Back in January, when the Penn State men’s hockey team had just seen a 13-game win streak snapped, head coach Guy Gadowsky noted that winning can mask problems, but losing can help get the issues fixed.
Monday afternoon, on the heels of a surprising 3-2 overtime loss to previously winless American International, Gadowsky had the same message as his team prepares to host Michigan at Pegula Ice Arena on Friday and Saturday.
“That’s how losing really helps,” he said. “When you win games, it masks a little bit of the problem that ... you don’t learn anything unless there’s failure involved.”
The season is still young for the No. 15 Nittany Lions (3-3), but they are not fully grasping the style of play expected of them, not racking up huge shot totals each game while crashing the net and outworking opponents. The message had been delivered the past few weeks, but weekend splits on two rough road trips perhaps made everyone feel all was well. The message was much clearer after Friday night’s setback.
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“We’d rather be losing now than at the end of the year,” captain James Robinson said Monday. “With any team, especially a championship team, at some point in their season they’re going to have some downturns. It’s good that it’s happening now and we’re taking it as a learning curve.”
Among the notable numbers, in addition to their record and loss to AIC, the Nittany Lions are averaging 34 shots and 3.3 goals per game. Last year, they led the nation with 44 shots and 4.1 goals per outing.
To help get their attention, the team went through a “beep test” during Monday’s practice — end-to-end sprints on ice.
However, there also were the messages that were not actually spoken. Gadowsky said it was a topic with his staff earlier Monday of how much to trust the team to know what needs to be said and how much to trust the captains and team leaders to take care of things without being told.
“That part of coaching is definitely an art, it’s not a science,” Gadowsky said. “You have to feel things out and see how we go.”
Having to get the team pulling together in the same direction is one of the tougher jobs for a captain.
“You don’t want to sit there and nag and nag and nag at your team,” Robinson said. “When there’s a time to say something, it’s got to be the right time and it’s got to be the right message.”
As for how the team had strayed from its successful style, and what needs to be done tangibly, Gadowsky wasn’t sure of the answer. He just knows the style works once they do play that way.
“We have to get back to doing what we do very well,” Gadowsky said. “It’s not easy to play the way we play. It’s actually very difficult and very taxing, but we have to get back to do it. We’re not as skilled as we think we are if we think we can go out and ‘out-skill’ teams. We have to get dirty.”
Slow on the draw
Gadowsky is becoming more concerned with his team’s faceoff success. After tying for the national lead last season by winning 54.9 percent of draws, they rank seventh from the bottom of Division I at 44.4 percent. The lack of success has a ripple effect.
“We were forced to play a lot more defense than we normally do,” Gadowsky said. “That truly is a byproduct of faceoffs.”
Although graduation took a couple sets of quick hands, Chase Berger and Nate Sucese were each among the nation’s leaders last season but are struggling in the early weeks this fall. Gadowsky was searching for the cause but hopes the issue will be solved soon.
“Until you get your hand slapped a little bit, you don’t really change,” Gadowsky said. “I’m hoping this was a good hand-slap.”
Gadowsky reiterated that Peyton Jones is the team’s No. 1 goalie, but Chris Funkey started and played the whole game in Friday’s overtime loss. The move was planned to make sure the junior was ready if needed, but also was intended to help Jones rest and refocus after allowing 11 goals in his last two games. ... The coach had no updates on injuries to defenseman Kevin Kerr and forward Evan Barratt, who missed last week’s games, other than their status continues to be “day-to-day” and their availability would not be determined until Thursday.