Are you an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to the Penn State men’s hockey team?
The Nittany Lions open the Big Ten tournament Thursday against Michigan, the same program that just beat them twice last weekend.
The optimist says Penn State is too good to lose three games in a row the same team that had one of its worst regular seasons in the last three decades. The pessimist looks at what the Nittany Lions have done over the last two months — including getting shut out by the Wolverines (13-18-3, 6-12-2 Big Ten) on Saturday — and says their season could be over Thursday night.
The answer comes when the puck is dropped at 8 p.m. at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
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Along with losing out on a conference title if they do not survive Thursday, any hopes to make the NCAA tournament likely also go out the window. Even with a win over the Wolverines, an NCAA tournament berth is not a sure thing. They very well might have to beat Minnesota in the semifinals Friday night to have a chance at NCAAs.
But, right now, Penn State isn’t worried about those “mights” and “what ifs” about the NCAA tournament.
“We can’t worry about the national championship,” said Andrew Sturtz, whose 21 goals lead Penn State. “We’re worrying about (the) Big Ten.”
One of the keys, for both the pessimist and the optimist, is learning from those setbacks last weekend. Even with a 4-0 loss in the second game, coach Guy Gadowsky was more concerned with what his team did in the first game, a 3-2 loss. A couple turnovers and odd-man rushes led to the Wolverines rallying from a second intermission deficit for the first time all season.
“There’s a big lesson to be learned from Friday, and we’re going to learn it,” Gadowsky said, adding Penn State needs to get more second and third chances. “What changed the momentum on Friday was completely within our control. That’s something that we’re going to correct, for sure.”
This has been a challenging season for the Wolverines; it’s just their second losing season since 1985-86 and their fewest wins since that year. They scored only 91 goals all season after leading the nation a year ago with 181.
Michigan made a big leap at the end of the season, however, winning four of its last five, with goalie Zach Nagelvoort posting a shutout in each of his last two starts. However, coach Red Berenson, whose 848 wins are fourth in Division I history, acknowledged that the best team on the ice last week wasn’t necessarily the one that won.
“We were playing at home, we were playing with a little more desperation and we got goalkeeping that gave us a little confidence,” Berenson said in a media conference call Tuesday. “I still thought Penn State was the better team in both games, and certainly we were lucky to win.”
The Nittany Lions know what lies ahead. They were ranked No. 1 in the nation in mid-January but have since plummeted. Now, they have one day to prove whether they learned from the setbacks and are ready to make the big step to the national stage.
“Through every season there are the highs and lows,” senior forward Dylan Richard said. “We tend to learn throughout the season with the freshmen, and they’re picking up on everything. ... It’s just a mindset that we’ve stressed with guys and the coaching staff on mental toughness.”
Who: No. 15 Penn State (22-10-2) vs. Michigan (13-)
What: Big Ten Tournament first round
Where: Joe Louis Arena, Detroit
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Radio: WAPY 103.1
Leading scorers: PSU—Denis Smirnov (17 goals, 26 assists), David Goodwin (10 G, 25 A), Chase Berger (11 G, 20 A), Andrew Sturtz (21 G, 10 A), Nate Sucese (14 G, 16 A). UM — Jake Slaker (7 G, 14 A), Will Lockwood (8 G, 12 A), Tony Calderone (15 G, 2 A).
Goalies: PSU — Peyton Jones (19-9-2, 2.68 goals-against, .899 save pct.); UM — Zach Nagelvoort (6-5-1, 2.76 GAA, .924 Save)