Penn State hockey notes: Nittany Lions finding way through penalty minefield

Penalties continue to be an issue for the Penn State men’s ice hockey team, and with the road getting decidedly tougher this week, the Nittany Lions are hoping they can find the right balance — and not find a lot of players in the penalty box — when the first nationally-ranked team visits a Penn State sheet of ice.

“We’re struggling to find that sweet spot between not taking penalties and playing the game the way it should be played,” coach Guy Gadowsky said Tuesday at the team’s weekly media session, when close to one-third of the 21-minute conversation was focused on various issues surrounding infractions.

“We’re struggling with it,” Gadowsky continued. “It’s maybe not something you can have a 15-minute meeting with the team and show them a few clips and say, ‘There, we’re good now.’”

The Nittany Lions (3-3-1) remain near the top in penalties — they are second in the nation averaging 21.71 minutes per game — heading into games against No. 16 Massachusetts-Lowell on Thursday and Friday at Pegula Ice Arena.

During Penn State’s first Division I season last year, the schedule was a menagerie, filled both with major programs like Big Ten brethren Michigan State and Wisconsin, but also with teams like Union, Holy Cross, Air Force and American International. They also met a couple Division III teams and an assortment of club programs. Each night was a feeling-out process for officiating, and the team averaged 15.74 penalty minutes per Division I game.

This year the Nittany Lions were hoping a more consistent level of competition meant consistency in the calls, but they continue to struggle.

“It’s been an issue for us,” said sophomore assistant captain David Glen, whose eight penalties and 38 minutes both lead the team. “It’s been obvious, pretty clear, but we have put a lot of time and effort into it.”

In addition to film sessions with the coaches and players, they also have sought direct feedback from the officials during games or between periods. Glen, along with fellow captains Tommy Olczyk and Nate Jensen, also have lobbied officials on behalf of teammates over some rulings.

While Glen said the discussions have been helpful, Gadowsky would prefer a little more assistance from officials.

“It’s not simple direction,” he said. “Often the response we get from our questions isn’t acceptable to us, or agreeable to what was seen.”

As one of only three teams in the nation averaging better than 20 minutes a game — the equivalent of better than a full period each night — Gadowsky is hoping his team finds the balance soon.

“We feel very strongly that we have to be a tough, competitive team,” Gadowsky said. “At the same time we know we have to change our thinking. That’s a tough — that’s different ends of the same stick.”

Bumpy road ahead

The Nittany Lions are about to face some serious challenges. UMass-Lowell (6-4), following a trip to last season’s Frozen Four, began the season No. 1 in the nation, and after a few early losses bounced back with wins at Michigan State and current No. 2 Michigan, and dropped Princeton 2-1 Tuesday.

“It’s a real measuring stick,” Gadowsky said. “They’re a great opponent. The coaching staff is awesome there. They’ve had a ton of success.”

It is just the first step. After taking next weekend off, 2012 Frozen Four participant Union visits Pegula Ice Arena for two games, then the Big Ten season begins with a trip to Wisconsin in December.

“A lot of big challenges ahead,” Glen said. “We’re excited to see just where we’re at and where we need to be in order to be a top program and compete with the best of the best.”

Injury notes

In Friday’s 2-1 win against Sacred Heart, the Nittany Lions lost center Taylor Holstrom to a “lower body injury,” according to Gadowsky. While not getting into specifics, the coach was optimistic one of the team’s top scorers and faceoff leaders would be able to return this week.

Holstrom and freshman Dylan Richard both skated through practice Tuesday with white jerseys with a big red “X” on the front and back. Richard said after practice his was for “bumps and bruises.”

Missing from Friday’s win was Curtis Loik, and Gadowsky has been quite coy about the sophomore forward’s status.

“He’ll take a written test tomorrow,” Gadowsky said when pressed and declinng to elaborate. “Depending on how he does, we might see him.”