It has been a step-by-step process for the Penn State men’s ice hockey team.
Each week the Nittany Lions see improvement, they note how competitive they are with an opponent, and they come oh-so-close to winning.
But that has been the one marker that has eluded the Nittany Lions among all the moral victories — actual victories.
They knew this season would not be pretty, it would be rough and wins would be hard to find.
They also would not mind if they could add one more historical landmark to their list in the program’s second season in Division I — the first Big Ten win.
The next chance comes this weekend, when Penn State (4-15-1, 0-6) visits Ohio State (12-9-1, 2-5-1) for a two-game series. They meet at 7 p.m. Friday at 2 p.m. Saturday at Value City Arena.
Despite wanting to finally crack the seal on an official conference victory — they did have wins against the Buckeyes, Michigan State and Wisconsin last season before there officially was a Big Ten for hockey — the Nittany Lions are trying to stay calm and keep their perspective.
“We’re not in a must win,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “In many ways we’re very happy that we’re improving so much, and continuing to build a foundation that’s going to let us have success in the future.”
Gadowsky bristled at the mere suggestion of a “must-win” game.
“No game until the Big Ten tournament is going to be a must win,” Gadowsky said.
It has been a rough stretch with 12 losses in the last 13 games, with seven one-goal losses. Three of the more recent losses were to No. 1 Minnesota and No. 2 Boston College, but it was the competitiveness in those games that gives them hope.
“Five-on-five, even strength, we played really, really well,” Gadowsky said of last Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Boston College. “I think we know it. Our improvement in our defensive zone from the first time we played them (an 8-2 loss) to Saturday night was night and day. I think the guys feel very good about that.”
Despite all that improvement, knowing they can stick with the top two teams in the nation, the Lions still are not making any assumptions as they prepare for an unranked opponent.
“It’s not like, just because we lost to BC by one, we’re going to go in there and beat any other team that’s not ranked No. 1 or No. 2,” forward Kenny Brooks said. “We’re excited to play them, and the Big Ten we get excited to play all those games. We’re looking for a Big Ten win.”
Even though the Buckeyes are not ranked, it doesn’t mean they are pushovers, either.
On the heels of facing the nation’s top two scoring offenses in the Golden Gophers and Eagles, they now get a Buckeye offense that is tied for fifth-best in Division I at 3.5 goals per game.
Ohio State also boasts Ryan Dzingel, who leads the Big Ten and is tied for 16th in the nation with 14 goals and 16 assists.
“They do have very good offensive players,” Gadowsky said. “Are there similarities? In the Big Ten, I’m not sure you’re going to get a weekend where you say, ‘Ah, finally we get a break.’”
On the heels of facing Boston College’s offense, which boasts three of the nation’s top five scorers, the Nittany Lions are already well-versed in facing a highly-skilled forward.
“You have to get stick on puck, first of all,” forward Curtis Loik said. “You have to mark him out there, make sure he’s not open. He can make space for himself very well. You have to stay close to him and keep him under control.”
Penn State also can build — at least a little — on knowing it can beat Ohio State. The Nittany Lions slayed the Buckeyes 5-4 at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center.
Much has changed in the ensuing 13 months, but it is still something small on which they can build.
“It does help, but we’re a different team,” Brooks said. “We’ve added new parts, we’re a better team than last year, also.”