Friday, December 3, 2010

Hen-d of the Semester Showdown

After getting an extra week off to enjoy the complete destruction of Towson (and that's exactly why it was there, don't let any Thanksgiving extremists tell you otherwise), the Icers are back at it tonight and tomorrow for the standard Ice Pavilion series against No. 4 (and possibly moving up later today) Delaware, also known as "the school with the exclusively female nickname." Yeah, okay, it's the state bird, and there's some interesting history to it, but amazingly, Penn State avoided being the Ruffed Grouses. Why not take advantage of something else the state has to offer instead, like...ummm...

Ohio serves as the Icers' most intense rivalry, yet the Delaware rivalry goes deeper than that in a sense. The teams operate in the same recruiting circles, with many former high school, minor and junior hockey teammates ending up on opposite benches. Sometimes siblings do too, as John and David Conte can attest. Penn Staters have gone on to coach at Delaware, including current assistant and former head man John O'Connor, and former head coach Josh Brandwene (Icers Hall of Fame, class of 1996).

Delaware even has their own Kevin Miller who plays a prominent role on the team, although theirs is a high-scoring forward, and ours is a top-pair defenseman on a team where the forwards do a disproportionate amount of the scoring.

Another similarity, this one also of the quirky coincidence variety: the Saturday game is the Icers' annual 3rd jersey auction, benefitting Relay For Life. The Hens actually have some recent experience in the area of jerseys for a cause, as they had a Military Appreciation Night on November 19th, complete with camo.

I can't see Kevin Miller! Can you, Kevin Miller? Photo: Delaware official site

The off-ice rivalries have slowly but surely led to an on-ice rivalry as well. Penn State flat-out dominates the all-time series at 78-13-3-0, yet four of those losses have come since the beginning of the 2007-2008 season, and three of the Icers' 10 wins in that time came via the shootout.

Similarities and rivalries aside, these games are huge. Especially for the Icers, who desperately need to collect some poll-influencing wins to gather the kind of momentum you just can't get from splattering Towson and also remove themselves from the ACHA tournament bubble. If all of that is to happen, however, Penn State will have to get through a team that is absolutely rolling.
The Hens' success thus far has also been driven by a team-wide sense of confidence, something [senior forward Dave] Lombardi said they know they will need when adversity strikes. 

"Moving forward, we know we will have a forward net a goal, a defenseman make a big hit, or our goalie bail us out with big save when the time calls," Lombardi said. "Also anyone can step into the lineup if a player is forced out by injury." 

Lombardi said the team dynamic is strong.

"To have this kind of confidence in your teammates is extremely comforting," he said. "It creates camaraderie and chemistry in the locker room."  
Delaware sits at 16-0-1, the lone blemish on the record coming in a shootout at Rhode Island on October 30th. Among the 16 wins: nine against the ACHA's top 20, including in the other half of the URI series, and two at Liberty, always a tough venue.

Really though, the schedule overall hasn't exactly been a murderer's row. The Rhode Island games stand out as being the only ones against a team that can pencil in a trip to nationals - really, does a ranking of 15-20 in the ACHA impress anyone? "Balanced" is probably a pretty fair description. And other than a narrow escape against Drexel, the Hens have blown out the teams they're supposed to blow out.

Much like the Icers, Delaware's forwards come in waves. Along with leading scorer Miller (12 goals, 11 assists), Ryan McDonald, Vince Pontrello, Andre Menard, Nick LePore, Chris Tasker and Mark Zeszut all average a point per game or better. Freshman forward Chris Volonnino, another in that group, is a breakout star with NAHL pedigree. The former Janesville Jet has 11 goals in 11 games, and at 6'2", 225 pounds, the size to grind down a defense. Defensemen like Jason Michaud and captain Brandon Weiner do an effective job getting it out and getting it up, as their 25 combined assists attest. Josh Weiner, Chris Galgano, Zack Reubel and the aforementioned Conte also contribute to a deep, experienced corps of blueliners.

I've talked a lot about similarities in this post, but one important difference between the teams right now is the goaltending the Hens are getting from Nick Casella, spelled by SJ Broadt. I could go through the stats like I usually do, and they're impressive enough (goals against averages of 1.97 and 1.40, respectively), but the essential point is this: Delaware has only allowed more than two goals in five of 17 games this season. Translation: Penn State will probably have to bring a strong defensive effort to win these games, because we're not likely to bust the cheese count on these guys.

If the games last year, combined with the large number of returning players on both sides, are any indication, this could be a lot of fun. Tight-checking, competitive games with an edge and a high talent level. And something on the line in December. Buckle up.

Outside Reading

View From The Booth talked to Kevin Miller (the good one) and coach Scott Balboni. Balboni played off any perceived issues and even said that we're underranked. I have a tough time going there, considering our 2-4-0 mark against teams that can even think about booking a hotel in Delaware in early March (1-3-0 against teams in at this moment). But hey, I know one way to change my mind about that....

The Collegian's Tony Barton reports the following:
“Right now we have everyone cleared from injuries for the first time all season,” Balboni said. “I probably could have played [Cera, Loucks and Saad] against Towson but I wanted to give them extra rest with the break. They all look good and they all look strong and will be in the lineup this weekend.”
Not a moment too soon, either. I'll be interested to see how Saad and Cera fit into forward lines that seemed to click two weekends ago. Saad in particular is a high-end talent that needs to be on a scoring line, but at whose expense?

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