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Penn State Hockey: Nittany Lions Looking to Find Their Stripes During Crucial Series

by on February 07, 2020 1:20 PM

Penn State hockey has talked for quite a long time about what exactly it needs to do better: play smart defense, play a full 60 minutes, focus on defense and do you job on offense. Start better, raise the compete level.

Even if the delivery is somewhat cliche there doesn't appear to be any sort of disconnect between the Nittany Lions' issues and the solutions that are available to solve them.

Of course like all things in sports saying something is a lot easier than doing it. I too would like to score goals and dunk on LeBron James but verbalizing your objectives is one small step in a million towards achieving them.

For all of the struggles, there is also an undeniable truth that comes with them. Penn State is atop the Big Ten standings preparing to face Ohio State in Columbus on Friday and Saturday night. The Buckeyes are tied with the Nittany Lions, and with six games to go in the regular season, this weekend's series will go a long way towards dictating the conference title race.

All the same there is a lingering disappointment around Pegula Ice Arena as the Nittany Lions leave points and goals on the ice, especially as they are scheduled to sit idle the final week of the regular season. The preseason favorite to win the league, the Nittany Lions looked poised to do just that heading into the final days of 2019.

And then it happened again, for whatever reason Penn State finds itself on the wrong end of the opening month and change of the new calendar year. For the third straight season the Nittany Lions have gone from an offensive firepower to a somewhat above average unit. The biggest difference, and perhaps the only saving grace to Penn State's season right now: improved defense and the best season to date from goalie Peyton Jones.

"We're learning together," Coach Guy Gadowsky said earlier in the week. "Trust me, the coaching staff doesn't have the answer right now. We're trying, we're really working hard to figure it out and doing what we can. We don't have any guaranteed answer."

To his credit, Penn State's problem is a bit hard to pin down. The Nittany Lions -with largely the same main core of players- have gone from historically potent to below average offensively. The cause is likely a handful of things ranging from how opponents are adjusting to the Nittany Lions' style of play, to bad decision-making to just bad luck. In two crucial games this season Penn State has hit the post in overtime, six points swinging in the standings for reasons that largely have nothing to do with scheme or approach. Two goals that could have largely changed the perception of how the season has gone.

Even so, those goals may have just masked the issue, below, a look at how Penn State has done in Big Ten play prior to the turn the calendar and up until early to mid February. 

2019-20 season

  • In 2019: 12 games, 8-4-0 and +14 goal margin (2.67 GAA) (3.83 GF)
  • In 2020: 6 games, 1-3-2 and -9 goal margin (3.67 GAA) (2.17 GF) only six teams worse

2018-19 season

  • In 2018: 8 games, 3-4-2 and +1 goal margin (4.62 GAA) (4.72 GF)
  • In 2019: 8 games, 3-5-0 and -7 goal margin(3.88 GAA) (3.00 GF)

2017-18 season

  • In 2017: 10 games, 4-4-2 and +3 goal margin (3.10 GAA) (3.40 GF)
  • In 2018: 10 games, 2-5-3 and -6 goal margin (3.30 GAA) (2.70 GF)

The question of course is what the response might be, one that is effectively the ongoing existential crisis facing a program that built its foundation on offensive hockey: as teams get better at combatting what Penn State does, is the response to get better or to change?

"I think it's to get better at what we do," Gadowsky said. "And tweak things a little bit, but I don't think it's to change our stripes."

Sitting at 12th place in the PairWise rankings, Penn State has six games and a conference tournament to find those stripes again.


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