Since Penn State’s first Division I hockey schedule was released, the weekend series against Wisconsin has been circled on the calendar.
It is also one of the more difficult games as the Nittany Lions will be facing their second ranked opponent of the season. The Badgers come into the two-game series as the No. 18 ranked team in the USCHO.com poll.
Sunday’s game is scheduled for 8 p.m., while Monday’s game is set for an 8:30 p.m. faceoff on the Big Ten Network.
In Penn State’s only other matchup against a ranked team this season, then-No. 8 Union swept the Lions on Nov. 24-25.
Wisconsin is coming off a weekend split with No. 2 Minnesota suffering a 3-2 loss at home, but redeeming themselves with a 3-2 win of their own as part of the Hockey City Classic at Soldier Field in Chicago.
“It’s a great opportunity for us,” head coach Guy Gadowsky said. “A lot of guys have been looking forward to this for a long time.”
For sophomore Max Gardiner, it will be a return trip to the Kohl Center. The 6-foot-3 winger played at Wisconsin as a member of the Minnesota Golden Gophers before transferring to Penn State.
“It’s an awesome environment, a really fun place to play,” Gardiner said. “I think everyone’s been looking forward to this weekend, and I know me, personally, I’m really looking forward to it.”
A bright spot for the Nittany Lions is the possibility of having three pairs of defensemen for the weekend.
Freshman Joseph Lordo left the ice during a 4-0 victory against Alabama-Huntsville on Feb. 8 and didn’t return. It left the Lions with only four healthy defensemen for the next two games. Lordo said he “felt great” in his return for the second game against Oklahoma that Penn State won 3-0, last weekend.
Gadowsky said there is a possibility of getting junior Nate Jensen back for the weekend.
Having the assistant captain back would be an added benefit because of the size of the rink at the Kohl Center. While the Pegula Ice Arena will have a NHL sized 200 foot-by-85 foot rink, the Kohl Center has a 200 foot-by-97 foot rink.
The wider rink isn’t something that is unfamiliar to Gadowsky. During his tenure at Alaska, the home rink was wider.
“If you try to come in with a different mindset, that can be a negative,” Gadowsky said. “There are certain keys. You play off the dots instead of off the boards, but other than that we’re going to play our game.”
The players also have some experience on the bigger rinks. That means they will have to be a little quicker on loose pucks, Gardiner said.
Gadowsky added that he expects the Badgers to bring their best game. A loss to Penn State would hurt Wisconsin’s ratings percentage index (RPI). With only 16 teams in the NCAA tournament, RPI becomes more critical. Wisconsin is currently ranked 21st with a .5194 RPI while Penn State is ranked 45th out of 59 with a .4733 RPI.
Regardless of how challenging the pair of games will be, Lordo said the team’s goal is to get two wins.
The Badgers will be the third different Big Ten opponent that the Lions will face. Penn State is already 2-1-0 against Big Ten schools with a split weekend at Michigan State and win against Ohio State at the Consol Energy Center.