In the early days of the Penn State varsity hockey program, coach Guy Gadowsky would frequently lament about his team’s inability to sustain full effort for an entire two-game weekend series.
The big problem was having a slow start in the first game of the series, then catching fire on the second night.
It had appeared the Nittany Lions had their issues solved this season, and had been on a decent roll.
But the issue has crept back into the team’s dossier the last few weeks, and Penn State is seeking a solution.
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“That’s definitely been kind of our Achilles’ heel since I’ve been here,” sophomore forward David Goodwin said. “I know Patrick (Koudys) and the other captains have been talking about that a lot, and trying to just find the best way to get us going in those first couple periods of the weekend.”
After playing conference games the last two weeks, the Nittany Lions (11-7-3, 5-2-1 Big Ten) step out of the Big Ten to host a struggling Northern Michigan (9-8-5) at 7 p.m. Friday and 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena.
What Penn State will be seeking is six solid periods and two victories.
During their first season of Division I play in 2012-13, the Nittany Lions saw it as a frequent theme, six times dropping the first game of a series before bouncing back to win the second night.
Last season was a struggle almost the entire way through as they hit the Big Ten for the first time and had the nation’s toughest schedule, but twice in the last two months of the season, the Lions lost the opener and then won on the second night.
Now, in the last two weekends against Ohio State and Michigan State, the team showed sluggish play in the first two periods of the Friday game, especially against the Buckeyes, and then caught fire late, which carried over to Saturday’s contest.
“That’s been something we’ve addressed and examined in the offseason,” Gadowsky said. “I thought we were on our way and then ... maybe recently we’ve taken a couple steps back.”
The problem is not so much generating shots to chances, it’s finishing on those opportunities while at the other end not having breakdowns that allow an opponent to cash in. They have been able to do that for about four periods each of the last two weekends, but not for all six 20-minute sessions.
“We feel very, very confident definitely in the second game and usually towards the end of the first game,” Goodwin said. “I feel like if we can really focus on that first period, first couple periods of the weekend, we can really get some better results.”
The Nittany Lions should be expecting some success against the Wildcats, who have been on quite the roller coaster this season. They began the campaign hot, with just one loss in the first nine games, but since the start of December they have just one win in their last 10 games.
What also will help is if Penn State can keep its potent offense rolling.
The Nittany Lions enter with the 11th-best offense in the nation, averaging 3.33 goals per game, and the 70 goals scored through 21 games this season is already approaching the 80 scored in 36 games a year ago.
The team is also hitting this point in the season in contention for a possible NCAA Tournament berth for the first time. In the USCHO’s PairWise rankings, they are ranked 22nd, which is not far off a spot in the 16-team tournament field.
“Every game is important when it comes down to the final rankings,” Koudys said. “Obviously we want to do well in the Big Ten, but the bigger picture is the NCAA Tournament, so every out-of-conference game counts almost moreso than a Big Ten game does.”
Following this weekend, only one non-conference game remains, facing Vermont on Jan. 31 in Philadelphia.
Then it will be back into the Big Ten for the rest of the season with no weekends off. The team is also battling for the conference lead, with a one-point edge on Michigan, although the Wolverines have won nine of their last 10 and have two more conference games to play than the Nittany Lions.
Every win matters at this point in the year, and nothing will be taken for granted, even for a non-conference opponent.
“Every weekend we play — obviously the Big Ten is extremely important — but for us it’s an opportunity to get better,” Gadowsky said. “We don’t look at it like we’re going to take a break, like we’re going to try maybe this, or sit these guys at all.”