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No. 14 Penn State Seeks To Find Its Killer Instinct Versus Niagara

The Nittany Lions face off against the winless Purple Eagles in a Thursday-Friday series.

Who: University Of Niagara Purple Eagles
When: Thursday 7 p.m. / Friday 7 p.m.
Where: Pegula Ice Arena, University Park, Pa.
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The Niagara Purple Eagles come to town with a couple of wounded wings. The team has yet to win its first game in seven chances, sporting a record of 0-5-2 in the early-going this season. This is a chance for the Lions to take control of the game early and assert itself as one of the top teams in the nation.

Last season Penn State traveled to Niagara for a one-game set and the team came out flat. It was able to hold on, tying the Purple Eagles 1-1 in overtime. It was a game that the Lions could have, arguably should have, won if it had the right mindset entering the game.

Guy Gadowsky has praised his team for its high hockey IQ all season. The fifth-year head coach feels his team has the tools and instincts to compete at a high level against any opponent that comes its way. There is one instinct that may be missing from some of his players — the killer instinct.

In previous seasons, his squads’ most prominent weakness has been an inability to play a complete game. His teams have either featured slow starts or weak finishes during his time at Penn State, factors that, while infrequent, have been apparent early this season.

“It’s one of those things that you think, ‘Well what’s the big deal? Just talk about it and you got it.’ It’s not that,” Gadowsky said Monday. “It’s a lot harder to execute than it is to talk about. There’s a big difference between talking about it and actually being put in the situation and executing it.”

The No. 14 Nittany Lions came out flat in their second matchup with then-No. 16 St. Lawrence, allowing three goals in the opening five minutes. After Gadowsky pulled goalie Peyton Jones in favor of Chris Funkey as a wake up call to his team, the Lions put forth a better effort and played even hockey with the Saints for the remaining 55 minutes.

On the other side of the coin, the Lions started strong in their first game against Canisius last weekend, pumping 54 shots on goal in the first two periods, aided by several power plays early. That momentum did not carry over to the third period, however, as the Golden Griffins fought back to nearly pull even.

If it weren’t for a disallowed goal for the Griffins and an empty-net goal, the Lions faced the possibility of tying or losing a game they should have handled easily.

Gadowsky views these situations as learning experiences that will help his players develop that killer instinct that he feels separates the top programs from the rest of the pack.

“You have to go through the experiences. I really don’t think there’s anything you can do in practice to really simulate that situation,” he said. “That’s why every opportunity you get like that is a learning experience and an opportunity for growth.”

Gadowsky will hope for a more complete effort this week against another Northern New York opponent in Niagara University, a team still seeking its first win seven games into the season. The Purple Eagles are coming off a weekend in which they were swept by Ohio State while being outscored 16-4.

Yielding goals has been the Eagles’ problem area this season - they rank next to last in team defense, giving up 5.71 goals per game. Only Princeton has a worse mark, though the Tigers have played only one game, a 6-2 loss to Michigan State.

The Lions, meanwhile, feature one of the nation’s top offenses, averaging four goals per game, tied for seventh best in the country. They are also averaging 43.57 shots per game, over five shots per game more than the next closest team.

Gadowsky anticipated prior to the season that his team may not shoot the puck as much as it had in previous years, as his players featured a higher hockey IQ. This would allow his players to cycle the puck more to find the best opportunity to score, rather than overwhelming the opposition with shots.

In fact, the opposite may be the case, as the Lions are averaging more shots per game than they did when Casey Bailey was leading the nation with 211 shots.

The best explanation Gadowsky can muster for this is that he has more players who like to shoot the puck, rather than having a clear big shooter like he did with Bailey. After the success the Lions have had early this season, he hopes nothing changes.

“Our record’s pretty good. I think we’re getting a lot of good chances. And we’re scoring goals,” Gadowsky said. “So, we sort of like what we’re doing.”