UNIVERSITY PARK — Their job is far from glamorous, and doesn’t often get them into stories and box scores.
But the Penn State ice hockey team could hardly do well without them.
They are, as head coach Guy Gadowsky calls them, the “identity line” — the line that exemplifies what the coaching staff wants the Nittany Lions to be like as a whole.
Tommy Olczyk, Michael Longo and, recently, Dominic Morrone, do many of the little things that help a hockey team succeed.
“A line that we know is going to be able to do the things that we say with 100 percent consistency,” said Gadowsky, whose team hosts Alabama-Huntsville on Friday and Saturday. “If you ask anybody on those lines, they wouldn’t say that they’re there yet, so I really do like the ideal of it but I don’t think we’ve executed that very well yet.”
The team gives out a hard hat after each win this season to the single player who exemplifies those qualities, but the Nittany Lions (10-13) also need some players to show how the job needs to be done.
Yes, they do get to score goals every once in a while, but mostly their job is to grind, to check the opposition, to go hard to the net and send pucks deep to the corners. Their job is most important when it is time to kill penalties, when they likely don’t have a full line on the ice.
The members of the line — the fourth line when Penn State faced Ohio last weekend — know little glory comes to them but they appreciate the need.
“We all just followed suit and adopted what he said,” Lordo said of Gadowsky’s request.
Even someone with a resume like Olczyk, the team captain who is the son of a longtime NHL player and coach, is happy to take on a role he filled for four seasons playing junior hockey.
“It’s a role that I came to love,” Olczyk said. “It’s a role that I take pride in and every team needs role players. If I’m a third-line guy that needs to go out there and bring energy and block shots, get the puck on net, be out there on the penalty-kill and kill penalties — those are some of my favorite things to do. It’s not a bad thing switching roles.”
Gadowsky said it was especially important that Olczyk take on the role as the team captain, knowing if someone with his credentials was willing to play that way, no one else on the team should complain about having to work hard.
“It’s nice to be recognized and on the scoresheet,” Olczyk said. “But at the end of the day all that matters is we win games.”
Lordo has six assists this season, but no goals scored, and Olczyk has three goals and one assist. Marrone has yet to score, though he has played in only nine games. But they do not feel like they are sacrificing offense to do their jobs.
“You don’t give them up, it’s just a matter of creating,” Lordo said. “Our line, he likes to put us out there because he knows we’ll be back and that’s the whole defensive aspect of it, but we still create chances.”
Despite residing in a much warmer climate — Alabama-Huntsville is the only southern school playing Division I hockey — this weekend’s opponent has something in common with the Nittany Lions: They are the only two independent programs in Division I.
The Chargers (3-17-1) may be struggling this season, but they actually do have a decent hockey history, with hockey dating back to the late 1970s and have been Division I since 1998 and have been to the NCAA tournament twice in the last six seasons. They will move to the WCHA next season, with current WCHA members Wisconsin and Minnesota leaving for the Big Ten creating the opening.
Even with a less-than-stellar record this season, and Penn State facing club programs in the weekends before and after, the Nittany Lions are not making any major changes during this stretch of competition.
“It doesn’t matter,” Gadowsky said. “It’s an opportunity to get better. We know there’s things we have to improve on from last weekend. We’re working hard on them this week in practice.”
Gadowsky said there are some things he would like to see his team focus on during practices and in the games, but the biggest thing it to not overlook their opponents or take anything for granted.
“We are but it depends on how we did the weekend before,” Gadowsky said. “In some weeks it might be working on a forecheck, some weeks it might be back to neutral zone, some weeks it might be backchecking, some weeks it might be our play in front of the net – it’s not on a schedule. It depends on what we see the weekend before.”
Thin on defense
With Luke Juha and Nate Jensen out with injuries, the Nittany Lions once again have only six healthy defensemen. It’s a position that has seen a number of injuries this season.
The loss of Juha and Jensen is especially difficult on the forwards because they have been strong passers to start transitions.
“The forwards aren’t real happy about it,” Gadowsky said. “Because both those guys tend to give pucks in very opportune times.”