Penn State Hockey

Penn State men’s hockey: Saar finally back on ice with Nittany Lions

CDT photo

Zach Saar had been waiting so agonizingly long to get back on the ice.

All he could do was sit and watch, go through the rehabilitation steps, and miss out on nearly half the Penn State men’s hockey team’s season.

“It was unbelievable and it’s been a long four months,” the sophomore forward said. “I was really excited to get back on the ice with the boys.”

Saar finally joined his boys last week for two games at the Three Rivers Classic in Pittsburgh, and while he’s not yet 100 percent and could not yet take every shift, it was good just to be there.

Coach Guy Gadowsky said he was thrilled when he saw Saar skate onto the blue line at Consol Energy Center for the National Anthem, and Nittany Lion fans can give him another welcoming cheer this weekend when the team hosts Ohio State at 7 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena.

Saar had arthroscopic hip labrum surgery over the summer — “It was kind of a mess,” he said of the hip — and everyone knew it would take him a while to return. Gadowsky said before the season even started Saar was not expected back until now.

“There’s no shortcut to being in phenomenal hockey shape,” Saar said. “I got to witness the guys working every day while I’m waiting and waiting.”

Saar played in all but three games last season as a freshman, finishing with five goals and six assists. He has good finishing touch and decent skating ability, but his size (6-foot-5, 236 pounds) and positioning make him an even more valuable asset.

“He really does add a new element to our team,” Gadowsky said. “He’s just a big, tough body to play against.”

Gadowsky said Saar was turning the heads of not only Penn State’s opponents last week, but also of the NHL scouts in the building.

“When he does what he does well, it’s very evident that he’s hard to control,” Gadowsky said. “I think that adds an element that we really haven’t had right now on our team.”

The injury and surgery impacted his play a great deal, with the hip vital to his skating abilities. It also meant he was slowed dramatically with the conditioning of his legs.

Saar said he didn’t know of the plan for this weekend against the Buckeyes, but it is important to him that he can do everything the Nittany Lion players and coaches expect of him.

“I’m working towards reliability with coaches and, more importantly, my teammates,” Saar said. “So they know what they’re going to be getting every night and they can have faith in me and what I can bring to the table.”

The Nittany Lions have not played a home game since Oct. 31, but it’s been even longer for the sophomore — 10 months of waiting.

“I am pumped,” said Saar, who appreciated the silver lining of being able to concentrate on class work since he wasn’t traveling with the team. “Lucky for me I can come back and be at home for the next two months.”

Shorter injury list

When Penn State last played before the games in Pittsburgh, the injury list was lengthy, and Gadowsky was patching together lineups as best as he could. The coach was quite happy to note on Tuesday he had nearly a full complement of players available this weekend. The only athletes who figure to be out are senior forward Jacob Friedman and junior forward Jonathan Milley. Gadowsky did not go into details on either injury.

Who’s in goal?

For most of the fall semester, it was pretty much a given who would be in goal each night. Matthew Skoff was the unquestioned No. 1 goalie with 12 starts.

But in the closing weeks Eamon McAdam finally arose and showed the promise that had been missing for all of his freshman season.

For a two-game series at Wisconsin in early December, the duo were each planned to start one game, and that was again the case in Pittsburgh last week.

Gadowsky said the plan has not yet been made for facing the Buckeyes

“I like having two goaltenders playing at a high level,” Gadowsky said.

Practice time

Since the series against the Badgers on Dec. 5-6, there has been plenty of time off for the team. There were final exams and holidays to celebrate, but there also has been a lot of time on the ice to focus on a number of elements that have been lacking.

Since the games in Pittsburgh, the players had a couple days off, then Gadowsky had the team focus on a number of small things, including regaining their positive attitude they had in early December.

There was also a focus on positioning, with some defensive breakdowns leaving the team — and the goalies — in tough spots in Pittsburgh.

“When our centerman was caught high, instead of being the first guy low, we didn’t identify in the defensive zone well,” Gadowsky said. “We got caught twice, because our centerman didn’t identify which winger was low and which side he took, we gave up grade-A opportunities.”