For the entirety of Penn State hockey’s existence the Nittany Lions have avoided the cold embrace of a down year. Penn State has always done something good, something better than what it had achieved in the past. It has improved, it has made the NCAA Tournament and then made it again.
There has never been failure, at least relative to its own infancy.
But as Penn State skated off the ice having lost 4-1 to No. 4 Ohio State in a game that was worse than the score, the embrace closed in and a certain inevitability peaked its head over a not so distant horizon.
It would have been one thing if Penn State had simply lost. That happens. The Buckeyes made the Frozen Four last year and suffered little in the way of offseason departures. The Big Ten in general is a walking landmine of losses in its own right, nearly every game decided in the final period, and the arbitrary nature of hockey handing out defeats to everyone.
Losing, is guaranteed.
That wasn’t what happened though. The Nittany Lions looked disjointed, unable to handle a cohesive defensive effort by Ohio State that gave Penn State fits getting out of its own zone.
As coach Guy Gadowsky said after the game, they were ready for the pressure, Penn State just had to make choices quickly.
And it didn’t make those choices quick enough. Turnovers plagued an otherwise competent team and for the first time in ages, the Nittany Lions found themselves stuck in their own end, unable to jumpstart its offense, struggling to do much of anything at all.
Pair those issues with a on-off again defense and seven penalties and that’s about all you need to know.
“We certainly don’t want to get in a run-and-gun match with them,” Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik said after the game. “That’s the last thing we want.”
The answer, a five-man connected defense.
“We preach it all the time,” Rohlik added. “And our guys buy into it. We’ve had our hiccups here or there, but when you see us play our best hockey, you’ve seen us play solid five-man connected hockey.”
It worked, and despite a Ludvig Larsson goal in the final minute of the first period, Penn State never really had a solid skate forward. The Nittany Lions were out shot 33-25 overall, never picking up more than nine shots in a period. If Penn State thrives on offense in high-volume, it was on a starvation diet Friday.
Gadowsky and company finds themselves ranked 17th in the PairWise, still very much on the NCAA Tournament bubble with plenty of games to go.
So the embrace wasn’t firm on Friday night, but against perhaps the best team in the Big Ten, and one of the best teams in the nation, the Nittany Lions were exposed for what they are. Capable of being very good, very talented, but very vulnerable.
It’s not too late for the talent to win the day, especially if forward Brandon Biro can return to the lineup after missing the game with an upper body injury, but if Friday night was any indication, there is plenty of work left to be done.
“They’re an excellent team,” Gadowsky said, looking at the box score, quietly lamenting the vagueness of the answers to the team’s issues. “I think that we are too, but only one team showed that tonight.”
Both teams will take the ice tomorrow at 3 PM to close out the series.