Friday, December 2, 2011

Three Teams, Seven Games

There are three hockey teams residing at the University Park campus, and each is playing games of some import this weekend. So with that in mind, and in lieu of the traditional preview piece (which has become rather irregular of late anyway), here's a quick rundown of how Penn State hockey will be spending the weekend.

Knight Time

Junior Jason Adams is Rutgers' all-time assist king.

First up is the Icers who, at 11-1-0 and No. 1 in ACHA Division 1, are set to play their final home games of the fall semester against No. 19 Rutgers at 7 p.m. Friday and 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Before I go any further, there's something you need to know about Rutgers: they have clinched a bid to the ACHA D1 national championship tournament this season. And no, I don't mean "clinched" as in "pretty much a foregone conclusion," like one might say for the Icers and a select couple of others. I mean "clinched" as in "they could lose every single game they play the rest of the season and still end up in Strongsville, OH in March."

The Scarlet Knights have already completed each conference game this season, finishing 12-0-2 in their league, the NECHL, for 26 points. Second place Cornell has 15 points, but with four NECHL games left can't finish with more than 23. The NECHL autobid was officially decided on November 19th and 20th, when Rutgers took three points from a series against the Big Red that Cornell needed to win.

While it would be understandable if Rutgers' motivation was on the wane, the situation may be a double-edged sword. RU can't fall out of nationals, as we just discussed. They also have just four regular season games left against teams presently in the poll after this weekend. And wins over No. 15 Stony Brook or No. 18 Central Oklahoma are unlikely to resonate too much with the voters. So really, the only chance the Scarlet Knights have left to significantly improve their station is to pull off a shocker against PSU. That makes them dangerous, even if it's only in a "awww look, they're actually trying to beat us" kind of way.

I suppose I could start to spout off scoring leaders and goalie stats at this point, as a means of introduction. Or I could let Rutgers introduce themselves in the following video, shot before the Cornell games but including some discussion of PSU and lots of general "how's your season going" stuff. The players interviewed are three of RU's better scorers: John Beatrice, Nick Kashmanian and Jason Adams, who just broke head coach Andy Gojdycz's program record for career assists. Gojdycz closes out the video while wearing a hat and a hood indoors. Not interviewed: leading scorer Matthew McDonald, who has 25 ginos this year, including two each in Rutgers' two most impressive results this season - a 6-3 win over Rhode Island on September 24th and a 3-2 shootout loss to Delaware a week later.

Ultimately few, even PSU bashers, would argue that the Icers are playing for much of anything other than a seeding at nationals somewhere within the top three of four spots. Even the Scarlet Knights in the video seem to realize that. On the other hand...

Raiding Rhody

URI sophomore forward Brittany Clarke battles for possession with Sacred Heart.

The Lady Icers are traveling to Kingston, RI for a pair with ECWHL power and ACHA No. 5 Rhode Island Friday at 9:30 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m. It's really quite hard to overstate the importance of these games. Because PSU has played seven of 11 games against NCAA-level competition, the ACHA resume is seen as maybe a little lacking - as evidenced by the team's No. 10 ranking despite a 4-0-0 record in those ACHA games.

Fair or not, Penn State has a chance to change some opinions against URI, a team that is not only ranked towards the top of the list but also has some nationals chops, advancing to the semifinals last year before falling to Northeastern.

The Rams' overall record is only 6-5-0, but it's 6-3-0 within the ACHA, and 2-2-0 against the other teams that would be headed to Wooster, OH if the national championships started tomorrow. Finnish senior Johanna Leskinen, who has averaged more than a goal per game in her career (92 goals, 89 games), is off to her typically-proficient start, and she's supported by a deep group of forwards including Meghan Birnie and Lauren Lanoie. Toss in freshman Kristie Kennedy, and that's 60 percent of URI's 4.44 goals per game against ACHA foes.

While Katie Vaughan and the young, but talented, defense concern themselves with that, Tess Weaver, Elizabeth Denis and the forwards will be trying to crack the goaltending tandem of Megan McGhie and Kayla DiLorenzo, which allows two goals against per game.

Thirteen Lady Icers (12 freshmen plus super, super senior Denis) are facing the Rams for the first time, but the veterans will surely carry some motivation from last season, when URI took three of four regular season meetings, then handed concussion-riddled PSU a 7-2 loss in the ECWHL semifinals.

PSU closes the fall semester with a home-and-home against NCAA Division III Neumann next weekend before opening January with another two games against Rhode Island at the Ice Pavilion.

Retriever Rumble

UMBC freshman Matthew Bloom is a playmaking forward with size.

Finally, the Ice Lions have a huge game of their own Friday at 5:30 p.m. when they face ACHA Division 2 power Maryland-Baltimore County in the MACHA Showcase in Warwick, PA. The Retrievers are ranked second in the Southeast Region, one spot ahead of PSU's third. If you're unfamiliar with D2's playoff structure, the top two in each region receive automatic bids to the national championship tournament, while third through tenth have to play a regional tournament to decide the other half of the region's nationals bids. That alone makes the only meeting of the season between the present Nos. 2 and 3 in the region rather significant.

But there's more. As with the Lady Icers, PSU-UMBC has the trappings of a revenge game. It was, after all, the Retrievers who stopped the Ice Lions' nationals bid one game short with a 2-1 win in the regional tournament last season. Both head coaches spoke to about the showdown and seemed to understand the magnitude of the game, even if one downplayed things a little.

UMBC's Aaron Voegtli:
“This game is huge for us. We’ve been talking about it for two weeks now. It is a game that will have an impact on both universities and their playoff positions...I expect a very good game. I think this is the best game in the country on Friday night. Both teams match up well, both have excellent goalies and good team defense, and a number of forwards that can score at will.”
Josh Hand:
“I don’t pay attention to the rankings a ton, so I am not sure if this game will have any major effect. But it’s a good way to judge where we are in the season so far...We try as a team to look at every game as a big game. We want to try to play our style no matter who the opponent is. It’s important for us to be consistent in the way we play every game. I think it will be a high-paced, up and down game and will be a lot of fun for the fans of Division II hockey to watch.”
The Retrievers are led by goaltender Jon "I must break you" Drago and his 2.01 goals against average and .940 save percentage. Eight UMBC players have double-digit point totals, led by Sean O'Connor (38), Matthew Bloom (29) and Justin Stewart (29).

There will be an audio broadcast of the game on HerbFM, as well as a possible video feed (without commentary) on the Ice Lions' UStream channel.

Oh and by the way, win or lose, PSU does have two other games at the showcase - Saturday at 12:45 p.m. against St. Joseph's and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. against Temple. However, with the Ice Lions already having defeated these teams by a combined 15-0 this season, I consider my disproportionate emphasis on UMBC understandable.

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