Penn State Hockey: 3-2 AIC Loss Points To Larger, But Correctable Issues For Nittany Lions
As a somewhat innocuous pass came toward Penn State defenseman Kris Myllari's feet he stumbled, falling over backwards. The puck on a new course, found its way to the stick of AIC's Dominik Florian, and moments later the back of the net behind Chris Funkey.
And Penn State fell 3-2 in overtime.
The loss, Penn State's third of the season, was deserved. AIC took it to the Nittany Lions, never falling behind by more than a goal after Cole Hults scored 8:58 into the game on a powerplay, his second of the series on a beautiful pass from Denis Smirnov.
Even as Nate Sucese put Penn State ahead 2-1 in the third period it took just over three minutes for the Yellow Jackets to respond. By the time Myllari fell even a win would have felt false for the Nittany Lions. They would have survived far more than anything else.
The loss itself will hurt Penn State's postseason chances for as long as they are alive. However it's the root cause of that loss that could doom those chances before they're even born.
Where the problem lies might just be found a season ago. The Nittany Lions have long since mentioned their postseason loss to Denver, almost in reverence, as an example of how great teams play. The Pioneers, a flashy bunch rolling out four lines that each were one of the best in the nation, are a showcase of what elite skill can do, but to boil that down to simply skill will be doing their play a disservice.
Simply put, Denver is good at everything.
"So there are a couple of lines at DU that move the puck very well, and we would like to get better in that area," Guy Gadowsky said following the game. "But I hope the lesson that we learned against Denver was that their forecheck was phenomenal, it was extremely fast, it was extremely tenacious and when they were playing in the offensive zone they were playing as tenacious and as fast as their forecheck. And I hope we learned that lesson as well, because they're skilled, but they didn't win the national championship on skill I'll tell you that. They play extremely hard and they go to the net hard."
For Gadowsky the frustration is evident. Penn State's meteoric rise was largely on the backs of high effort play coupled with slamming pucks into the net time and time again. The Nittany Lions played with the knowledge that they weren't the most skilled, but what they lacked in pure talent they could make up for with effort.
And it worked. By and large, it's what got the Nittany Lions to the postseason.
While there is a mixture of reasons why that team hasn't quite arrived again in 2017, it still isn't there. Penn State managed 47 shots on goal on Thursday night, and just 31 on Friday. While both numbers would work quite well in the NHL, it hasn't quite matched the output of seasons prior.
The results, from the standpoint of consistency, haven't been there.
"I think we are a skilled team, but that's not how we scored goals last year." Gadowsky added. "That's not how the game is played anymore. It's a man's game in front of net and we scored a lot of goals from the paint last year and we're not getting that done this year.
"We're not playing the Penn State hockey that made us successful last year, we're playing a different game that I'm not sure anybody is good enough to play that game. We're not the ultra-skilled team that we can play the way we're playing offense right now."
The good news for Penn State and Nittany Lion fans is that the issues are correctable. The bad, it speaks to a mental side that can take far longer to embrace.
And that's an inherent complacency that comes with success.
"It makes me think, was I surprised that we didn't handle last year when we were ranked No.1, and was I surprised that we didn't handle it well. And there have been some warning signs, keeping the eye on the ball after you win a championship. So am I surprised? Yes, but it happens. It's a good lesson for the coaching staff, we have to really reevaluate how we're going about things. We certainly have to get back to our roots as coaches and really stress the things that make us successful rather than expecting it to happen. So that's on my shoulders."
Only time will tell if and when the Nittany Lions can get back to those basics that made them so deadly not 12 months ago.