Penn State has found itself in a desperate situation. Sitting on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament, the Nittany Lions will need a strong performance in the Big Ten Tournament to return to the 16-team field.
Fortunately for the Lions, many players on the current roster were in this same scenario not even a full calendar year ago. The Lions entered last season’s Big Ten Tournament basically needing to reach the championship game to secure an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. That squad did one better, winning the Tournament to secure an automatic bid into the big show.
Much like last year, this year’s Lions have been trying to regain their identity in time to make a push for another Big Ten Tournament title and a second-straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
“The older guys here, I think, try to keep hammering the fact that if you do play Penn State hockey and play like we did last year that we’re going to go far and that we’re going to win championships,” defenseman Trevor Hamilton said Monday.
If the past two weekends are any indication, the Lions have rediscovered the style of play that has made them so successful so soon into their time as a Division I program.
During the team’s three-game winning streak to close out the regular season, the Lions have pumped an average of 46 shots on goal per game, including a 61-shot performance Friday against Minnesota, the Lions’ opening round opponent in the conference tournament.
By contrast, the Lions have allowed just 88 shots to reach Peyton Jones — and one to reach Matt Erlichman — in that same stretch. The plus-49 shot differential is the second best mark in the nation in that span.
It may sheer coincidence that the team has played some of its best hockey in some of its most desperate times these past two seasons. Regardless, coach Guy Gadowsky has been impressed by the team’s efforts.
“I think a lot of it is leadership, a lot of it is individual character and collective character, a lot of it is pride in this University,” Gadowsky said Monday. “I can’t exactly put my finger on one of them, but I’m equally impressed by them.”
When the Nittany Lions’ backs were against the wall last season, they needed a hero to emerge. While Liam Folkes provided the highlight-reel goal to win the Big Ten Tournament championship game, another freshman undoubtedly stole the spotlight over the three-game stretch.
After going through a bit of a sophomore slump, it appears Peyton Jones is well on his way to being the hero once more for the Lions.
Over the past three games — all wins for the sophomore netminder — Jones has allowed just five goals on 88 shots. While his .943 save percentage in that span is impressive, it still doesn’t match up with Jones’ elite performance in last season’s Big Ten Tournament.
In that three-game competition, Jones was lights out, allowing five goals on 123 shots over the equivalent of four games. That performance in what were three must-win games for the Lions gives coach Guy Gadowsky confidence that he will see a repeat performance this season.
“There’s value in him just as a talent and his results, but the fact that he is someone that has done it, I think has big value,” he said Monday. “He comes up biggest in the biggest moments. Whatever happens in terms of momentum and mental challenges, he’s shown that he can handle all of it.”
What also gives Gadowsky an extra dose of confidence is that he feels Jones is a better goalie than he was a year ago.
“I think everything that made him so good last year, he has this year and possibly gotten a little bit better,” he said. “When you get to the level that he is, you’re not going to make big jumps. It’s impossible. You’re just going to make little improvements. I think he’s made little improvements in terms of his own game.”
Perhaps the most important factor in Jones refining his game has been the addition of Kyle MacDonald to the coaching staff. After graduating from St. Lawrence in 2016, MacDonald joined Gadowsky’s staff as a volunteer assistant coach prior to the season.
Since then, he has worked closely with all three netminders — Jones, Chris Funkey and Matt Erlichman — and his mentorship has paid off.
“He’s been awesome,” Jones said of MacDonald. “I skate with him every day, talk to him every day. We do video, just anything that I really need goaltending-wise, I go to him for and he’s always been there for me. It’s been a huge part of my success this year.”