Imagine doing your job over and over every night, then suddenly, in the middle of a work shift, being asked to do something completely different with no warning.
That was the case for Penn State’s Kenny Brooks.
The forward, who was on the No. 1 line Saturday night facing No. 10 Michigan, was asked to move back to play defenseman during he second period.
The move worked out well — the Nittany Lions finished with a 4-0 win, earning their first Big Ten victory in program history.
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“He played better than I even thought,” coach Guy Gadowsky said Tuesday after taking a few days to ponder the move. “… I was a forward. I like watching forwards and say, ‘Hey, that was a good play. I could have done that. That’s good — I could have done that.’ There’s no way I could do what Kenny Brooks did, ever.”
The change was necessitated by losing defensemen Luke Juha and Nate Jensen to head injuries. Both had to be helped from the ice by the training staff.
After the first loss, the team just played through with five blue-liners, but when a second defenseman was lost, the Nittany Lion coaches grabbed Brooks as he hopped off the ice to end a shift and told him about his new job for the night.
They picked Brooks because he was the only forward who had actual experience as a defenseman, having played there occasionally while in juniors.
“We were in crisis mode,” Gadowsky said. “That would be the most likely choice.”
The request caught Brooks by surprise, and he was a little unsure at first, especially with no time to prepare for all the different job requirements.
“It’s kind of tough to go back in the middle of a game without practicing some things,” said Brooks, who practiced as a defenseman Tuesday. “I was pretty nervous at first, then I just kind of calmed down and did all right.”
The coaches watched a few shifts and knew they made the right call. By the second intermission the plan was in place for the rest of the game.
Switching the way he played, how he handled various situations, was a challenge.
“You just have to calm down,” Brooks said. “Trust your instincts.”
It also left a hole at the front, so for the third period Casey Bailey was forced to pull double shifts. Playing a second game in less than 24 hours, that also was a tough order to fill.
“You make adjustments,” freshman forward Zach Saar said. “Injuries happen. People are in and out of the lineup and things do change.”
Making injury adjustments is common for any hockey team. It has a set lineup of 12 forwards and six defensemen available at the start of each game, so once the game starts there are no substitutions available for those 18 men.
Last season, with a much thinner roster, the Lions were at some points forced to start games with five, and one time even four, healthy defensemen.
There’s much more depth this season, but what happens in-game cannot be helped.
“I don’t know that I would handle it as well as he did,” Saar said. “I don’t know how the rest of the team would handle it. Put him back there, there wasn’t too big of a shock around the team. We knew he would get it done and he got it done with flying colors.”
The final result was a shutout. But even more impressive was that most of the toughest chances for the Wolverines on goalie Matthew Skoff came during the game’s first 10 minutes, when the defense was fully stocked. Most of the shots he faced later in the game were from longer range and funneled to manageable spots.
“Obviously everybody realized we had to all help out,” Gadowsky said. “Kenny was unbelievable. You have to give all the ‘D’ the credit for holding a great team down with just four ‘D’ and Kenny. I can’t emphasize enough was a great job he did and how difficult that is to do.”
Gadowsky said that Jensen and Juha will definitely miss this weekend’s games. The Nittany Lions battle Michigan State at 6:30 p.m. Friday and 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena.
Gadowsky also said it was possible Peter Sweetland, and/or Mark Yanis, also may return to the lineup, and that Patrick Koudys and Mike Williamson would move into roles on power plays.
But the coach was glad he had a little insurance with Brooks last Saturday.
“If we didn’t have Kenny Brooks, we would have been in big trouble,” Gadowsky said. “He was huge for winning that game.”
Big star for Skoff
The Big Ten gives out its three stars each week — much like its player of the week award in most other sports — and Skoff was named the week’s second star for his work.
He made 32 saves for the first shutout of the season, first official conference win for the program ever, and his third career shutout and first in a year.
“Everybody played hard defensively,” said Gadowsky, spreading credit to the whole team. “They all take pride in that.”
Skoff is the first Nittany Lion to pick up one of th three stars. Also honored this week were first star Wisconsin goalie Joel Rumpel, who allowed only two goals in last weekend’s Badger sweep of No. 1 Minnesota, and third star Michigan State forward Greg Wolfe, who had three goals and an assist a pair of 2-2 ties with Ohio State.
Gadowsky cannot explain why Skoff is still the only goalie to win games this season — freshman Eamon McAdam is still seeking No. 1 — but Skoff dealt will all the growing pains of the program last winter.
“I don’t have an answer,” Gadowsky said. “This isn’t a matter of comparison, but I do think the way that Skoff practices, the way he’s really competitive and really wants guys to shoot on him and challenges guys to score against him. I really do think guys enjoy practicing against him and therefore they have an added incentive to play in front of him.”