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Penn State Hockey: After Strong Start Nittany Lions Set To Open Big Ten Campaign

by on December 03, 2015 2:00 PM

If Penn State hockey is guilty of anything it's the over-saturation of "firsts."

Everything is the first. The first comeback, the first Big Ten win, the first loss, the first hat trick, the first overtime win. When you're new nothing is familiar.

So to say that this weekend's series against Michigan State is the first big series in program history would be a bit of an exaggeration. The Nittany Lions have hosted Minnesota when the Gophers were ranked No. 1 in the nation. They've gone on the road and beaten ranked teams, they've played at home for an outside shot at the Big Ten title race.

For a program still very new in the world, there is not a whole lot of the day-to-day that has yet to happen.

Even so, there is an undeniable level of importance that comes with this weekend's two game stint against Michigan State. At 8-2-3 the Nittany Lions are by all measures opening the 2015 season with the best start in program history. Maybe a slightly exaggerated margin of success given the small sample size, but a start backed up by the No. 4 ranked offense in the nation, No. 2 power play and No. 18 overall defense.

If Penn State is guilty of anything else it's playing pretty good hockey. 122 minutes and 37 seconds without giving up a goal, 15 straight penalty kills and just 1.16 goals against over the last six games while scoring 4.5 goal per game over the same span.

So this weekend is an interesting measuring stick for a program quietly contemplating the postseason in early December. With at least 24 games remaining on the schedule it's a little premature to say that the future is certain, but Penn State stands clearly one of the conference's best with a real legitimate shot at turning early season success into something much more substantial.

On paper Penn State should be favored despite Michigan State laying claim to one of the best goaltenders in the nation in Jake Hildebrand. The Spartans sit at 4-7-2 on the year although the vast majority of their losses have come at the hands of Top 10 teams in reasonably close contests.

How good the Spartans may or may not be is somewhat trivial in actuality.. Penn State has to get points every weekend in a conference only six teams deep. The Nittany Lions' biggest challenge won't be so much any given team in the Big Ten as much as the simple fact the room for error is barely measurable. Every series is full of critical points to be had.

As such, it's a strong start to conference play that will in the very least help Penn State set the pace rather than spend the next several months trying to play catchup. Add in the fact 10 of the Nittany Lions' final 13 games are on the road and making the most of early home games will prove to be even more crucial come February and March as the conference title race hits the final turn.

After opening the Big Ten slate this weekend Penn State faces a brief break before getting back into conference play. That so-called break will hardly be such though as the Nittany Lions are set to face Princeton before traveling to on an outside-looking-in Top 25 team in Robert Morris and either No. 6 ranked UMass Lowell or No. 16 in the PairWise, Clarkson in a back-to-back evening at the Three Rivers Classic in Pittsburgh.

How December pans out won't dictate the rest of the season for Penn State, but it's hard to deny that a strong month of hockey could go a long way towards an NCAA tournament bid.

And that's a first worth talking about.



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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