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Media Notebook: Assessing Penn State’s Mental Strength

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Mental roadblocks have been holding the Nittany Lions back since the turn of the calendar year.

Heather Weikel | Black Shoe Diaries

New Year’s slumps are nothing new to Penn State. Through their success of back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament and near three-peat, the Nittany Lions have struggled, to put it lightly, early in the turn of the calendar year.

2020 started with more promise than previous years, as the Nittany Lions rattled off three-straight non-conference wins. Since conference play resumed, it’s been a different story. In six Big Ten games in 2020, the Nittany Lions have gone 1-3-2.

The losses aren’t so much the issue, as Penn State hasn’t lost any ground in the conference title race. It’s how the Nittany Lions are losing that’s of greater concern.

More than once in this stretch, coach Guy Gadowsky has noted how his team hasn’t been as mentally prepared as its opponent.

Whether it was the fatigue against Michigan or the general lack of effort against Notre Dame, the Nittany Lions have looked flat more often than any team should this time of year, especially one in the midst of a tight conference title race.

“There’s some days where, maybe a long week or you got a test earlier that morning and you’re just kind of mentally fatigued,” Alex Limoges said. “I think guys on this team have a pretty good job and know where they’re supposed to be at on a game day.”

It can even be understandable for one to have an off night every now and then. When it seems that the whole team has taken the night off multiple times in a short run, however, it comes across as symptomatic of a larger issue.

Injuries have played their part, with captain Brandon Biro returning to the lineup last weekend after a lengthy absence. Aarne Talvitie, Denis Smirnov, and Clayton Phillips have also missed time recently.

Puck luck — one of Gadowsky’s favored phrases — has also been an issue, as several of Penn State’s go-to producers simply haven’t been producing to their accustomed level, though Gadowsky is optimistic that will change.

It could also be that the Nittany Lions weren’t used to being in such a comfortable position this deep into the season and are taking it for granted. This slump is pushing them further out of that comfort zone, however, and back into a familiar — and perhaps more comfortable — position of having to fight for their NCAA Tournament lives every weekend.

There aren’t many weekends left for the Nittany Lions to figure it out. The Nittany Lions have trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin on the schedule before closing out their season at home against Minnesota.

The Buckeyes are level with Penn State at the top of the conference, while the Golden Gophers sit just one point back with two games in hand on both teams. Michigan State is in the same position as Minnesota, while the Fighting Irish should never be counted out as long as Cale Morris tends the net.

With a bye week separating them from the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, the Nittany Lions don’t have as much control of their destiny as the other four teams vying for the top spot and first round bye.

Pav’s Peak Performance

Penn State, quite frankly, had a bad weekend. While the Nittany Lions probably should have won on Friday, a strange bounce and then a flat performance on Saturday gave the Nittany Lions just one Big Ten point against Notre Dame.

One Nittany Lion who can hold his head higher than most is Nikita Pavlychev.

The senior center broke a five-game scoreless drought with a goal in each game against the Fighting Irish. They weren’t the standard Pavlychev variety though.

Pavlychev has made his name using his 6-foot-8 frame to take away opposing goalies’ vision, using his decent hand-eye coordination to deflect pucks or jump on rebounds.

Against the Fighting Irish, Pavlychev used a different skill set for his brace.

On Friday, it took a perfect shot to squeeze the puck past Tyler Gratton, who was providing the screen, and over the shoulder of Cale Morris.

On Saturday, Pavlychev used his seldom-seen blazing speed to get to a rebound off the end boards. Perhaps the only thing more impressive than Pavlychev’s effort was his operatic celebration.

Much to everyone’s dismay, Pavlychev isn’t much of a musician, though he has tried to teach himself to play the guitar. The violin celebration was just one of many Pavlychev has up his sleeve, in the rare instance he finds the back of the net.

With the scoring struggles Penn State has seen from its usual suspects and Pavlychev’s role as the team’s shutdown center, his offensive output was welcomed by Gadowsky.

“You should look at [his stats] much differently than others. He starts almost always in the defensive zone. He’s almost always playing against the other team’s top players. We ask him to be on the defensive side a ton,” Gadowsky said. “So, I’m really happy with his production to be honest with you.”

Pavlychev had a breakout season offensively last season, posting career bests in goals (14), assists (15), and points (29). He isn’t quite on pace to meet those totals this season. Knowing his role, though, that doesn’t bother Pavlychev.

“I don’t really worry about production. I know that my role in the team is making sure that we’re the ones not getting scored on by the top lines from the other team,” he said. “Obviously, it’s always nice to put up some points. It’s a good feeling but I’m not thinking too much about it.”

Injury Updates

While Saturday marked captain Brandon Biro’s return from a lengthy “day-to-day” injury, it also marked the second-straight game Denis Smirnov has missed and third-straight Clayton Phillips has been on the shelf.

While there is good news on the Smirnov front — Gadowsky expects him back this weekend at Ohio State — it’s less optimistic for Phillips, who is not expected to play against the Buckeyes.