Fresh off a bye week, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team will begin a two-weekend road trip to close out the regular season, arriving first at Penn State with games Friday and Saturday.
Wisconsin (19-9-2, 10-5-1 Big Ten, 31 points) is currently in second place in the Big Ten standings, seven points behind Minnesota. Every win is still important for the Badgers as they have a chance, albeit slim, of passing Minnesota for the top spot. Even more important is the chance they get passed up in the standings by Michigan, who finds itself in third place with 27 points.
That same Michigan team a couple weeks back suffered from an overtime loss to Penn State in Ann Arbor, Mich., which shows that this Penn State team (6-22-2 overall, 2-13-1 Big Ten, seven points) is not the same team that the Badgers swept in early December. Head coach Mike Eaves knows they will be facing a much more confident Penn State team come Friday.
“They feel good about themselves. Their goal right now, as I would perceive it if I were in their shoes, is to play their best hockey of the year as they get to the Big Ten tournament so they can show teams who they are,” Eaves said. “They are in their own environment and I think they are a pretty big team in terms of their size. Whatever we get out of there, we are going to earn.”
Eaves also said in his press conference Monday that this Penn State team, despite their subpar record, isn’t fun to play because they are a tough team to crack. Nevertheless, Eaves believes with the right mindset his team will be successful.
“I think we have to have the proper mindset,” Eaves said. “We talk about having the mindset of a steely resolve. That is, no matter what they do, even if we don’t score right away, we still keep doing the things we need to do. Get the puck in deep, get pucks at the net, protect the puck and just stay relentless.”
This will be the first time coach Eaves and his teams have ever played at Penn State.
When the Badgers traveled to Ohio State for the first time, Eaves said how the environment was much weaker than what they had expected going in. Eaves doesn’t think they’ll have the same kind of experience at Penn State.
“I think we are going to see a different atmosphere at Penn State. I hear it’s packed with students and they are right on top of you,” Eaves said. “I think we got to get our kids to realize the type of atmosphere it’s going to be. We just have to stick to the game plan. We don’t have to get fancy.”
Eaves’ players are also aware that even though Penn State is at the bottom of the conference, the weekend won’t be easy, especially considering the environment they will be entering. Senior defensemen Frankie Simonelli knows they are going to be facing a better Penn State team than the one the Badgers defeated in December, one of those wins finishing with a score of 7-1.
“I think they are a different team now from when we played them in the beginning of the year. They got some big-time wins under their belt and playing at their building, it’s a hard place to play,” Simonelli said. “It’s not going to be any cakewalk. We know that we are going to go in there and it is going to be some hardnosed games that we are going to have to battle for if we want to come out on top. We are excited for the challenge.”
Going out on the road for the final two series of the season is something Simonelli says he is looking forward to. He believes that being on the road from here on out will put them at an advantage as they near postseason play and will help them grow as a team.
“We are excited to be on the road from here on out. It gives us an opportunity to play on a small sheet, an NHL-sized rink, which we will have to play on for the rest of the year,” Simonelli said. “There’s also a special bond that you get when you are on the road with the team and hopefully we can get that chemistry going from here on out.”
The Badgers square off with the Nittany Lions Friday at 6 p.m., and again Saturday at the same time.