When the Penn State men’s hockey team hits the ice Thursday afternoon, it will be missing one of the biggest advantages it had all year.
The Nittany Lions had an impressive season, especially at home, but they can’t take the “Roar Zone” to Detroit.
Penn State was much better at home than in road games, but the Nittany Lions will have to get that figured out if they want to beat Ohio State, and two other teams, at the Big Ten Tournament at Joe Louis Arena.
The Nittany Lions (18-14-4) meet the Buckeyes (13-18-3) at 4:30 p.m. Thursday in the tournament opener.
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Penn State played in front of a sold-out crowd for all but one home game, averaging better than 6,000 fans a night. It helped the team to a 13-2-3 home record, which tied for second-best in the nation.
When coach Guy Gadowsky was asked about that home ice advantage at his weekly media session Tuesday, he compared it to “a 60-minute power play” for the lift it gives the team.
So how do they create that energy this week in the 20,027-seat arena that will be filled more with Michigan and Michigan State fans than for anyone else?
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Gadowsky said. “It’s something that’s an important factor, it’s something that is really internal. There (are) no tricks that we can do. I think it has to come from just an absolute desire to help each other in the locker room, the guy sitting across from you, next to you. That’s where your emotion and energy come from, not from the atmosphere in the rink.”
Only the nation’s No. 2 team, Minnesota State-Mankato, had a better record at home (15-2-1), while Penn State was tied for second with Minnesota (14-3-1) with an .806 home win percentage.
The Nittany Lions were just 4-9 in road games and 1-3-1 on neutral ice. They last won a road game Dec. 6 at last-place Wisconsin.
Fixing the woes away from home will be easier said than done.
“You don’t have one meeting, say this is what we’re going to do and then you’ve got it,” Gadowsky said. “It’s something that takes experiences both positive and negative, and we obviously have had a lot more of those now than we have going into last year.”
Where’s the Big Ten?
The U.S. College Hockey Online top-20 poll has just one Big Ten team in its rankings — No. 13 Minnesota. The USCHO’s Pairwise rankings, which are a fairly accurate predictor for the NCAA tournament’s 16-team field, also only has the Golden Gophers contending for a spot.
It was predicted when the Big Ten announced it would be starting a hockey conference that it would dominate college hockey, but it appears it will have no more than two teams in the field, and possibly only one.
“I think (we have) more better teams in our conference than shows up in the weekly poll and in the Pairwise,” Wolverines coach Red Barensen said in the conference’s pre-tournament conference call with the media.
One problem was the conference’s top teams facing a number of other highly-ranked opponents early in the season and not faring well.
“My only guess is our non-conference success is not where we want it to be,” Spartans coach Tom Anastos said. “Typically the way the RPI works is the non-conference stuff is really important, then we get into our conference play and beat each other up.”
With four teams in contention for the No. 1 seed for the tournament entering last weekend, there was definite parity.
Also, as Minnesota coach Don Lucia pointed out, a number of teams in the conference saw significant turnover and rebuilding this season. He speculated if those non-conference games were played after the first of the year, outcomes might have been different.
“Some of, I think, our Big Ten teams were really growing the first third of the season, with some young teams,” said Lucia, whose team won the regular season. “That’s when they played their non-conference games. Unfortunately we didn’t do, as a league, as well as we needed to do to help each other out.”
Go to The Joe
In the state of Michigan, which takes hockey pretty seriously, the epicenter of the sport in “Hockeytown” is Joe Louis Arena, known in southeast Michigan as “The Joe.”
It’s also special for a Nittany Lion who grew up in the state, albeit on the western side in Richland.
“It was always so special growing up,” sophomore forward Zach Saar said. ”It’s a special place in my heart. With the end of the year it’s always a somber time, our urgency to keep the season going. Kind of scared it could end with one game. I love that it’s at home at The Joe, which I grew up worshiping. That was Mecca for hockey.”
Saar even played with the Little Caesars youth team, which used The Joe as its home rink.
Playing there does give him a little local knowledge of the rink. While the length and width dimensions are the same as most ice sheets, including Pegula Ice Arena, the corners are a little sharper and, according to Saar, the boards have a little more bounce.
Gadowsky said the team needs to be aware of the unique elements, but, much like playing on bigger ice sheets, it shouldn’t be an issue.
“You have to be aware of the boards, but I don’t think you can change things at all,” Gadowsky said. “I really think you have to go out and play your game.”
Eamon in goal
Gadowsky said Eamon McAdam will start in goal Thursday, and he had a long list of reasons for the choice: McAdam was the only goalie of the team’s three to beat Ohio State this season, he had the best record (5-3-1), the best win percentage away from home, the best save percentage (.911) and faced the toughest competition away from home.
“He’s probably more prepared for this experience,” Gadowsky said.
The announcement did remove the element of surprise for Thursday, although Buckeyes coach Steve Rohlik said it didn’t matter who Penn State put between the pipes.
“They have all three goalies, and each goalie can show up one night and win hockey games,” Rohlik said. “We have respect for all three of them. For us it doesn’t matter which one’s in net. We’ve got to prepare the same way.”
Gadowsky said every member of the team will make the trip to Detroit, and only Kenny Brooks is certain to miss action. The big question mark is senior forward Taylor Holstrom, who leads the team in assists, who suffered a leg injury in the last meeting with the Buckeyes on Feb. 28. Holstrom will be checked out Thursday to determine if he could play.
“So you’re saying there’s a chance,” Gadowsky cracked.
In addition, freshman Scott Conway is “good to go” Thursday after missing Saturday’s 6-2 loss to Minnesota. A hit to the head of a Gopher on Friday drew a one-game suspension from the conference.
Nittany Lion fans are nervous about what Casey Bailey may do. The junior Hobey Baker Award nominee, who leads the team and is fifth in the nation with 22 goals this season, is being courted by a number of NHL teams to leave school early as a free agent. He said a family adviser is talking with teams and scouts and not bothering the forward with any of it right now.
“He’s leaving me to my business,” Bailey said. “He tells me to focus on my game. That’s kind of all I want to do right now. I don’t wan to hear about everything that’s going on.”
Bailey knows it’s a tough call, especially if he chooses to stay in school and his senior season is not as productive, but there are worse problems to have.
“I absolutely love this program, love this school,” Bailey said. “Leaving will be — it’s one of the hardest decisions I’ll have to make. I think no matter what I’m going to have Penn State’s best interests in mind, but I also need to look out for myself. At the end of the day I bleed blue and white, and I couldn’t be happier with this program.”
Coach of the Year
Gadowsky was honored as the Big Ten Coach of the Year on Monday, in a vote of the media and his fellow coaches. On Tuesday he was quick to spread the credit to the team, the rest of his staff, the administration and everyone else who helped the program grow so quickly.
“That award is really for what players exceed expectations, but I think in this case it goes even further,” Gadowsky said. “It’s very much about that, but also I think a lot about the atmosphere that we have in the building, how well the ticket sales went, just a number of things. This is just a total program award.”