Throughout the season, Guy Gadowsky has touched on the lessons the team took from its first NCAA Tournament appearance last season. Facing off against eventual National Champion Denver in the Midwest Regional semifinal gave the Nittany Lions a better understanding of what it would take to find themselves in the same position as the Pioneers.
The Lions entered the season hoping to move one step closer to that position. Instead, with just two regular season games remaining, the Lions are closer to missing the NCAA Tournament entirely rather than getting another chance at their ultimate goal.
As the Lions approach their final regular season series against Minnesota, Gadowsky is hoping to take some lessons from this season and implement them in time to make another run at the college hockey crown.
The sixth-year head coach has narrowed his focus to a pair of problems facing his team: rebuilding its foundation and maintaining a hungry mindset.
“You can’t assume that you’re done with your foundation, how you play, and you add on to things and this will stay the same. You have to chase it every single year,” Gadowsky said Monday. “That’s what I learned and I think in all coming years, we’ll do a better job of that. I also think that you have to be very careful of success not changing mindset. We still have time to make sure that’s in the right place.”
The Lions built their foundation as a hard-working team with a relentless offense. More often than Gadowsky would like, the Lions have been outworked by their opposition and, as a result, failed to generate consistent offensive pressure.
To no surprise, as the successful style of play has faded this season, the Lions have taken a step back and find themselves on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
While they were in a similar position last season, this year’s squad may be playing its way out of the tournament conversation, rather than fighting its way back in.
Prior to Saturday’s 3-2 win over Michigan State, the Lions had gone eight-straight games without a win. That streak was preceded by a run of 11-straight without a loss that had the Lions in a comfortable position heading down the stretch.
With a tough challenge against the Golden Gophers and possibly tougher test in the Big Ten Tournament, Gadowsky knows the clock is running low on any adjustments the team will have to make to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season.
“We don’t have much time to figure it out,” he said. “Where we are right now is that it’s to get back the excitement and the belief in what we do.”
Gadowsky pointed to the team’s 2-2 tie with Notre Dame two weekends ago as the prime example of this dilemma. At the time, the Fighting Irish were ranked second in the USCHO poll and first in the PairWise. Gadowsky feels that had the team beaten the Irish that night, its belief in its style of play would be “sky high.”
Instead, the Lions settled for the tie and eventually lost in the shootout, which may have left some doubt in the team’s mind that it could be successful with its style of play.
“That’s a fragile thing,” Gadowsky said. “When you’ve had the large peaks and the large valleys that we’ve had, it’s a fragile thing.”
Finding The Next Generation of Leaders
Penn State’s rapid ascension in college hockey wasn’t built on the shoulders of flashy plays or highlight reel goals. While Andrew Sturtz has provided plenty of both, the Nittany Lions foundation was developed with grittier guys who would do whatever it took to win a hockey game.
Guys like Ricky DeRosa, David Glen and Connor Varley may not have produced the most impressive stat lines, but each of them paved the way for players like Sturtz, Chase Berger and Vince Pedrie to lead the Lions to greater heights.
As those new heights have been reached, a new focus has been placed on the type of player Guy Gadowsky seeks to bring to the program. More offensively-inclined players like Denis Smirnov and Evan Barratt have lengthened the Lions highlight reels, but the flashier plays haven’t always been followed up with a key blocked shot or a strong battle along the boards.
Gadowsky has learned how important players like DeRosa are to a program, but he has also learned they don’t come around very often.
“Let’s just say that it is tough to replace a Ricky DeRosa,” he said, “and part of the challenge and the learning is that as you get players that might have higher and higher profiles, it’s a little different message to achieve the same result.”
Gadowsky also pointed to players like Dylan Richard and David Thompson as players with the ideal mindset for what he wants to accomplish. All three were influential in the Lions run to the Big Ten Tournament Championship last season. All three have also since graduated. Without them, the Lions have struggled to regain the form that led to the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I think it might be the compound interest of all of them that is really important,” Gadowsky said. “It’s not necessarily just one. But as you get higher and higher profile guys, the message to them is different.”