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Penn State Hockey: Consistency And Remembering Roots Will Go Along Way In Final Stretch

by on January 22, 2019 2:45 PM

At 13-9-2 Penn State hockey finds itself on the NCAA Tournament bubble, slowly leaking in the wrong direction of the demarcation line.

The good news, with 10 regular season games remaining and at least two in the Big Ten Tournament, there are plenty of chances to improve the resume.

It has been a turbulent season to say the least for the Nittany Lions, a handful of losses coming in the form of blown third period leads, poor performances and otherwise self-inflicted wounds.

To be fair, hockey in general -and the Big Ten in particular- invites a certain amount of arbitrary results. It's impossible to assume that an entire season will occur without a few bad bounces going for, or against a team. So losing is inherent in the system.

Which makes Penn State's occasional foot-shooting a bit more painful for coach Guy Gadowsky and company. On paper the Nittany Lions are perhaps the most talented roster the program has had, but they are seemingly as prone to the head-scratchers as they have ever been.

While there is a tendency to overthink the Nittany Lions' issues, it really comes down a fairly simple concept, one easier to see than to fix.

"I think it's just consistency," Captain Chase Berger said after practice earlier this week. "The really good teams find a way to win every single night. I think the good teams can find a way to win all the time with consistent play and then if something isn't going well one way, finding a way to make up for it with something else. Finding a way to win another way."

"I just don't think as a player you're going to be consistent every single game all year. I think a consistent team is able to win in different ways. I think it's kind of a commitment thing as well. There are a lot of different ways to win games but if you want to consistently win them you just kind of have to stick to your identity and take advantage however you can."

The irony in all of this is that even the bad version of this particular Penn State team is still pretty good. The Nittany Lions are averaging 3.11 goals per game in losses, which would be good enough for the 18th best offense in the nation. The catch, Penn State is giving up 5.3 goals per game in those very same games.

Flip the script and Penn State is putting up 5.3 goals a game in victories, 5.7 goals if you include the 11-goal outing against Robert Morris. Defensively the Nittany Lions are allowing on average, just 2.7 goals per victory.

Both figures together give you a Penn State offense that averages a nation-leading 4.67 goals a game on 39 shots on goal per game.

This all points to the obvious: a defense that has been good-enough at best and spotty at worst. The Nittany Lions have gotten fairly consistent play from goaltender Peyton Jones coming out of winter break but both he and the players in front of him have been prone to at least one suboptimal moment per outing.

If nothing else, they have yet to show the same kind of five-player consistently and competency of Ohio State or Notre Dame, two of the nation's best defensive teams and Big Ten. Teams they will have to beat to get where they want to go.

The issue in a broad sense is an ongoing, peripheral conversation about the program's identity. Just a few years ago the Nittany Lions were able to lean on the idea they didn't belong, or that they were doubted. Penn State as a program was a walking chip-on-shoulder and between opponents not expecting much for the Nittany Lions, and Penn State priding itself in outworking everyone, wins were as much a product of tenacity as they were talent.

With two straight years of NCAA Tournament appearances and a Big Ten Tournament win under its belt, the program's chip is much smaller, the need to prove itself less a driving force as it once was.

Of course the players are more skilled and more talented than ever before. Evan Barratt doesn't need to prove to anyone he is good, everyone already knows it. So the motivation has to come from somewhere else.

It makes for a bumpy transition as the program's identity tries to find a new foothold while continuing to do what has worked so far.

"As I've grown up here, we've just had better players," Berger added. "So we want to have the same work hard, get pucks to the net mentality, but I think we can do it in different ways than say my freshman year we're not trying to make many plays. Now we can read the play a little better. I think with that we still are using identity that we still want to get to the net, I think we can be a little better at that but I don't think we're far off."

"I think we do a good job of recruiting guys that have an edge. I think when you lose guys like Ricky DeRosa, some of the guys from earlier in my career that maybe felt like they're very blessed to even be playing at a place like Penn State, that there going to bring that desire. I think we still have a lot of that, you've just got to make sure you have that every night. Even though you can score the pretty goals you gotta make sure you still have that "I'm lucky to be here I've got to do everything I can (to prove it)" as well."

In the end simply avoiding the feelings to defeat ought to be good enough for any team to play well enough to win, but the Nittany Lions might be well served to remember what got them this far in the first place. They've come far, but they have plenty of road left to travel before they truly arrive.



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