This may sound familiar: The Penn State men’s hockey team was on a hot streak in November and December, then took time off and hopes to recapture the magic in January.
Head coach Guy Gadowsky hopes that story takes a different twist this weekend compared to years past — with a win in the Nittany Lions’ return to the ice.
No. 14 Penn State (11-7-2, 4-4-2-1) hosts No. 15 Wisconsin (10-9-2, 4-5-1) at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena, the Lions’ first games in 26 days.
When players congregated Monday for their first full team practice since beating Robert Morris on Dec. 9, Gadowsky liked most of what he saw, even as everyone was trying to get their skating legs back into condition.
“I thought the guys have looked really good,” Gadowsky said. “I liked the break. I thought it was an appropriate length of time. I think it’s always good to really focus on your academics and really good to get to spend some quality time with your family. That’s what the break was about for us.”
The break has not been kind to the Nittany Lions in the past. In their previous five seasons of Division I play, they only won once in their first game of January. This season and last also were the first years without playing in the Three Rivers Classic holiday tournament in Pittsburgh — making the break even longer — and only once did the Lions win their opening-round game of that event.
Now in his 18th season as a Division I head coach, Gadowsky has experience with the long mid-season break but can’t predict what he will see after the opening faceoff.
“There have been times we’ve come back after Christmas and thought everything was really good, but then it took a while,” he said. “Other times we felt we were really rushed and didn’t have much time, but the pieces fell together quickly. ... It’s really something that’s hard to have an exact formula for.”
The Nittany Lions will have an opponent in the same situation. Wisconsin also has been on hiatus since Dec. 9. The Badgers, however, will be without one of their top offensive threats. Forward Trent Frederic is playing with Team USA in the World Junior Championships, which runs through Friday night.
Penn State returns to action on an eight-game unbeaten streak, the third straight season there has been an extended run before the winter break. The Lions had a 13-game unbeaten streak in the lead up to the holidays last season and a nine-game unbeaten stretch the year before.
While he would like to see his team sustain the momentum and confidence it had a month ago, he also knows many of his players needed the time off, including for health and injury issues.
“I expect there will still be a little rust Friday,” Gadowsky said. “I still think the benefits of the break outweigh the rust that you have to go through. I don’t mind not having a tournament.”
News and notes
Short injury report: As Gadowsky noted, plenty of players had a chance to mend during the break. Erik Autio, James Robinson and Alex Limoges all had injuries keeping them off the ice in December but should be ready Friday. The only Lion who isn’t yet ready to return is junior defenseman Kevin Kerr, who has missed most of the season. Gadowsky thinks the absence will not last too much longer, however.
“We expect to get him back, just not this weekend,” the coach said.
Hults cut from U.S. junior team: Freshman Cole Hults was invited to train with the U.S. team as it prepared for the junior worlds in Columbus, Ohio, in mid-December, but was cut after just a few days and did not get to play in any warm-up games. Gadowsky was disappointed Hults didn’t see game action in a USA jersey, but he also could see how Hults’ steady, low-risk style might not have caught the attention of the U.S. coaches.
“Cole plays an extremely mature game,” Gadowsky said. “I don’t think he’s ever going to be the guy that’s going to jump out, jump off the page at you. I don’t think he’s ever going to be a flashy guy that catches everybody’s eye. But the more you watch him, the more you’re around him, the more you see him, the more you appreciate him.”
Road trip: Last Friday, many team members were together for some hockey away from State College. Even without Hults on the roster, they watched the U.S. play Canada in a preliminary-round game in Buffalo, N.Y., bunking at Andrew Sturtz’s house in the city. They were among the nearly 45,000 watching the outdoor game in the falling snow at the Buffalo Bills’ New Era Field, won 4-3 by the U.S. in a shootout.
Team USA fell to Sweden 4-2 on Thursday and will play in the bronze-medal game Friday.
Who: No. 15 Wisconsin (10-9-2, 4-5-1 Big Ten) at No. 14 Penn State (11-7-2, 4-4-2-1)
Where: Pegula Ice Arena
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday
TV: BTN (Saturday)
Radio: WAPY 103.1
Leading scorers: PSU — Andrew Sturtz (10 goals, 16 assists), Brandon Biro (5G, 13A), Denis Smirnov (9G, 8A), Chase Berger (5G, 12A), Trevor Hamilton (4G, 13A). Wis — Ryan Wagner (8G, 11A), Trent Frederic (8G, 8A), Cameron Hughes (7G, 8A), Will Johnson (5G, 10A), Wyatt Kalynuk (1G, 14A)