UNIVERSITY PARK — The question was meant to be a joke, but it was starting to hit a little close to home for Penn State men’s ice hockey coach Guy Gadowsky.
Is his team prepared to have two defensemen on the ice for a full 60 minutes?
For a team with eight defensemen on the roster, the Nittany Lions appear to only have half of them healthy to skate for a second consecutive weekend after injuries continue to dog the team.
“I don’t know what to say,” Gadowsky said. “There have been times in college hockey where we have to play four. I don’t think I’ve had to do it back-to-back weekends. This is new territory. Give them a ton of credit. We’re rolling the dice a little bit.”
Penn State (12-13) will play its final home games of the season, and the final men’s varsity games ever in the Greenberg Ice Pavilion, this weekend when club program Oklahoma pays a visit. The teams meet at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Luke Juha, Joseph Lordo and Brian Dolan were already missing from the lineup last Friday for the weekend series against Alabama-Huntsville when Nate Jensen was lost to injury. It left the team with four blue-liners for the third period Friday and all game Saturday.
Gadowsky said, barring a medical miracle, the Nittany Lions will still likely be playing only four.
At least they will have time to prepare for the situation this time.
“It’s a tough adjustment at first,” senior defenseman Rich O’Brien said. “Once you get practice all week with four you get used to it. We’ve been short pretty much all year so it’s not too, too crazy.”
Of the eight on the roster, only Connor Varley has played all 25 games. Mark Yanis missed a month-and-a-half with a broken ankle, among the many ailments.
With the depletions, the remaining defensemen have really had to show off how well conditioned they are.
“I think we showed it last game,” O’Brien said. “Our conditioning this year, coaches kept us in very good shape. Luckily we still have some healthy ‘D’ and we can definitely make it through the games.”
Gadowsky said this weekend will be bad enough, but he has his fingers crossed one or two will be back for the following weekend when Penn State finishes its season at No. 18 Wisconsin to close the season.
“Going to Wisconsin scares me at the best of times, let alone with four (defensemen),” Gadowsky said.
In one other injury note, team captain and sophomore forward Tommy Olczyk has an upper-body injury, missing last Saturday’s game and Tuesday’s Practice. Gadowsky called Olczyk “day-to-day.”
Sooners come soon
The home finale will be one last rival from Penn State’s club days in the ACHA. The Sooners (21-11-5) are No. 6 in the ACHA club rankings, and nearly beat Penn State in Greenberg twice last season.
“I don’t know how Oklahoma feels,” Gadowsky said. “I’m sure we’re going to get their best game. I know that. That’s a good thing.”
With a track record most of the season of Penn State taking perceived weaker opponents for granted and looking past them, the Nittany Lions have the extra distraction of Senior Night, Alumni Weekend and the rink finale.
“In the past we’ve overlooked some of the club teams,” said forward George Saad, who is one of the seniors who will be playing his final home game this weekend. “We’ve really been focused on being mentally prepared for every game. Even though it is my Senior Night and my last game at the Greenberg, I’m definitely going to come out and treat it as any other game. We can’t have any tweaks at the end of the year. We’ve got to pull out two wins and move on to Wisconsin.”
Penn State is 3-1 against ACHA teams this season.
“We’re looking at it as another opponent,” Gadowsky said. “We have a lot of work to do and we only have two weekends left to do it.”
While Penn State will face Oklahoma as it prepares to travel to Wisconsin, the Badgers will have a slightly different atmosphere this weekend before the Nittany Lions visit.
Wisconsin and Minnesota will battle Sunday afternoon at Chicago’s Soldier Field in the Hockey City Classic. It’s part of a doubleheader also featuring Notre Dame and Miami (Ohio).