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Hockey Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions

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After an exhibition win last weekend, the Spartans return to B1G play in Happy Valley, PA

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan State Spartans return to B1G play this weekend, after winning an exhibition game over the US Under 18 National Development Team last Friday 4-1. The Spartans were coming off of a 2-1 defeat in the Great Lakes Invitational Championship game at the hands of arch-rival Michigan. In the exhibition win the Spartans got scoring from their depth lines with Ryan Keller and Dylan Pavelek and saw the debut of freshman goaltender Edwin Minney. It was an encouraging sign after outplaying the Wolverines most of the GLI final but suffering defeat due to a lack of offensive finishing ability.

The Spartans will return to league play this weekend, traveling to Pennsylvania to take on the much improved Penn State Nittany Lions. The Nittany Lions have used a rather soft out of conference schedule and a series sweep of anemic Wisconsin to surpass last year's win total of 8, as the Nittany Lions currently have 10 wins. Penn State has the 10th ranked offense in the country, scoring 3.32 goals per game and is a tough team to beat at home going 6-1-1 at Pegula Ice Arena. Last season the Spartans went 3-0-1 against the Nittany Lions including a shootout and regulation victory in Happy Valley. Penn State currently sits tied for 1st in the league with two games in hand on the Spartans. This weekend is a key spot for the Spartans to get points that could be crucial to a top three finish in the standings.

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Penn State Nittany Lions 10-7-2, 4-2 B1G

Time/TV: 7:00 PM Friday (No TV, thanks Delaney), 5:00 PM Saturday (ESPNU)

Web Stream: BTN Plus-Friday ($$),  WatchESPN-Saturday

Radio: Spartan Sports Network

Series History: MSU leads 4-1-1

Michigan State Spartans Stats Match-Up (National Rank) Penn State Nittany Lions
2.28 (43) Goals Scored/Game 3.32 (10)
2.56 (29) Goals Against/Game 2.79 (37)
10-of-72 13.89% (43) Power Play Percentage 17-of-71 23.94% (5)
53-of-63 84.1% (25) Penalty Kill Percentage 48-of-60 80.0% (44)
Michael Ferrantino (Jr) 8G, 6A 14pts Leading Scorer Casey Bailey 14G, 8A, 22pts

Jake Hildebrand (Jr) 7-10-1

2.51 GAA, .909 save %

Expected Goaltenders

Matthew Skoff 6-4-2

2.55 GAA, .911 save %

Players to Watch: Penn State has great offensive numbers thus far and has some very talented players who have gotten them there. Casey Bailey (Anchorage, AK) put up 60 points in 60 games with the USHL's Omaha Lancers in 2011-12. He struggled a little bit last season with Penn State playing a full NCAA schedule but has rebounded nicely to have a great junior campaign.  Scott Conway (Basingstoke, Great Britain) is one of only two freshman on the Nittany Lions' roster and he actually has a Spartan connection. Conway is a cousin of former Spartan Brett Perlini (2008-2012, currently playing in the ECHL) and is a budding star in Happy Valley. Conway averaged over a point per game with Josh Jacobs (Spartans defenseman) playing for the Indiana Ice in the USHL last season. He currently has 4 goals and 6 assists for Penn State and was a pre-season All B1G Rookie Team selection at SBN College Hockey, which yours truly was a part of the voting on.

3 Keys to Spartan Success

  1. Get to the magical 3 goal mark- MSUspartans.com had a great stat in their preview for this weekend's series. Under Tom Anastos the Spartans are 45-6-5 when scoring three or more goals in a game, including being 6-1-1 this season. The Nittany Lions have a great offense but are not a top team in goals against, including surrendering 8 goals in a loss to Michigan. The Spartans have been getting depth scoring from guys like Matt DeBlouw, Joe Cox and Brent Darnell and that will be key this weekend, especially if Matt Berry is still out.
  2. Clear the front of the net- Right now with the way Jake Hildebrand is playing if he can see the puck, he is most likely to stop it. Teams will have to score on deflections, rebounds and ugly goals. To combat that this weekend the defenseman will have to do a good job keeping shots to the outside from safer areas and continue to block shots as they are apt to do.
  3. Discipline- The Spartans' penalty kill has responded great since being shredded in their December series with Minnesota but Penn State is lethal on the power play. Keeping man advantage opportunities to a minimum will be key in keeping the high flying Nittany Lion offense grounded.
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Around the conference

The B1G Conference is uh...not looking... yeah not looking good nationally. With Minnesota being swept at Michigan last weekend the league currently has zero teams that would be in the NCAA tournament as an at large entry. The hard part now is that since wins over teams not in consideration for the tournament do not help you in the pairwise rankings, league teams are going to have a tough time moving up. It is possible the only B1G team to get into the tournament will be the winner of the league tournament in March.

Knowing the state of the league makes series like this weekend incredibly important for the Spartans. If they could somehow get hot and get a top two finish in the standings, they would get a first round bye and only need to win two games on tournament weekend to get into the national tournament. It is a long shot but with the play of the league so far anything is truly possible.

The rest of the league this weekend pits 1st place Michigan playing a single game at 3rd place Ohio State. 6th place Wisconsin is playing a pair of games at 5th place Minnesota.