Shootouts have a major topic of discussion among hockey fans the last few days.
Watching the U.S. beat Russia in an eight-round series at the Olympics on Saturday morning has provided plenty of inspiration.
But about 12 hours earlier, the Penn State hockey team had its own battle on the ice, going seven rounds before losing to Michigan State.
While there was plenty of scoring with the Americans and Russians in their shootout, the Nittany Lions and Spartans instead had the battle dominated by the goalies. Matthew Skoff and Jake Hildebrand each shut the door six times before Michigan State’s Brent Darnell finally beat Skoff.
As friends from the Pittsburgh area, and former junior and youth league teammates, Skoff enjoyed the battle with his counterpart.
“Playing against him brings out the best in both of us,” Skoff said. “It’s kind of unfortunate the way it ended there. It was kind of a nice shot. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
For those who were doing the shooting, it also was a fun experience in trying to figure out a way to beat the goalie.
One of the top scorers in shootout and breakaway drills during practices — the coaching staff charts it every day — is senior forward Mike McDonagh. He was the second Nittany Lion down the ice last Friday night, but he was stopped by Hildebrand.
His problem was that he started to think too much before he took off with the puck.
“I have no clue what I’m doing when I touch the puck and I go down,” McDonagh said. “That’s why I score a lot, I think. I wait for them to make the first move and I kind of react off that. In the game I came down, I think I had a plan. I didn’t want to not go down without a plan in a shootout in front of 6,000 fans. I think that’s where I went wrong. I should have gone in there not knowing what I had to do because that’s how I usually score.”
As coach Guy Gadowsky pointed out, there is no way to simulate a full house during practice.
“You have to experience it with a crowd,” Gadowsky said. “It’s something the more you do the better you get.”
Turning aside six straight shots was good for Skoff. He allowed scores on both attempts he faced in a shootout in an early-season game against RIT, and also gave up a goal on a penalty shot during a win over Robert Morris.
“I don’t try to think too much,” Skoff said of his mentality during the event. “I try to instinctively react. We do enough breakaways in practice where I shouldn’t have to think about it, just go with the flow and just be a goalie like I was my whole life.”
While he said he wasn’t feeling the pressure build as each round went by, he also kept hoping to see success at the other end.
“I wouldn’t say pressure,” Skoff said. “I just kept telling myself we’re going to score, ‘One more shooter. One more shooter.’ Unfortunately they were able to score first before us.”
The next morning, nearly the entire team was gathered in the team lounge in Pegula Ice Area to watch the U.S. win over Russia. It was anything but a quiet room.
“That was awesome,” Skoff said. “We all watched together. It was pretty cool to be with the guys and just cheering. The Canadian guys rooting against us, obviously, just like we would if we were in that situation. It was fun.”
“That was one of the most exciting sporting events I’ve watched in a long time,” sophomore forward Eric Scheid said. “It was pretty fun to watch that after our night.”
As shooters, Scheid and McDonagh also put themselves in the skates of U.S. hero T.J. Oshi, who got the take round after round and scored on 4 of 6 attempts.
“Every guy playing hockey, you want to be able to do that,” McDonagh said. “You want to say you can do that. I’d like that chance one day. That would be fun.”
But not everyone thinks they could handle taking nearly every attempt.
“I could not,” Scheid said. “I have no idea what I would do after round two or three.”
Opinions also differed whether they like having the same player shoot each round after three different players try in the first three rounds. International rules allow it, but the NHL and NCAA have someone different for each try.
“I like the Olympic style,” Skoff said. “You want to put your best players out there. You should be able to. I feel that’s the whole point of a shootout. It’s a skill situation, so why not give the fans what they want and put the best players on the ice as many times as possible.”
But there also is the point of view of relying on a team’s depth to pick up the win.
“It’s more of a team thing,” Gadowsky said, “where you have to go down the bench.”
And yes, the team will be back together Wednesday to watch again, but there will be a battle for the remote. The U.S. faces the Czech Republic and Canada meets Latvia in a pair of quarterfinals — both at noon on different channels.
“We only have one TV right now, but we’re going to switch back and forth,” McDonagh said. “There will be some battles.”