Shot to upset No. 2 Fighting Irish not far from Lions’ minds

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- As he stood in the Pegula Ice Arena media room and said it out loud, Andrew Sturtz couldn't help it as a smile spread across his face.

"We're still in the hunt, still alive and we have a chance at one of the top teams in the country at our own rink in early February and it's a hot ticket," Sturtz said. "We've got a great opportunity here and it's our job to take advantage of it."

That opportunity comes in the form of this weekend's series against No. 2 Notre Dame, the Big Ten newcomer that's ranked No. 1 in the Pairwise. The Fighting Irish play a Penn State team that's winless in their last five, including dropping the series last weekend at Wisconsin, one in which the No. 17 Nittany Lions were outscored by a combined 6-1 in the third period. Penn State surrendered three goals in the third period to get the 4-4 tie Saturday night.

But, Guy Gadowsky still called last Saturday's performance one of Penn State's best of the season. That's a testament to the strength of the Big Ten where six teams are ranked in the top 20 and it's something the Lions can build on and learn from with a big opportunity in front of them at home.

These are the types of series Penn State envisioned being part of at some point once they became a Division I program and a Big Ten member. With Friday's 6:30 p.m. faceoff set for a White Out it should be one of if not the best home crowds of the year. Regardless of the sport, a Penn State vs. Notre Dame matchup is always going to be a tough ticket to come by in Happy Valley. Add that it's Notre Dame's first trip to Penn State since joining the Big Ten for hockey and the stakes are a little higher than they were when the Irish came to town for a series in 2015.

"You have a very important point in the season. ... It's a huge weekend," Gadowsky said. "Honestly, this is going to be an excellent weekend of hockey."

But first Sturtz and the Lions have to make it to the weekend, a detail that isn't so little with this fully energized group. Making sure they're not too amped up and spent before hitting the ice Friday night is a process that started early on this week.

Finding whatever they can to keep their minds off the ramifications of this weekend's series -- whether it's extra film or even diving into schoolwork as an added distraction -- the Lions are all for it. Come Thursday night, they'll go to various dinners with their teammates just like they were on the road and they'll start to flip the switch.

Friday morning some will head to the Waffle Shop for breakfast, part necessity, part superstition as Sturtz, a junior, put it. There he'll devour a western omelette, two pieces of French toast and a water and a coffee and then he'll head to class for a few hours. Once they arrive at the rink in the afternoon though the three hours before the puck drops might be the hardest.

"For our team this one has been marked on the calendar since we've been there," Sturtz said. "We're pretty excited."

The Lions dropped both games in South Bend back in November, losing 5-3 the first night and 1-0 the second. They were without sophomore Denis Smirnov both times and for a team that is known for putting up a bunch of shots on goal, the Lions couldn't get anything in the net in the second game, despite Peyton Jones coming up with 26 saves.

Smirnov, who was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in the sixth round last spring, scored three goals this past weekend and the Lions will look to continue getting him going. How he goes could go a long way in determining the outcome of this weekend.

"Their goalie is really good, the defense is solid," Smirnov said. "They're a pretty deep team so it'll be interesting."

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