During the Penn State men’s hockey team’s series against Minnesota last weekend, the puck was cleared out of the Golden Gophers’ zone toward the other end of the ice, as a couple of Gopher players raced after the puck.
Racing out to retrieve the puck a few feet from the blue line Friday night — and a long way from his net — was goalie P.J. Musico. The senior gathered the puck with his oversized stick and sent a pass back through the neutral zone to a teammate, just barely beating the arrival of the Minnesota players.
The reaction from the sold-out Pegula Ice Arena crowd was a mix of gasps and cheers.
It was one of many instances just last weekend in which Musico had strayed well away from his crease, also sliding out to the faceoff circles and to the corners.
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“It’s him, it’s what he is, it’s what he does, he does it well,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “Scary, but he does it well. And it’s effective if you really look at it. He actually does break pucks out well that normally we’d be playing in our end.”
Musico may not have a resume that quite matches those of his fellow Nittany Lion goaltenders Matthew Skoff and Eamon McAdam, but the senior has been a key reason Penn State (16-10-4, 8-5-1) is still in the thick of the Big Ten race as the final three weeks of the regular season approach.
The Nittany Lions, just two points behind conference leaders Minnesota and Michigan, pay a visit to Ohio State (9-17-2, 4-10-0) for games at 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday at Value City Arena. Musico is slated to start at least Friday, his seventh start in the last eight games.
Being able to handle a puck with those large goalie sticks is a part of each netminder’s game, but there are degrees of skill. It’s typical for a goalie to skate behind the net to stop a puck sliding back along the boards and leave it for a defenseman, and most are good enough to tap the puck to a teammate to reverse it from one side of the ice to the other.
But sending a breakout pass between on-charging opponents? Skating out to the blue line to snare a puck with open ice, and an open net, behind him? That is much more rare.
“I certainly have never played with (a goalie) that can handle it as well as him,” junior defenseman Connor Varley said. “It helps us out a ton and makes our job easier.”
Musico began playing the sport at age 5, skated between the pipes for the first time a couple years later and has worked on his stick-handling ever since. The free-spirited senior who rarely lacks a smile when dealing with the media knows it is a product of his personality.
“I do say I enjoy having fun, maybe more than I should playing hockey at certain times,” said Musico, who started seven games last season and split duties with Skoff two years ago but didn’t get into his first game this season until relief work Dec. 30 in a 4-1 loss to Western Michigan. “That’s something that’s always been such a critical factor for me, getting too focused or too mentally into it is something that I always felt hurt me.”
Musico grew up in Orange, Calif., not far from Los Angeles and not exactly known as a hotbed for hockey. A spent a lot of time playing roller hockey in adapting to the Southern California weather, and in that, or in other games away from his team, he often is not the goalie.
It gives him a different perspective on the game. It helps hone his passing skills, but also gives him the point of view of a defenseman or forward.
So when a goalie can play the puck well, fetch it before an opponent, then there is less bumping and checking in the corners, which could help avert a possible injury or at least a little soreness, and it can take a team by surprise too.
“The guys in the back end are trying to help me out as much as I’m trying to help them out,” Musico said. “Doing little things like that — moving picks, stopping pucks behind the net, setting them up properly on their forehand, making passes and clearing it if I have to — is always something they really like.”
The appreciation is mutual.
“When you’re coming back with a guy on you, sometimes it’s tough to make a play,” Varley said. “You don’t know what’s behind you, you want a shoulder check on your way back to the puck. Having him come out and make a play like that, he’s so good at it, really helps us out.”
Musico also knows there is a fine line with the skill, and what could happen if he doesn’t make the play, but he also appreciates it is something that can set him apart from other goalies.
“Everybody has their own style,” Gadowsky said when asked if the skill was rubbing off at all on Skoff or McAdam. “That’s PJ’s.”
Gadowsky said it has taken a while to not be surprised by Musico racing well away from the net, and doesn’t discourage the practice — not that it’s his favorite move by the goalie.
“I didn’t say I was comfortable with it,” Gadowsky said. “I just said that’s his style.”
Of course, the ultimate dream is to send a tape-to-tape pass to a teammate for a breakaway, or better yet send the puck 180 feet into an empty net. Musico has been practicing that since he was about 10, and would give his father watching in the bleachers a big grin every time he succeeded in practice.
“We all have that dream,” Musico said. “It’s really just the opportunity. Sometimes you just have to judge when is a good time to go for it. ... But obviously getting a win is way more important.”
With a 5-3-1 record this season, a 2.23 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in 10 appearances, he has been the team’s No. 1 goalie for more than a month.
Musico will have to make some big plays this weekend against the Buckeyes to keep the Nittany Lions in the race for the top of the Big Ten, but getting the team racing the other way in transition could bring a goal and the difference in a game.
“Next thing you know the forwards have the puck and they’re going the other way,” Varley said. “It’s great for us and really helps us out.”