Guy Gadowsky would swear his team doesn’t watch the polls. Seemingly every Monday, Gadowsky is asked what it means to him and the players to watch their gradual ascension up the three major college hockey polls — the USCHO, the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine and the PairWise rankings.
With few variations, Gadowsky’s response is virtually the same every week. While he admits having a number next to the program is fun, the fifth-year head coach explains that he, nor his players, watch the polls closely, focusing instead on what they can do on the ice.
“We truly care a lot about what the guys in the locker room think, and what our staff thinks, and what our administration thinks and what our fans think and our alumni,” he said this past Monday. “We truly don’t follow the polls that much.”
The gap between when the USCHO poll is announced — around noon every Monday — and when Gadowsky takes the mic to field questions from a dozen reporters — 4:15 p.m. that same day — allows the latest rankings to sink in before he has to share his thoughts on them. Likewise, those players who are available a given week have time to ponder a question they know will be asked later in the day.
This Monday was a bit different, however.
With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day falling on Monday and students having the day free from classes, the team’s weekly media availability was moved up to the same time those polls are released. A half dozen reporters (myself included) incessantly refreshed USCHO.com, hoping the rankings would be released before Gadowsky or the players were finished with their press conferences.
While Gadowsky escaped before it was revealed, a trio of players — Ricky DeRosa, Erik Autio and Peyton Jones — were lined up on stage and discovered in real time the Nittany Lions’ new position: No. 1.
Even after hearing the news few would have thought possible in just the program’s fifth season of Division I play, the veterans of the stage, DeRosa and Autio, gave humbling answers when asked how it felt.
“It feels pretty good,” Autio said.
“Not too bad,” DeRosa added.
DeRosa, a senior whose first season at Penn State coincided with the team’s move into Pegula Ice Arena, smiled and bowed his head as the information was revealed to him. That first season, the team’s second in Division-I, saw the team finish 8-26-2 and last in the Big Ten. Now, just two and a half seasons later, DeRosa and his teammates get to play in front of their home crowd as the No. 1 voted and PairWise Ranking team in the nation.
“It does feel pretty good,” DeRosa said. “It kind of makes you think about all the guys that came to this program and laid the foundation. We wouldn’t be where we are today without those guys. I think where we’re headed, that’s a prime indicator of it.”
While hopes of a berth in the NCAA Tournament become more realistic by the week, for now, the Lions are headed for a weekend series with No. 13 Ohio State and a chance to solidify their position atop the rankings.
The Buckeyes are one of just two teams to beat the Lions this season, handing Gadowsky’s squad its first loss in three months and just the second of the season, the first time these teams met on Jan. 6. The Lions responded the next day with a win over OSU to split the series on the road, and then swept Michigan State the following weekend.
Much like the Lions, the Buckeyes feature an explosive offense and a game-plan that tries to overpower the opposition more often than it contains it defensively. That lesser focus on defense becomes less consequential with a pair of capable net-minders in Christian Frey and Matt Tomkins manning the crease. Frey posted a 46-save shutout against the Lions two weeks ago, while Tomkins ranks third in the Big Ten with six wins.
While the Lions’ strength of schedule sits in the middle of the pack, they have faced and passed several difficult tests this season, including wins over then-No. 16 St. Lawrence at home and then-No. 3 Notre Dame on the road.
With future tests against No. 8 Minnesota and Wisconsin on the horizon, a series against perhaps their most historically evenly matched Big Ten opponents may set the tone for the remainder of the Lions’ season. The first game of the weekend on Friday night will be a hockey white-out, so those who plan to attend the game, wear white!