In a somewhat upside down “Stranger Things” start to the season, junior defenseman Cole Hults remains one of the top goal scorers for the Penn State men’s hockey team.
Hults’ four goals are tied with the four from senior forward Brandon Biro through five games, and seven players have at least four points. That sounds like depth and balance, but as the experienced team opens Big Ten Conference play, it continues to seek consistency and play to its “identity.”
“I think we’re very happy with who we are and what we believe in,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “I just don’t think you’ve seen it all put together yet. We’re not playing with the same tempo and want as we used to.”
Gadowsky wants a fast-paced, offensive-minded approach. He believes goal and shot differential are the best predicators of success. Still, as the team has worked to improve its defense without impacting its offense, things have looked a little upside down at times.
The Nittany Lions’ goal differential has dropped from +2.2 last season to +0.9 this season. Shot differential dropped a bit as well, from +9.0 to +7.9. Those statistics and more anecdotal evidence have left Gadowsky both frustrated and optimistic.
“We improved defensively, for sure. But that’s only half the goal,” he said. “You can have comfort in the fact you can get there, but you’re frustrated that you’re not.”
Gadowsky is confident only in the fact that he’s not sure what to expect. He’s hoping the charge of conference play might jump-start the team’s efforts.
“I wish it was as easy as flipping a switch. The first question is ‘Can you flip a switch?’” he said. “And if you can, it probably will be aided by someone like Wisconsin coming to town. Maybe with a little bit of a kick from a Big Ten team, maybe we’ll get there.”
Hults, the only Wisconsin native on Penn State’s roster, said he’s confident in his team’s speed and movement on the ice. He’s also excited about facing the Badgers.
“Every game is fun, but Big Ten games all have a little extra energy. It’s like they’re all rivalry games,” he said. “I think we’ll be fine.”
Gadowsky altered lines during last week’s single game against Robert Morris in an attempt to spark some scoring. Nothing changed, though, and those experiments probably ended after that 2-1 victory.
“We’re not a team that usually gets those kind of wins,” Hults said. “It was gutsy, and I think that’s a good thing.”
In its last 127 games spanning five seasons, Penn State has won just two other 2-1 games. Both were against Wisconsin. Penn State earned the conference championship with a 2-1 victory March 18, 2017. It also recorded a 2-1 decision during a regular season road game March 4, 2016.
No. 12 Penn State (4-1, 0-0 Big Ten) vs. No. 7 Wisconsin (4-2, 0-0)
Series: 7 p.m. Thursday; 6 p.m. Friday
Radio/TV: Game coverage on Big Ten Network, 103.1 FM and GoPSUsports.com
Notable: Penn State leads the series, 17-12-3. … Wisconsin freshmen forwards and NHL draft picks Cole Caufield and Alex Turcotte rank among the team leaders in scoring with 9 and 8 points, respectively. … Halloween costumes and a student “whiteout” will provide atmosphere at Pegula Ice Arena for the two games, respectively. … The annual Teddy Bear Toss to benefit the Penn State Dance Marathon is Friday night.