For the second consecutive season, Penn State is heading to the NCAA Tournament. While the Nittany Lions have a banner hanging from the rafters of Pegula Ice Arena to commemorate their first trip, their second go-around may be even more special to the program.
While the Lions will take the ice Saturday evening on neutral ice, they will be playing in what is essentially their back yard at PPL Center in Allentown, Pa. A shade under three hours from their usual stomping ground, the Lions may have a home-ice atmosphere to work with when they take on Denver.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” coach Guy Gadowsky said Tuesday. “We were able to take advantage of that in our first year [when] we played in different arenas around the state. That was on purpose. That was to spread the word to have alumni and Penn State supporters hear our product.”
That word has spread rapidly, thanks in large part to Lions’ rapid ascension among the best teams in the nation.
While that inaugural season was full of the hardships of a program doing its best to transition from a club team to Division-I, fans of the blue and white will experience a much different version of the Lions this Saturday.
“Fortunately, a good problem to have is that this is a really hard ticket to get. I hear all the time that there’s a lot of alumni and supporters that would love to come see us play that haven’t been able to. To go in that area, where there’s a lot of Penn State supporters, I think it’s great.”
Pavlychev Playing Beyond His Role
In the matchup-driven sport that is hockey, coaches look for every edge they can get over their opponents. They will often manufacture a defense pairing or forward line dubbed the “shutdown unit.”
While it will limit how many quality opportunities the opposing team’s top players will get, a shutdown unit may not create many opportunities for itself. That hasn’t exactly been the case for Penn State’s shutdown unit and, in particular, its shutdown center.
The Nittany Lions’ shutdown unit has been anchored this season by Nikita Pavlychev. Despite a role that may not allow for offensive production, the sophomore has nine goals and 14 points this season. While often listed as the fourth-line center, Gadowsky doesn’t think of Pavlychev or his line in that regard.
“We can’t call it our fourth line because I think they often are our first line in terms of how we play,” he said.
While Pavlychev’s wingers rotate in and out of the lineup or up and down the line chart, all have produced respectable numbers given their time on the unit. James Robinson, Pavlychev’s usual left winger, has a career-high six goals this season. Sam Sternschein has netted five goals and 10 points in 25 games.
While many of the members of the line have impressed, Gadowsky has been most impressed with the line’s center.
“I don’t think there is a forward in the Big Ten that wants to see Pav jump over the boards when they’re on the ice,” he said. “He is really, really tough to play against.”
“He’s really tough to play against and I think he takes the most pride in his defensive game but at the same time he has nine goals. He’s scored big goals for us. He’s scored pretty goals. His development is really, really good and honestly I think the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to get a really good player.”
Gadowsky Shares Praise for Lucia
Tuesday afternoon, Minnesota coach Don Lucia stepped down from his position. After missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in the past three seasons and fifth time in the last ten, Lucia walked away from the position he’s held for 19 seasons.
While Lucia’s legacy with the Golden Gophers ended with a whimper, his impact on the game will be felt for quite some time, and the respect he built will never be forgotten.
“He is and always will be one of the very best coaches in college hockey. What he’s done is unbelievable,” Gadowsky said of Lucia. “Personally, he’s been so good to me. Part of it might be we have [history].”
Gadowsky played college hockey at Colorado College from 1985-1989, just four years before Lucia took the reigns as head coach of the Tigers. Both served the role at Alaska-Fairbanks, as well, with Lucia leading the Nanooks from 1988-1993 and Gadowsky manning the helm from 1999-2004.
“I don’t know how I feel about it other than happy that he had an unbelievable career and he’s been extremely good to me.”
Lucia’s resignation also makes Gadowsky the second-longest tenured coach in the conference, behind only Notre Dame’s Jeff Jackson, who has coached the Fighting Irish since 2005. Gadowsky was, perhaps understandably, surprised to learn that fact.
“I don’t know what to say about that,” he said with a smile.