Less than three weeks ago, the Penn State men’s hockey team was flying high.
The Nittany Lions were climbing the national rankings and poised for their first bid to the NCAA Tournament.
They were 14th in the Pairwise rankings, a strong indicator of who makes the 16-team NCAA field. All they had to do was keep on winning, and they were in good shape to earn an at-large bid for the program’s first NCAA invitation.
Since then, injuries mounted, and so did the losses.
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Penn State (20-12-4, 10-9-1-1 Big Ten) is on a three-game losing skid, and is limping into the postseason with a difficult road left to make the NCAAs.
The only means of making that tournament now for the Nittany Lions, who have dropped to No. 19 in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll and No. 22 in the Pairwise rankings, is to win the Big Ten Tournament this week. The first step comes at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., when they meet Wisconsin (8-18-8, 3-13-4-2).
“We know the numbers,” coach Guy Gadowsky said Tuesday. “It is a goal of ours to get to the NCAA Tournament, just like it was three weeks ago. But three weeks ago we knew there were two ways to do it as well.”
Now, Penn State fans are hoping to see the team they saw rolling through game after game, filling the net with one of the nation’s top scoring offenses.
Last week at Michigan, they were outscored 13-2 in a two-game series. The weekend before, they had a miserable second period and trailed Wisconsin 4-1 before a furious rally fell short in a 4-3 loss.
“We have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder to prove we’re the team that we actually are,” freshman defenseman Kevin Kerr said. “That these last three games don’t define us, but the next three games hopefully will.”
The biggest reason for the late-season stumbles is injuries.
Last weekend Penn State did not have complete lines of forwards or three pairs of full-time defensemen. They were forced to move forward Kenny Brooks back to defense and play with only three forward lines last Saturday.
They would rather not dwell on what’s been troubling them.
“It’s a little tough but at the same time … we can’t make excuses for ourselves,” senior forward Eric Scheid said. “There’s no time to feel sorry at this point in the season.”
At least three players are still definitely out for this week, and two others have question marks next to their names — defenseman Luek Juha and forward Alec Marsh.
“If we can get some bodies back,” Gadowsky said, “we should be feeling pretty good.”
They also have gotten to practice a little more in dealing with the shifting lines and personnel changes.
Still, the prospect of playing three difficult games in three days to survive and advance is even more difficult without all their weapons at their disposal.
Gadowsky is not worried about how tired his men may be Friday or Saturday, should they win.
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Gadowsky said. “Right now all we have is Thursday. Once we’re successful Thursday we’ll look at Friday. If we’re fortunate to be successful there, we’ll look at Saturday.”
Something that had been in Penn State’s favor most of the season was jumping out to an early lead and staying there. Until that loss to the Badgers, the Nittany Lions hadn’t lost if they were the first to score. In two of the past three games they lost after scoring first.
A good start is what they will need Thursday.
“We have a clear focus on Thursday, and that’s it,” Kerr said. “Maybe even more specifically the first period on Thursday — go out there and play Penn State hockey for the first period and just go from there.”
They also can’t take the Badgers for granted. They won two of their last three games, also beating regular-season champion Minnesota last weekend.
“They’re feeling good about themselves,” Gadowsky said. “It’s not a surprise to us. They’re a very talented group.”
The Nittany Lions are beaten and bruised, so much that they had a player-only meeting Tuesday to talk about their troubles. The power play units have not been as successful, they have taken a lot more penalties, and they are not doing well at killing those man advantages. There are so many reasons for the recent decline, but as Scheid noted, they don’t want excuses. They have to adapt, or the season is finished.
It’s tough to consider after how magical most of the season had been.
“You think about it being potentially over, it’s a little sad,” Scheid said. “But at the same time it’s playoff hockey. This us what you live for, so I think we all have what it takes to win it all.”
Men’s ice hockey
What: Big Ten Men’s Hockey Tournament
Who: No. 3 seed Penn State (20-12-4, 10-9-1-1 Big Ten) vs. No. 6 Wisconsin (8-18-8, 3-13-4-2)
Where: Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minn.
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: WAPY 103.1
Scoring leaders: PSU — David Goodwin (11 goals, 23 assists), Andrew Sturtz (18 G, 9 A), Chase Berger (13 G, 13 A), Eric Scheid (11 G, 14 A); UW — Grant Besse (10 G, 22 A), Luke Kunin (18 G, 13 A), Seamus Malone (5 G, 21 A), Cameron Hughes (5 G, 19 A).