By normal standards, splitting the opening weekend of the season, on the road, is an adequate start.
However, within those games, something was missing for the No. 11 Penn State hockey team.
Yes, they scored goals and unloaded plenty of shots, but head coach Guy Gadowsky also noticed a bit of a personality change on the ice. The Nittany Lions were not playing like they had something to prove — missing the “chip on their shoulder” that drove the program for its first five seasons in Division I.
It was a concern of the coaches after they won the Big Ten tournament title, climbed high in the national rankings and advanced to the NCAA regional finals.
“The guys just really wanted to prove that they belonged in the Big Ten,” Gadowsky said Monday at his weekly session with the media. “That was pretty intrinsic motivation that we didn’t have to teach or talk about. One of our fears, coming in this year, is if that level of intensity ... a chip on your shoulder ... is maybe minimized a little bit. We have to play that way.”
The attitude was not a topic in meetings, discussed on bus and plane trips or written in big letters on posters or white boards. It was up to the men in the locker room to understand and use that “chip” to outwork opponents.
With the graduation of a number of strong personalities who were a part of the early years and lived each day driven by the need to elevate the program, the team is searching for the locker room personalities to recapture that intensity.
“That will be replaced, but I can’t tell you who it is,” Gadowsky said, after his team lost 3-1 to Clarkson on Friday and then beat St. Lawrence 4-1 Saturday.
“I’m not thrilled with that level that we had yet — certainly Friday night was not close to what we need. It was better Saturday. But that’s something that we have to keep our thumb on.”
The opening moments of the loss to Clarkson may have provided a prime example, with the Knights jumping on a turnover and scoring a mere 14 seconds into the game.
“We try not to dwell on things too much,” captain James Robinson said of the quick score. “An event like that’s going to happen in a game like hockey, and once it happens you’ve got to put it behind you and move forward.”
Meanwhile, Saturday saw the team whistled for nine penalties — when the Nittany Lions averaged 4.3 per game last season and were one of only six teams to spend fewer than 10 minutes in the penalty box per game. Gadowsky said they are “not at panic mode” about the infractions, but it also is a concern.
They are on the road again this weekend to visit No. 7 Minnesota on Friday and Sunday to start Big Ten play. The team can show what it learned and improved upon from the opening weekend, and also display if they found that old, successful attitude.
“We didn’t teach them to play that way in the past, they just had it,” Gadowsky said. “They’re going to have to find it again.”
Lions lose Barratt
The Nittany Lions lost their top freshman over the weekend with an injury.
Left wing Evan Barratt, a third-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, left Friday’s game with an “upper body injury,” Gadowsky said. Barratt did not skate Saturday, replaced on the No. 1 line by Blake Gober, alongside center Chase Berger and right wing Andrew Sturtz.
“He’ll be out this weekend,” Gadowsky said as his team prepares to visit Minnesota, declining to give a timetable when Barratt will return and leaving the decision in the hands of team trainer Justin Rogers.
“That’s up to Justin,” Gadowsky said. “I don’t know. I just do what Justin tells me.”
Slow on the draw
A major key to Penn State’s success last season to generate its high-power offense was how well the Nittany Lions did on faceoffs. Penn State won 54.9 percent of the draws last season, tying Air Force for first in Division I, and eight Lions who took more than a handful of draws had a win percentage better than 50 percent.
While only on a two-game sample, opening weekend did not see success at the dots. Against Clarkson, the Knights won 40 of the 67 draws. Nate Sucese had the only winning record at 9-6. The next night was better, but the Skating Saints held a 36-34 edge, with Chase Berger and Nikita Pavlychev the only Lions winning better than 50 percent.
“For us it’s really important because of the way we play,” Gadowsky said, adding it was equally important for his team to win the chase for pucks either after draws or dump-ins for the offensive zone.
“We don’t have a Plan B when we’re not winning,” he said of faceoffs and chasing pucks. “We need to win, or else we can’t be us.”