Please excuse members of the Penn State men’s hockey team if they seem to be a little too eager to leave town this week.
The Nittany Lions will be ditching their winter coats and hats when they step off their plane Thursday, arriving in Tempe, Ariz., for a two-game series with Arizona State.
While State College will be enduring the approaching winter chill, it will be a balmy 80 degrees Friday and Saturday for the program’s first trip to the desert southwest. The Sun Devils are in their second season as a Division I program.
“It will be fun walking into a rink in a little bit more comfortable weather than it was at Notre Dame,” junior forward Andrew Sturtz said, referring to the snow and even colder environment encountered last weekend in facing the Fighting Irish.
While a little warmth may be appealing, it also provides a new experience for some team members in other ways. The games will not be played on campus, but at Gila River Arena in Glendale, the home of the Phoenix Coyotes. It will be the first taste of an NHL arena for some of the younger players.
And it will be their first long trip on a charter flight.
“The travel, we’re kind of used to it,” sophomore Blake Gober said. “We took 14-hour bus rides when we played juniors. This isn’t too bad.”
Head coach Guy Gadowsky said team trainer Justin Rogers has been talking with team members, preparing them to minimize the physical effects of the trip, and Gadowsky wants this trip to be a lot like any other road trip.
“I do think it’s a mental toughness issue,” Gadowsky said. “It shouldn’t matter. You show up and play, regardless.”
The right direction
Penn State dropped off the U.S. College Hockey Online rankings this week — the first time this season they haven’t been on the poll — after falling 5-3 and 1-0 to Notre Dame and dropping to 5-7 on the season. Still, Gadowsky and team members liked a lot of what they saw last weekend.
Among those making major improvements was goalie Peyton Jones, who had a 4.02 goals-against average and.889 save percentage before the weekend.
Even though it was a loss, Gadowsky is hopeful the 1-0 loss, when Jones stopped a number of major Irish opportunities, will snap the sophomore goalie back into his old form.
“We know what Peyton can do and we have a ton of faith in him,” Gadowsky said. “Everybody goes through peaks and valleys. Sometimes it’s one game to turn them, and that’s what we hope that Saturday night in Notre Dame was.”
Bumps and bruises
For the past month, Gadowsky has said defenseman Kevin Kerr was “day-to-day” with an injury. The status has not changed for the junior, but the coach said Kerr is improving and they are hoping Kerr returns to the lineup soon.
He also said sophomore forward Denis Smirnov will not play again this week with an illness.
The absence of those two top players, and a few others who have been hurt or sick, has opened up opportunities for others on the team, however, and Gadowsky thinks the team’s depth will be strengthened.
“We’re hoping that benefits us down the road,” Gadowsky said. “That’s how we look at it.”