Penn State Hockey

Penn State hockey dealing with a lot on the line in regular-season series finale vs. Notre Dame

Penn State forward Chase Berger faces off against Notre Dame forward Jake Evans during a game last season. The Nittany Lions and Fighting Irish will square off in South Bend, Ind., on Friday and Saturday.
Penn State forward Chase Berger faces off against Notre Dame forward Jake Evans during a game last season. The Nittany Lions and Fighting Irish will square off in South Bend, Ind., on Friday and Saturday. psheehan@centredaily.com

A team meeting and a doctor’s note might mean more to what remains of the Penn State hockey season than anything else entering this weekend’s regular season-ending series at Notre Dame — and the games themselves are pretty important.

Penn State could finish anywhere from second to seventh in the Big Ten when the games are over Saturday night. That’s a testament to the Nittany Lions’ inconsistency as well as the parity of the conference.

“Every team in this league has the ability to come out and play a great hockey game,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “There’s not one team in the league if you don’t show up you’re going to pay dearly.”

Penn State learned that again last weekend, beating Wisconsin 8-2 one night and losing 7-2 the next. They’ve talked about the problem repeatedly — including a team meeting Wednesday — while publicly preaching hopefulness and optimism.

Penn State has not been alone with its uneven play, though. Second to seventh place in the conference standings are separated by nine points, and four teams are within one game of .500. Still, that shared pain does not make the frustrations any less real.

Team members remain confident in their offensive-minded approach, but the squad has rarely rebounded from slow starts. And, to a man, they’ve pegged the instances as unpredictable, mostly the result of an individual mental approach that has to be completed before a game begins.

Gadowsky remains hopeful the ongoing message of personal responsibility resonates.

“We do need to have that understanding. It’s not up the coaches, the captains, the seniors, the leaders to get you going,” Gadowsky said. “It’s up to you, and a big part of that will determine how far you go in this game.”

Ludvig Larsson, a graduate transfer from Merrimack College, believes the problem is common. “It seemed [at Merrimack] we used to play better against better teams,” he said. “And sometimes this year we’ve just not played well.”

For a team long on talent but perhaps short on attitude and fiery leadership, that makes Evan Barratt, who has missed the past three games, especially important. Penn State went 2-1 without him, but his presence as a scorer and someone with an emotional edge should not be overlooked. Gadowsky expected a decision from team doctors about Barratt’s status Thursday.

Quarterfinal action in the conference tournament awaits both Notre Dame and Penn State, with their series determining whether they’ll host games or play on the road next weekend. Beyond that, both teams are on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament, though a sweep and run in the conference tournament might change things.

Like Penn State, Notre Dame has been inconsistent, or battling with other teams in hard-fought conference action if you prefer a more positive spin. All that close competition has not necessarily been good for the Big Ten. While three Big Ten teams (Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State) reached the Frozen Four last season, only Ohio State is in position to qualify for the 16-team NCAA tournament this season.

No. 18 Penn State (18-12-2, 10-11-1 Big Ten) at No. 17 Notre Dame (17-12-3, 10-10-2 Big Ten)

Weekend Series: 7 p.m. Friday; 7 p.m. Saturday

Radio/TV: Both games on 103.1 FM and GoPSUsports.com, with Friday’s game on NBC Sports Network.

Notable: The teams split their series at Pegula Ice Arena earlier this season. … Penn State is 5-5 in its last 10 games, 6-6 in its last 12 and 7-7 in its last 14. … Senior forward Chase Berger holds the school record for games played (147) with David Goodwin, and will be alone atop the list with 148 the next time he steps on the ice.

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