Penn State edges Sacred Heart; Set to face a tough UMass-Lowell squad

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Ricky DeRosa’s and Luke Juha’s first period goals proved to be the difference as Penn State narrowly escaped with a 2-1 victory over Sacred Heart last Friday. With the win Penn State improved to 3-3-1 on the season.

Juha, who hails from Mississauga, Ontario, tallied his third power play goal of the season and extended his point streak to three games. DeRosa and Tommy Olczyk also extended their point streaks to three games last Friday.

The Lions went 1-7 on the power play, while Sacred Heart went 1-8 with the man advantage. Matt Skoff continued his impressive play as he turned aside 20 shots and improved his record to 9-3-1 in last 13 starts.

I thought Penn State would dominate Sacred Heart on the scoreboard but I was surely wrong about that. The Pioneers showed grit and courage and proved to be a worthy opponent for the Lions. If you’ve been following my columns all season long you’ll know that Penn State has struggled to stay out of the penalty box thus far.

They’re the second most penalized team in the NCAA averaging 21.71 minutes per night and have taken 54 penalties for a total of 152 minutes. Only Michigan Tech has taken more.

I’ve harped on it probably way too much, but it goes without saying if you stay out of the penalty box you’ll win games. With No. 16  UMass-Lowell coming into Happy Valley for tow games this Thursday and Friday, staying out of box must occur if Penn State wants to have a chance at an upset.

So that leads me to UMass-Lowell.

If you recall last year, the River Hawks won the Hockey East regular season and tournament champions and made it all the way to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh before losing to eventually champion Yale in the semi-finals. With much of their championship team from last season still intact, plus some outstanding newcomers, the River Hawks are still favorites to take home the national title.

Mass-Lowell is 6-4 on the season and defeated Princeton last night 2-1 in Princeton. One of biggest reasons for Mass-Lowell’s success last season was their stingy defense and incredible goaltending. Norm Bazin’s squad finished fourth nationally allowing just 2.02 goals per game and giving up only 83. So far this year, the River Hawks are 16th nationally giving up just 2.33 goals per game. I expect them to finish in the top five once again this season.

Goalie Connor Hellebuyck had a remarkable season last year. He took over the starting job in mid-December and went on an incredible run. He finished his rookie campaign with a 20-3-0 record that included an NCAA co-leading six shutouts, plus he led the nation in goals-against average (1.37), save percentage (.952) and winning percentage (.870). He earned the Hockey East goaltending title and a spot on the Hockey East All-Rookie Team for his stellar campaign and was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the fifth round.

This season, Hellebuyck already has tied his losses from last season with three. He’s 3-3-0 on the year with a .925 save percentage and 2.21 GAA in six starts. Don’t let those numbers fool you, as Hellebuyck is still one of college hockey’s premier netminders.

The loss of captain Riley Wetmore to graduation has hurt up front, but junior Scott Wilson (PIT, 209th overall, ’11) and senior Joe Pendenza have taken over the reigns. Wilson hss four goals and two assists in 10 games played. Of Wilson’s 16 goals last season, six came on the power play. Pendenza has four goals and three assists in 10 games played.  He’s a speedy center who makes everybody around him better. He’s relentless with the puck and is a player Penn State must keep in check to win. Another guy to keep an eye on is freshmen Evan Campbell (EDM, 128th overall, ’13). He’s a big winger at 6’1, 189 pounds who possesses a solid two-way game. He’s only played five games this season, but could see action this weekend.

Defensively, Gothenburg, Sweden native Christian Folin leads the River Hawks. At  6’3”, 200 plus pounds, Folin is defensive defenseman who moves incredibly well for his size, who also excels in the physical aspects of the game. Folin actually showed some offensive upside last season registering  21 points (six goals, 15 assists) in 38 games. I would expect many NHL teams to take a look at Folin given his size and how well he moves. Folin has a goal and three assists in ten games this season.

For Penn State to win either game it’s pretty simple: They must remain discipline. They must be relentless on the forecheck and use their speed to their advantage. Finally, they must treat this game like any other.  They can’t get caught up in all the hoopla of playing a premier squad like Mass-Lowell. Stick to the basics, and play the game they all have been paying for 15 plus years now. It will be a good test for Penn State and great measuring stick to see how they stack up against college hockey’s finest.

I don’t believe they’ll win either game but I’m hoping to see a good overall 60 minute effort. Mass-Lowell is certainly more talented than Penn State and has the experience to win at the NCAA level. However, Mass-Lowell doesn’t have a chip on their shoulder like the Nittany Lions do. This is PSU’s chance to go out and make a statement to the college hockey world that they’re for real and won’t be pushed over anymore.

Will Max Gardiner finally get onto the scoresheet? How will Eamon McAdam perform in net? Can the Lion defense hold up against the speedy Lowell forwards? All these questions remain to be see, but I expect a good showing from Guy Gadowsky’s squad.