that this will be an entertaining series and a possible rivalry heading into Big Ten play next season. Gadowsky said the intensity of the rivalry all hinges upon this weekend's outcome.
"We're going to play each other four times from now on," Gadowsky said. "[A rivalry] really depends on what happens this weekend."
The Nittany Lions will face off against the Badgers at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 24 at the Kohl Center before playing their second game on the Big Ten Network on Monday, Feb. 25 at 8:30 p.m.