Friday, November 9, 2012

Judgment Day

For the second time this season, the women face a team that took one of these photos sometime in 2012.

Exactly 15 years ago yesterday, Penn State's football team hosted Michigan on a Saturday hyped as "Judgment Day" by ESPN (while the four-letter's naming of specific dates of scheduled college football games is now a cliche, it was pretty novel and a bigger deal at the time). The moniker was due to the PSU-UM game, as well as one between Florida State and North Carolina. All four of those teams were ranked in the top five, and obviously, the two late-season matchups were seen as heavily influential in the national championship picture.

The score at Beaver Stadium that day: Michigan 34, Penn State 8. The Wolverines would go on to split the poll titles with Nebraska in the final season before the introduction of the BCS. Judgment rendered, I guess.

It would be foolish to compare the coming weekend of Penn State hockey to anything with national championship implications. Simply put, that's not on the line here. But both the men's and women's teams will face potentially harsh judgment in different forms at the Ice Pavilion on Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. (men) and on Saturday and Sunday afternoon at 2:00 p.m. (women).

Air Force Two

I have no problem admitting that so far, my preseason expectations for the men (yeah, yeah, I know, this season is just about laying a foundation) have been way off. On the eve of the season, I said that winning all of the lower-division games, winning one of the ten games against RIT, Air Force, Union, Vermont, Michigan State and Wisconsin, and splitting the remaining Division I games would be great with me.

Here we are one month later, and PSU is 1-0-0 in those "big ten" (lower case) games and 3-1-0 in those remaining Division I games. Sure, there was the stumble at DIII Buffalo State, but considering the body of evidence as a whole, that has to be considered an aberration right now.

So what does that mean? Maybe nothing, maybe something. But I have a feeling we're about to find out.

Jason Torf and his teammates are projected to be at or near the top of Atlantic Hockey again this year.

Enter Air Force, the 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012 Atlantic Hockey tournament champs and NCAA tournament representative. Last year's Falcons, helped by Jason Torf's 32 saves, gave eventual national champ Boston College all they could handle before falling 2-0 in the Northeast Region's semifinals. That was actually a blowout by the academy's standards when bumping up against the big boys in the NCAAs - Minnesota, Miami, Vermont and Yale ended the Falcons' season in those other years, and none managed more than a one-goal win - in fact, three of the four games went to overtime. Basically, we're talking about an excellent program and an opponent that should clearly show whether Penn State is, as I suggested last month, a middle-of-the-pack Atlantic Hockey program or something more.

This is big. In fact, there's really no argument against the notion that these are the two biggest men's NCAA games that will ever be played at the Ice Pavilion (though it needs to be said that AIC, Robert Morris and Alabama-Huntsville have been/will be the only other DI teams to visit Greenberg).

Frank Serratore's gang is actually off to a relatively slow start at 2-3-3 (2-1-1 AHA), although their out-of-conference games so far have been against perennial powers Denver and Colorado College (the losses), as well as an always-tough Alaska trip (the ties - hey, if everyone liked doing it, it wouldn't be an exemption). Last weekend, the Falcons hosted Holy Cross, dropping Friday's game 3-2 before storming back to win 7-0 on Saturday behind Torf's 23 saves and (theme alert) seven different goal scorers.

From a Penn State standpoint, the key to the series may be how a suddenly-depleted defense adjusts to an Air Force team that's as well balanced as just about anyone anywhere. With a service academy opponent, you know you're getting a smart, tough, disciplined team (emphasis on that last word as well). What you don't necessarily expect is no fewer than 11 players between four and seven points in the Falcons' eight games so far. Junior forward Tony Thomas leads the way in the early going with the seven, but Kyle De Laurell, Cole Gunner and John Kruse are all proven contributors as well. There are really no obvious matchups where underperforming defensemen can be hidden, so all six are going to need to put in an effort worthy of one of the nation's more respected programs.

Bobby Mo Show

While there's a valid argument to be made that Mercyhurst still reigns as the true flag-bearers of the CHA, they're not the defending league tournament champs. That distinction belongs to to Robert Morris (3-2-1, 0-0-0 CHA), who upset the Lakers in last season's title match and unquestionably represent the harshest judgment faced by the Penn State women on their DI journey so far.

In a sense, the Colonials have laid out a possible road map for the Nittany Lions, as RMU only started up their program in 2005. First under Nate Handrahan (who moved on to Ohio State in 2011) and now with second-year coach Paul Colontino, a slow, foundational-based building process was deployed. For a while, there wasn't much progress obvious to outsiders, but it arrived in a big way via last year's 19-9-4 record and looks to have continued this year (against what has been a very tough schedule so far, including 2012 NCAA tournament team Boston University).

Like the Air Force men, RMU has a pretty good stopper in senior Kristen DiCiocco, the MVP of last season's CHA tournament. She was a first-team all-league selection as well and is the reigning CHA goaltender of the week. Here's a quick interview with her recapping the Colonials' last two games (a sweep over previous PSU opponent Vermont), as well as a quick look ahead to tomorrow and Sunday.

Ah, the old "you can't take anyone lightly" line. So much respect. Anneline Lauziere, the overtime hero in Sunday's UVM game, gave a similar interview, except with the "treat them like every other team" line. I'm okay with that, because it can be said regardless of the team's abilities.

By the way, the interviewer in both videos is Paige Pietrangelo, who played defense for the Colonials until graduating after last year. And yes, her father is Frank Pietrangelo, a former Hartford Whalers goalie who once made a big save for the Penguins, or so I'm told.

Beyond DiCiocco, who has a 2.54 goals against average and a .910 save percentage to this point, RMU has plenty of other great players. Junior forward Thea Imbrogno is a point-per-game player over her career. Rebecca Vint, another forward, broke just about every scoring record the young program has last season with her 44 points on 22 goals and 22 assists. Not surprisingly, she was named to the CHA All-Rookie Team, the USCHO All-Rookie Team, and the All-CHA First Team. On defense, assistant captain Jamie Joslin provides stability and Kylie St. Louis seems to have developed a point-producing side, with five in RMU's six games.

I strongly believe that with Nicole Paniccia in the cage (who doesn't suck either) and finishers as capable as Shannon Yoxheimer and Hannah Hoenshell, Penn State has a better chance against any team than Lloyd Christmas did with Mary Swanson. Even defending conference champions with 17 returning letterwinners and individuals receiving national-level honors. The important thing, as can be said about most hockey teams I suppose, is how it goes between those two points - the transition and in-zone defending, the 50-50 battles, and the passing and puck support against the forecheck.

It only deserves footnote treatment at this point, but Nittany Lions on last season's Lady Icers, including Cara Mendelson, Katie Murphy, Lindsay Reihl, Kate Christoffersen, Madison Smiddy and Tess Weaver (Taylor Gross and Jess Desorcie hadn't joined the team yet) surely want some measure of revenge for a 12-0 pounding at the hands of RMU to open last season. In that game, an exhibition from the Robert Morris perspective, DiCiocco played the first half and earned a two-save win. The other Colonials I've mentioned here - Imbrogno, Vint, Joslin and St. Louis - combined for five goals and five assists.

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