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Penn State Hockey: Opportunity Ahead In More Ways Than One Against Wisconsin

by on October 29, 2019 3:33 PM

It was supposed to be easier than this.

That is undoubtedly been the thought running through Pegula Ice Arena as Penn State men’s hockey looks to open Big Ten Play against Wisconsin on Thursday and Friday.

Alternatively, that kind of thinking, that things will be easy, is perhaps what got the Nittany Lions to this point in the first place.

At 4-1 on the year and averaging 4.40 goals per game, it’s hard to be critical of the overall results Penn State has produced on the ice, but something hasn’t been quite right. The Nittany Lions have struggled in a slightly intangible way on the offensive end of the ice. All of this coming to a head as Penn State fell 4-0 to Alaska-Fairbanks, just the second time the Nittany Lions have been shutout at home in the building’s history.

“At this point, we really wish we were talking about other things, but we’re not,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said of his team’s offensive woes earlier this week.

“I don’t think any of the coaches are really happy with how we’re playing identity-wise offensively.”

That is ultimately the issue plaguing Penn State so far this season, not a matter of skill or results, but a blue-collar mentality that has dovetailed with skill and grit over the past several years. It’s the foundation to program’s success, a high-tempo, shoot-first offense that has made the Nittany Lions, one of the highest scoring teams in the sport’s history.

Now it’s getting a little too cute, and the results have been there, but it just hasn’t clicked like it did in 2018.

“When the emphasis is put on individual skill, you can sometimes play slowly,” Gadowsky said. “When it’s a team game, you tend to play faster. That might be the feedback that coaches and players agree with.”

“There’s a couple times I’ve noticed we’ve looked to try to make a play instead of throwing the puck on net,” junior defenseman Cole Hults said, adding that he thinks a breakthrough is coming soon. “I think that’s probably our biggest reason. I think that’s just a minor tweak we’ve got to make, but that should be an easy one.”

The key for Penn State might not be an overly complicated one, the Nittany Lions’ bread and butter has been getting shots on net, except so far this season that metric hasn’t been there. Penn State is averaging fewer shots on net and is generating fewer chances because of it. The Nittany Lions might be the most talented team the program has fielded, but the answer to their current woes might be abandoning that skill in favor of the kind of hockey that has turned the program into a national power in such short order.

“You talk about winning indicators, predictive indicators, and the best predictive indicators in college hockey seems to be the goal differentiation along with shot differentiation,” Gadowsky said. “So on teams that give up very little, maybe a 3-1 game for a team that gives up very little is insurmountable whereas other teams, you feel a lot better, a little safer. It’s gotta be something like 6-3.”

The good news, or potentially bad news, Penn State faces No. 7 Wisconsin this Thursday and Friday in State College. The Badgers boast forward Cole Caufield, the No. 15 overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft and forward Alex Turcotte, selected No. 5 overall in the same draft.

So if you can’t get back to the basics against this team, then the Nittany Lions might have bigger issues to fix, and smaller goals to chase, even as preseason favorites to win the Big Ten, just ahead of the visiting Badgers.

“The first question is ‘can you flip a switch?’” Gadoswky added. “And if you can, it probably will be aided by someone like Wisconsin coming to town, especially a Big Ten school. Maybe with a little bit of a kick from a Big Ten team, maybe we’ll get there.”

At the end of the day Penn State’s defense has improved greatly so far this season and averaging just over four goals a game is hardly a failure.

But it was supposed to be easier than this.

The good news for the Nittany Lions, it still can be.

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