Suiting up for a game at Madison Square Garden is a special moment for any hockey player, regardless of age or level of competition.
For a pair of Nittany Lions, this year’s trip to the world’s most famous arena brought something extra.
In Penn State’s 5-2 victory over Michigan, juniors Nate Sucese and Brandon Biro played their 100th career game as a Nittany Lion. While Biro was held off the score sheet, Sucese picked up an assist for his 88th career point.
Seemingly surprised to hear both have been around long enough to reach the century mark, coach Guy Gadowsky quickly turned to praise two of the team’s best players.
“Brandon Biro has brought a relentless checking attitude to our team,” he said. “He certainly scores his share of goals and creates a lot of offense, but he’s absolutely been from day one our most relentless checker and our leader in battles.”
After starting his Penn State career on the fourth line in a shutdown role, Biro has emerged over the past two seasons as one of the team’s more talented offensive weapons. He posted 31 points in 39 games last season and has followed that up with over a point-per-game pace this year, with 26 points in 24 games.
While he has been racking up points the past two years, Biro’s most impactful moment for Penn State will forever be his pass to set up Liam Folkes for the game-winning goal in the 2017 Big Ten Championship Game.
Sucese was instantly placed in a position to allow his offensive prowess to thrive. He recorded 36 points in 38 games in his freshman season, which still stands as his career high. He may end up just shy of that mark this season as he has 23 points in 26 games.
“Because he is so skilled, I think sometimes he doesn’t get enough credit for some of the little things that he does,” Gadowsky said of Sucese. “He’s certainly brought a ton of speed, a ton of skill and... how do I say cockiness in a good way?
“He brings a little edge.”
The synergy between the duo was almost instant and hasn’t wavered, as they live together this year. While that bond helps both on the ice, it has also provided Biro quite the boost. Sucese’s brother, Jonathan, is the owner and head instructor of Top-Tier Performance, a training company which aims to allow athletes to reach their fitness potential.
After Sucese learned from his older brother the value of proper training, those lessons seem to have rubbed off on Biro.
“Living with Nate and learning how Nate eats, sleeps and drinks I think has been really beneficial for Brandon as well,” Gadowsky said.
The Push for the Postseason
Penn State’s push for the NCAA Tournament has not been easy the past two seasons. Both years, the Nittany Lions have needed desperate performances in the Big Ten Tournament to qualify for the national tournament.
For the Nittany Lions to make a third-straight appearance this year, they will need much of the same.
With just eight regular season games remaining, Penn State finds itself tied for 17th in the PairWise rankings, which gives the most accurate portrayal of how the NCAA Tournament will shake out.
While those desperate moments have produced some of Penn State’s best hockey, Gadowsky would still like for the road to the national tournament to be just a bit easier for his team in the future.
The question of how do the Nittany Lions accomplish that may be just as obvious as the answer.
“The easy answer is win games in October, which we did fairly good at,” Gadowsky said. “There’s still some games that we had in hand that we gave up. If we took care of business back then, we wouldn’t have that question today.”
The Nittany Lions went 5-0-0 in October and 11-5-2 up to the turn of the calendar, putting them ninth in the PairWise. Losing five out of eight games in 2019 have dropped Penn State to its current position.
While that stretch has severely impacted Penn State’s tournament hopes, a trio of games early in the season may doom the Nittany Lions. The Nittany Lions failed to hold onto third period leads against Michigan, Wisconsin and Princeton. Had the Nittany Lions held on for those wins, they would still be sitting comfortably in ninth.
The Nittany Lions can’t change those results as easily as the PairWise Comparison Ratings allows. What they can do is channel teams of the past and play desperate hockey for the remainder of the season and in the Big Ten Tournament — not an easy task given the team’s subpar 6-9-1 record in conference play.
In future seasons, however, they know success in conference play will be just as important as success early in the season in non-conference play, following the mold of last season’s Notre Dame and the Minnesota team’s of the conference’s infant seasons. The standard this season belongs to Ohio State and its 8-3-3 conference record.
While conference success correlates to national success, Gadowsky follows the cliche that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
“Minnesota certainly did it with a different philosophy than Notre Dame did it,” Gadowsky said. “I think it’s finding what you do best and doing it.
“I’m not saying we’re going to do it like Notre Dame, but our plan is to figure out the formula to do it.”