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Penn State Hockey: Offense Is Just Fine, Nittany Lions Will Have To Catch Up Defensively Now

by on November 23, 2018 12:30 PM

Guy Gadowsky leaned back in his chair in what was supposed to be the solitude and security of his office early in the morning and nods.

"It's an honest, fair criticism," Gadowsky relents.

The observation, Penn State hockey has yet to really get it together on the defensive end of the ice in all of the years of Division I play. Not that the Nittany Lions have been bad, but on a quest for their first-ever Frozen Four appearance after two straight showings in the NCAA Tournament, it's the missing link. There's not much doubt there.

Goals? Those are easy, Penn State is ranked first in the nation in scoring and has finished in the Top 8 for three straight years including ending the 2016-17 best in the nation.

The offense is there, the defense, spotty at moments where it really can't afford to be. Since the 2014-15 season the Nittany Lions have finished inside the Top 40 of goals allowed just once in 2016-17 when Penn State was 29th.

Goals allowed, Penn State's national rank:

  • 2018-19: 46th
  • 2017-18: 44th
  • 2016-17: 29th
  • 2015-16: 49th
  • 2014-15: 45th

Goals for, Penn State's national rank:

  • 2018-19: 1st
  • 2017-18: 3rd
  • 2016-17: 1st
  • 2015-16: 7th
  • 2014-15: 16th

"That actually falls on me," Gadowsky says. "It's something that we're well aware of, however I haven't addressed it well enough. There have been other aspects of the game that we've prioritized and the truth is now, specifically, I need to do a much better job at it, that's the honest truth. What we've learned over the past several years is that whenever you add something to what you do, something else leaks out. You can't do everything all the time. And truthfully if we're going to be at that level, we have to get better defensively."

How much better? Given the numbers above, a few stats to digest from the past six Frozen Fours.

  • Of the 24 most recent teams to make the Frozen Four, only one of them has been outside the Top 30 in goals allowed. 
  • Five of the past six national title winners have been in the Top 15 of both goals for and goals against.
  • 17 of the 24 teams to make the last six Frozen Fours have had a Top 20 ranking in both goals for an against. 

Of course, as Gadowsky is quick to point out goals can come in a variety of forms. Goals allowed is admittedly not entirely a fool-proof measure of defensive efficiency. Just two games in bad bounces have plagued Penn State so far in Big Ten play. Taking bad penalties can play into it as well. Goaltending mistakes. Defense is nuanced, it's not as simple as number.

And to be fair the Nittany Lions have gotten better at avoiding the kinds of penalties that plagued them earlier in the program's history. Penn State is 46th in penalty kills attempted, a good thing in this case, and has finished outside the Top 50 each of the past two seasons. Compared to killing off 143 penalties in 2015-16, that area has come a long way, a 38 penalty decrease in two years time.

Nevertheless with or without nuance, good defense is good defense, and while the Nittany Lions are far from the worst, they have plenty of work left to do if they want to take that next step. Especially against the likes of No.6 Ohio State on Friday and Saturday night.

Changing the system though?

"We're married to it," Gadowsky said, adding that he would rather teach offensively minded defensemen better defense than the other way around. "We believe in it and we know it works."

And at the end of the day it's hard to argue with the results. The challenge now is improving them.


Past 24 Frozen Fours participants: Rankings of goals for and goals against

2017-18 (Penn State: 3rd GF, 44th GA)

  • (Winner) Minnesota Duluth (8th GF, 13th GA)
  • Ohio State (9th GF, 5th GA)
  • Notre Dame (18th GF, 9th GA)
  • Michigan (4th GF, 45th GA)

2016-17 (Penn State: 1st GF, 29th GA)

  • (Winner) Denver (3rd GF, 4th GA)
  • Minnesota Duluth (8th GF, 12th GA)
  • Notre Dame (14th GF, 10th GA)
  • Harvard (5th GF, 1st GA)

2015-16 (Penn State: 7th GF, 44th GA)

  • (Winner) North Dakota (4th GF, 6th GA)
  • Quinnipiac (3rd GF, 12th GA)
  • Boston College (6th GF, 8th GA)
  • Denver (8th GF, 20th GA)

2014-15 (Penn State: 16th GF, 45th GA)

  • (Winner) Providence (GF 12th, GA 11th)
  • Boston University (1st GF, 26th GA)
  • North Dakota (5th GF, 25th GA)
  • Omaha (29th GF, 16th GA)

2013-14 (Penn State program too young)

  • (Winner) Union (2nd GF, 14th GA)
  • Minnesota (5th GF, 7th GA)
  • Boston College (1st GF, 16th GA)
  • North Dakota (10th GF, 25th GA)

2012-13 (Penn State program too young)

  • (Winner) Yale (26th GF, 21st GA)
  • Quinnipiac (6th GF, 1st GA)
  • St Cloud State (1st GF, 29th GA)
  • UMass Lowell (12th GF, 6th GA) 


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