UNIVERSITY PARK — In a way, it’s almost bad timing.
After struggling early in the season and trying to find an identity, the Penn State men’s hockey team is playing like it belongs, like wins are just around the corner.
But after Saturday, hockey fans in State College will have to wait until October to see them play in person again.
After this weekend, hockey will be limited to long drives, television viewing and youth and adult leagues.
There will be no more teams clad in blue and white skating up and down the Pegula Ice Arena’s frozen floor, so enjoy Friday’s 7 p.m. and Saturday’s 3 p.m. games against Ohio State.
“This is a fun place to play,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “I would like a few more before going into the Big Ten Tournament.”
Gadowsky is not alone in that wish.
While officially Penn State (6-24-2, 2-15-1 Big Ten) is on a five-game losing streak, the team has only had a handful of duds since the start of the new year, including strong performances against highly-ranked teams.
The Nittany Lions were just 20.3 seconds away from taking No. 5 Wisconsin to a shootout last Saturday.
“It’s nice it’s all coming together,” sophomore forward David Glen said. “A little late, I guess. Better late than never.”
The weekend also will be about thanking fans — all but one game this year has been a sellout — and saluting the team’s lone senior, even if most of the university’s student body is gone for spring break.
“It was a tremendous atmosphere even though the students weren’t here,” Gadowsky said of last weekend’s series with the Badgers. “Give a lot of credit to our supporters, and I look forward to something similar because we’ll have Mike McDonagh playing his last game here at Pegula.”
Feel the pain
Penn State has had a few losses this season that have hurt more than others.
There were the two home losses to Michigan State, once in a shootout (officially it counts as a tie) and the other despite outshooting the Spartans 29-13. The last time Penn State and Ohio State met, in Columbus on Feb. 1, the Nittany Lions were up 2-0 but faltered.
Last Saturday also was painful, rallying to tie the Badgers with a Kenny Brooks goal with 2:44 left in regulation, only to give up a goal on a 2-on-1 break in the final seconds of overtime.
“It stings – it does,” Gadowsky said. “Every time you see it, it stings a little bit. I wanted it for the guys because I thought they played really, really well.”
Instead, the game turned into yet another teaching experience, and the kind of game Gadowsky hopes will provide a different outcome in seasons to come.
“That’s tough but that’s hockey,” Gadowsky said. “We have to learn from it and work hard and make sure the next time those stinging wins or losses occur, we’re on the positive side.”
Bring on the Buckeyes
Ohio State enters this weekend, officially, with no wins in its last five games, but the flip side is the Buckeyes have just two losses in the last 11 contests.
They know all about ties.
They were knotted up with No. 1 Minnesota last weekend, winning in a shootout, and also beat the Spartans twice and No. 13 Michigan once in a shootout.
While the Nittany Lions would rather not get into a shootout battle with the Buckeyes, they also do not want to experience the kind of loss they had in the last meeting, taking a 2-0 lead into the first intermission before seeing Ohio State take over the game.
“That was earlier in the year and we weren’t very comfortable in that situation,” Gadowsky said. “It was one of the few times that we actually had a lead and we didn’t handle it very well. I think that’s on us.”
One Lion returning
Penn State got some good injury news Tuesday: Defenseman Nate Jensen skated through a full practice and is likely to play this weekend.
The redshirt junior, who has been a quarterback from the point on the team’s power play unit, has been out since Feb. 8 with a concussion.
“He is good,” Gadowsky said. “The rest of the team, not so much.”
Luke Juha, who left that same game with a concussion, still is not skating, and forward Max Gardiner, who left with an ankle injury Feb. 22, tried skating before Tuesday’s practice and, according to Gadowsky, “didn’t do great.”
Even though there is one weekend left in the regular season, the Big Ten standings and pairings for the conference tournament are all but set.
Minnesota and Wisconsin are the top two seeds for the tournament, which begins March 21 in St. Paul, Minn. Technically the Badgers can catch the Gophers if they win twice and Minnesota loses twice, but both have already clinched first-round byes.
The No. 3 and 6 seeds also are locked up to set that first-round game — with Michigan meeting Penn State. The Nittany Lions’ only two conference wins this season are over the Wolverines.
The Buckeyes and Spartans are in a tight battle for the No. 4 and 5 seeds, but they know they will meet each other in the other first-round tournament game.