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Penn State hockey: Previewing the Nittany Lions’ series against Minnesota

After a 20-day layoff between games, the Penn State men’s hockey team returns to action with a two-game series at Minnesota this weekend — and the opponent concerns coach Guy Gadowsky more than resuming play after college hockey’s traditional semester break.

“You need committed, disciplined people so when they go home for break they’re staying sharp. I think we’re extremely lucky because that hasn’t been a concern here,” Gadowsky said. “They’re dedicated, and they want to be in good shape.”

So, the No. 9 Nittany Lions got back to practice Monday and approached this weekend’s games as they would any other two-game Big Ten series.

A series at Minnesota always seems special, though. While the Golden Gophers’ sub-.500 overall record might fool causal observers, Gadowsky knows better. Minnesota sits fourth in the conference standings, tied with Michigan (12 points), while Penn State is sixth (11).

“They’re Minnesota, they’re excellent. They have a new coach and there might be some transition with systems, but they’re talented and they play well at home,” Gadowsky said.

Penn State has a 2-8 record at Minnesota, and the Gophers consistently use their Olympic-sized rink to their advantage. Under coach Bob Motzko, who led St. Cloud State to national prominence and was an assistant for the two most recent Gophers’ national championship teams, that approach remains.

“They’re an excellent skating team because they recruit to their sheet,” Gadowsky said. “For us, it’s just a matter of being better with spacing and time. We might have a little rust after the layoff, but the mentality is just as important. We have not had a lot of success there, or against them, until last season. Now that we’ve gotten over that hurdle once, that should be helpful.”

Penn State closed last season with four consecutive victories against Minnesota, sweeping the final regular season series at home and then winning both games of the Big Ten Tournament against the Gophers, also at Pegula.

A positive mental approach can also bolster Penn State’s preferred aggressive and up-tempo style of play, which has produced an NCAA-leading 5.22 goals per game. Just as important, the Nittany Lions have reduced their penalty minutes from an average of 11.2 per game last season to 8.8 this season. Less time in the penalty box means more time to score and, obviously, fewer power-play opportunities for opponents — both good things.

Minnesota played last weekend, splitting a series at home with Ferris State, and enduring their first loss in six games after hard-fought series against Ohio State at Michigan.

No. 9 Penn State (11-5-2, 3-4-1 Big Ten) at Minnesota (6-7-4, 3-2-3 Big Ten)

Weekend Series: 9 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday

Radio/TV: Both games on 103.1 FM and, with Friday’s game televised by ESPNU and Saturday’s by Fox Sports North.

Notable: Minnesota leads the teams’ overall series 14-9, with an 8-2 advantage at home. … Penn State is 2-4 in the first game of the new semester since the team regained varsity status in 2012. … Penn State has split its last four spring semester-opening series. … Penn State will be playing without forwards Evan Barratt and Aarne Talvitie who have been representing the United States and Finland, respectively, at the World Junior Championship in Vancouver, Canada, since Dec. 26.

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