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Neil's Notebook: A Look at What's To Come in B1G

Jan. 24, 2013

By Neil Koepke, staff writer

A year ago, Penn State was playing its final season as an elite-level club hockey program. This season, the Nittany Lions are in their first year as a varsity team and playing as a Division I independent before joining the Big Ten next fall.

This weekend, the Nittany Lions and Michigan State will make history at Munn Arena.

They'll begin a new rivalry with the first two of many meetings to come, since the teams will be playing four times each season in the new, six-team Big Ten hockey conference.

The Nittany Lions (7-10 Division I, 9-12 overall) and the Spartans (6-15-3 overall and 5-12-1-0 CCHA) meet in a nonconference series at 7 p.m. on Friday and 6 p.m. on Saturday.

"It is pretty cool because I'm from Pennsylvania and this is their first year as a Division I team,'' said Spartan freshman goaltender Jake Hildebrand, who grew up in Butler, Pa., just north of Pittsburgh.

"The Big Ten is going to be unbelievable. You come to Michigan State to play against the best teams in the nation. That will help me develop as a player.''

Hildebrand was playing in the U.S. Hockey League in September, 2010, when Penn State announced it was adding men's and women's varsity hockey and building a new arena. An $88 million donation by PSU alumnus and hockey fan Terry Pegula funded the program and the arena project.

A few months later, the Big Ten formed its own league with MSU, Michigan and Ohio State coming from the CCHA, Minnesota and Wisconsin joining from the WCHA and Penn State as a start-up program

"I was pretty excited,'' Hildebrand said. "All the Minnesota kids go to Minnesota schools, all the Michigan kids go to Michigan schools and it would have been pretty exciting if (Penn State) had this a few years ago and it would have been pretty big by now.''

One of Hildebrand's best friends and a former junior teammate is a freshman goalie for Penn State. Matt Skoff, whom Hildebrand has known "since we were seven-or-eight-years old," could be matched up against Hildebrand in one of the two games.



The two Pittsburgh-area goalies were teammates for two seasons with the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL, with Skoff considered the No. 1 starter.

"I lived with him for two years in Sioux City and we had the same goalie coach growing up,'' Hildebrand said. "We always battled in practice. We were very competitive.''

Skoff, 21, is from McKee Rocks, Pa.

Shane Clifford, a well-known goaltending mentor in the Pittsburgh area, coached Hildebrand and Skoff and many others, including current Boston College goalie Parker Milner and Anaheim Ducks prospect John Gibson, the hero of the U.S. National Team's recent gold-medal run at the World Junior Championships in Russia.

Clifford is going to be at Munn Arena to watch his two protégés compete in the first MSU-PSU series.

"I think it'll be kind of cool for him to see guys he coached play against each other on a big stage,'' Hildebrand said.

The Nittany Lions are coming off a 4-2 victory over Vermont (Hockey East) last Saturday in front of a crowd of 19,529 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Skoff made 34 saves, improving his record to 5-7.

Penn State is already 1-0 against the Big Ten after a 5-4 victory over Ohio State in the consolation game of the Three Rivers Classic in Pittsburgh on Dec. 29. Skoff got the victory, making 36 saves.

The Nittany Lions, with 18 freshmen and sophomores on the roster - although most are older players -- and many playing key roles, have defeated five teams from Atlantic Hockey -- American International, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Army, Sacred Heart, Air Force. PSU closes out its season with two games at Wisconsin on Feb. 24-25.

The 6,000-seat Pegula Ice Arena will be finished in time for next season.

Spartan senior forward Chris Forfar admits he's a little envious of his non-senior teammates, who will get to play in the Big Ten starting next year.

"The CCHA has great tradition and I'd love to see it continue, but the Big Ten is going to be something else, especially in 10 years with more teams (possibly) added,'' said Forfar, who's from Darien, Ill., a Chicago suburb. "I always think a team in northern Illinois (Northwestern) would be cool.

"I'm definitely envious of the young kids that will be able to come to Michigan State and play in the Big Ten.''

Forfar is friends with Penn State captain Tommy Olczyk, a 22-year-old freshman forward from Long Grove, Ill.

"I played against him in the USHL and skated with him and his family in the summer for a couple of years,'' Forfar said. "I know how extremely dedicated he is to the program.''

Olczyk, a former teammate of Hildebrand in Sioux City, is the son of former NHL forward Eddie Olczyk, who played for the Rangers when they won the Stanley Cup in 1994 and later coached the Pittsburgh Penguins for a brief stint. He's now the TV analyst for Chicago Blackhawks and NBC.

"You look at some of the teams Penn State has beaten and we can't take them lightly. I think all the guys in our locker room know that,'' Forfar said. "These are two big games for us.''

Nittany Lions coach Guy Gadowsky left Princeton, where he spent five years, to take over the PSU program in April, 2011. Gadowsky coached at Alaska for five seasons before Princeton. He coached the Nittany Lions club team last season.

"I've watched them play and they'll come in here and play really hard,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "They'll be tough to play against. They're really older than our team. They have maturity and strength.''

Anastos said he sees a very bright future for Big Ten hockey.

"The Big Ten, on the surface, brings the big stage,'' he said. "Hockey, to my knowledge, has never that kind of stage set for it - with an all-sport power conference.

"All the change in landscaping (in college hockey) that's gone on was rooted in Big Ten hockey starting. The good part of that is it made a lot of schools examine their commitment to their hockey programs. As we've seen, there's been no fallout and there's been a higher level of commitment. Every program has survived and every school has a league.''

Anastos there will changes in how the Big Ten operates compared to the structures of the CCHA or WCHA in the past. Big Ten hockey will be like basketball with most of its nonconference games in the first part of the season and league games following.

With the Big Ten Network playing a major role in exposing hockey almost nationally, schedules will not be set until just before the season, similar to basketball.

"In my brief exposure to the Big Ten meetings, they've been very productive, highly organized and (I'm impressed) how the Big Ten staff is open-minded to gathering information and listening to members' issues,'' said Anastos, who served as commissioner of the CCHA for 13 years before becoming the Spartans coach in March, 2011.

"The Big Ten Network is definitely a factor in recruiting. They're talking about a significant number of games, some wrap-around programming and some branding and promotion.''

EXECUTION LACKING, NOT EFFORT: Anastos said he was unhappy with his team's play in its 3-0 loss to the U.S. National Team Development Program's Under-18 team on Friday but it was mostly because of a lack of execution and focus rather than effort.

"Tuesday night was an example of squeezing the stick a little too much,'' Anastos said. "We saw simple plays that we didn't execute. I was frustrated with some of our penalties and our inability to execute fundamental plays.''

Anastos said he and his coaching staff stayed late on Tuesday, discussing the Spartans play and ways to turn things around, after getting swept by Ferris State last week, followed by the U-18 loss.

"I went over player by player and asked our staff if they thought this player or that player worked hard. We could not draw the conclusion that the effort wasn't there. Our guys worked hard but you do get discombobulated when you try to do too much.''

A continued lack of goals and the focus on not scoring has made it tough for the Spartans to relax and play with confidence. As a result, the players are worried about mistakes, giving up goals and not playing with any chemistry.

Two weeks ago, MSU had two of its best games of the season in a 1-0 loss and 4-1 victory over Notre Dame.

"When you're getting tense and frustrated, you're squeezing the stick, you're passing when you should shoot or shooting when you should pass,'' Anastos said. "You're not catching a simple pass on your stick, or you're passing away from where you should be passing it.

"Those things compound itself. Then frustration sets in.''

Fortunately, the game with the U-18 team is an exhibition and doesn't count in the standings. MSU is 1-4 this month with two conference games against Penn State coming up before 10 straight CCHA contests to finish the regular season.

"We've struggled to score goals so much we've taken our eye off the ball,'' Anastos said. "So naturally, the tendency is to say, `Oh, the other team scored. How are we going to dig out of this because we're struggling to score?'

"So now the focus is on the score of the game rather than the next shift and making the next pass, picking up your guy, forechecking or moving the puck and finishing checks.

"We'll continue to try to focus on keeping things simple. You'd like to see some rewards.''

GOOD-BYE IRISH, BULLDOGS: The Spartans have played eight of their last 10 games against two teams - Notre Dame and Ferris State - since early December.

MSU went 1-3 against each team, winning one and and losing one at home at Munn Arena and losing two in South Bend and Big Rapids.

Five two-game series are ahead for the Spartans, who are in 11th place, three points behind Michigan and Bowling Green and four in back of 8th-place Northern Michigan.

MSU still plays Michigan, Bowling Green, Northern Michigan, Alaska and Western Michigan.

SHORTHANDED: MSU will face the Nittany Lions on Friday without its leading scorer. Sophomore right wing Matt Berry will sit out with a one-game suspension for a checking-from-behind penalty and game disqualification penalty incurred on Tuesday against the U.S. NTDP. Even though it occurred in an exhibition game, suspensions still carry over to the next regular-season game.

Berry has 11 goals and nine assists for 20 points in 24 games.

Meanwhile, freshman forward David Bondra (upper body) and sophomore forward Brent Darnell (upper body) are questionable for the PSU series. Bondra is close to be ready to play after being injured against Notre Dame on Jan. 11.

Darnell took a hard check against the U.S. U-18 team and missed most of the game.

SHOT BLOCKERS: Freshman defenseman John Draeger blocked a career-high seven shots in last Friday's 2-1 loss against FSU. The Spartans blocked a season-high 27 shots against the Bulldogs. Travis Walsh (4), Matt Grass (3), BJ Boyd (2) and Jake Chelios (2) all had multiple blocks.

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