The Penn State men’s hockey team took a lead into the third period of both games last weekend at Wisconsin, but each night the team found disappointment.
Given the Nittany Lions had not lost a game all season with a lead to open the third — and also were good at holding leads last season — the results were even more surprising.
“It is troubling because we really haven’t had to address that,” coach Guy Gadowsky said Tuesday during his weekly session with the media. “It’s always been something that we’ve done fairly well.”
On Friday, the Badgers rallied from a 2-1 deficit for a 4-2 win, then followed on Saturday by crawling back from 4-1 down to earn a 4-4 tie. The Badgers then won a shootout to earn an extra point in the Big Ten standings.
It extended the No. 17 Nittany Lions’ winless streak to five games heading into a weekend series with No. 2 Notre Dame at 6:30 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday.
Facing a Fighting Irish team that recently had a 16-game win streak snapped and dropped from No. 1 in the weekly polls, and is still atop the PairWise rankings, will add to the challenge of getting the issues resolved.
Gadowsky’s team entered last weekend with a 12-0-2 record when it had the lead at the second intermission, but he acknowledged they were not at their best in the final 20 minutes of both games with the Badgers.
“A couple things that we have to tighten up, and one is our mental toughness in the third period,” he said. “It’s not a matter of we got away from our game plan or we changed this up or they made an adjustment and we didn’t, that’s not it at all. It’s a matter of very little things right now.”
He also noted there have been signs of frustration in the Lions’ locker room with the slide that makes the corrections a little tougher.
“In my mind, in the coaching staff’s mind, a little bit distracted in the third to take us off just staying the course,” Gadowsky said, adding he is counting on the team’s leaders to help resolve the issues.
“You’ve just got to keep the morale high,” said junior forward Andrew Sturtz, possibly the epitome of Mr. Positivity on the team. “You can’t dwell on the past. For us, especially, it’s been a tough five games.”
While the Fighting Irish may be a daunting opponent, the Nittany Lions also know what a successful weekend will do not only psychologically but also for postseason aspirations.
“We’re focused on this as a tremendous opportunity,” Gadowsky said. “There are a lot of aspects of our game we really like. It’s just a matter of putting it all together.”
Smirnov back on track
Despite the setbacks in Wisconsin, seeing Denis Smirnov’s name on the scoresheet with three goals in the two games was a big step in the right direction. Smirnov led the nation’s freshmen in scoring last season, but he had just one goal and one assist in his previous five outings before last Friday.
“It was nice; it was good for (my) confidence,” Smirnov said. “But still sorry that we lost both games.”
The winger had missed a month of the season in the fall battling an illness, but he didn’t think he had any resulting issues with conditioning or that it played any factor in the recent slump. The sixth-round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche felt that was something all hockey players experience.
“It’s always tough when you try to score,” Smirnov said. “Every forward, every defenseman, every guy on the team tries to score and put the puck on net. Obviously, that’s not going to work every time you try, so … just don’t stop, and improve and try to work on something you need to improve on.”
Sturtz, who is already the program’s career scoring leader with his 51 goals, nailed down another milestone in Madison, becoming the 14th Lion to play in 100 career games.
“When I got to college hockey, my goal was just to get into the lineup,” Sturtz said. “To be able to do it 100 times is very special.”