As Guy Gadowsky sat at the podium in Pegula Ice Arena at media availability on Monday, he talked about Penn State’s recent underwhelming performances and pointed to one major problem — the Nittany Lions’ identity.
“We haven’t found who we are,” Gadowsky said.
On Thursday night, when No. 12 Penn State took the ice against No. 7 Wisconsin in its first Big Ten matchup of the season, the Nittany Lions found their identity on the way to a 6-1 victory.
From the initial drop of the puck, Penn State was a different team than the one that took the ice against in its past two games.
And they did it against the best team they’ve played so far this season, a team that has 12 NHL draft picks on its roster.
“I think that is the highest quality game we’ve played so far this year,” Gadowsky said. “That was absolutely the closest game that we’ve had and what we are used to and how we want to play.”
The physicality, the aggressive forecheck and emphasis of getting the puck to the net were all present on Thursday night from the initial drop of the puck.
Penn State took the lead less than a minute into the game on a Sam Sternschein tip and never looked back.
The Nittany Lions were back to playing their brand of hockey and for the first time in recent weeks looked like a team capable of reaching their lofty goals in the Big Ten and beyond.
Penn State played with a level of crispness that wasn’t matched by the Badgers.
The Nittany Lions were converting on tape to tape passes, moving the Wisconsin defenders around in its zone and getting physical at the blue line and rarely giving the Badgers a clear entry into their offensive zone.
“Some of it is just stuff the guys know in the locker room, it’s a feeling,” Gadowsky said on his teams identity. “If you want to encompass it in one word, we want to play fast, we want to play hard.
“I thought you saw both of those tonight.”
Following a stoppage in play in the first period, a skirmish broke out in front of the Wisconsin goal, which resulted in two Badgers and one Nittany Lion heading to the penalty box.
And five seconds later, Penn State was able to take advantage of the power play opportunity.
Evan Barratt slotted a wirster past Daniel Lebedeff for his first goal of the season to give Penn State a 2-0 lead.
Wisconsin was able to answer with a power play goal of its own with just five seconds left in the first period.
But Penn State responded.
Just over a minute into the second period, the puck floated to Penn State defenseman Alex Stevens at the point and he ripped a shot off the left goalpost and into the net to give the Nittany Lions a 3-1 lead.
As the period wore on, Penn State continued to attack and was sent on its third power play of the game after a Wisconsin trip.
And for the second time on Thursday night, the Nittany Lions converted.
A shot bounced off the board, behind the net, and directly to Denis Smirnov, who buried it in an open net to give Penn State a commanding 4-1 lead.
The offensive game that Penn State has historically been known for was present on Thursday night, but what also was present was excellent defensive play and great goaltending.
“When I make some big saves it gives confidence to the guys,” goalkeeper Peyton Jones said. “I’m going to go out there and they are playing for me and I’m going to play for them.
“It definitely gives each other confidence for sure.”
Jones finished the night with 39 saves and a .974 save percentage.
Another difference on Thursday night for Penn State was the ability to close out the game.
The Nittany Lions went into the final period with a commanding lead and were able to keep their focus despite a hit by Wisconsin’s Roman Ahcan on Smirnov that took the Russian out of the game.
Ahcan was given a game misconduct penalty for the hit. In the final six minutes of the game following that hit, the two teams combined for seven penalties.
“it could’ve been pretty easy for us to take our foot off the gas or get distracted by things we wouldn’t need to worry about,” captain Brandon Biro said. “I think you saw what we were able to do.
“We were able to stick to our game and take it to them. We’re really happy, especially with out we closed the game out.”
Nate Sucese and Aarne Talvitie were both able to add late goals for Penn State to give the Nittany Lions a 6-1 lead.
Penn State was able to play its brand of hockey for a complete 60 minutes on Thursday night, but the next challenge is to do it again on Friday, to prove the team can consistently play to its potential.
“We are very happy because that felt like us,” Gadowsky said. “That was a good indication that we can do it and we haven’t completely lost it.
“So, that was really good to see but when you play back-to-backs like this that relief turns to curiosity real quick.”