There was no sugar coating it on Friday. Following a 6-0 loss to Michigan, coach Guy Gadowsky laid it out simply in his postgame press conference. He was embarrassed by the effort put forth by his team.
With how slow and disinterested Penn State looked in comparison to the Wolverines, one might assume the Nittany Lions had an easy week of practice the preceding week that led to their flat performance.
In fact, it was quite the opposite.
“We actually had one of the best weeks of practice of the year last week,” Gadowsky said Monday, “but it was too long, too intense.”
The reasoning behind the grueling week of practice stemmed from the Nittany Lions’ performance against Robert Morris. While the Nittany Lions rolled the Pioneers 6-2, Gadowsky wasn’t impressed for a majority of the contest.
“We came out gangbusters the first 15 minutes,” he said. “From that time on, we actually, put honestly, we didn’t play well at all in areas that we can control.”
After scoring just 13 seconds into the game and holding a 4-0 lead after 15 minutes, a sluggish final 45 minutes could be expected. No coach wants to see their team get too comfortable, however. Thus came Gadowsky’s experiment.
The players didn’t necessarily agree that the lack of preparedness — or overpreparedness, rather — was the result of the demanding week of practice. Instead, they took a look in the mirror when assessing what went wrong on Friday.
“You’re getting to that second half of the year, you’re going to be a little bit more tired than before,” defenseman Cole Hults said. “I think you’ve got to be doing the right things outside of the rink to be ready.”
“I think we’re all guilty of maybe we’re a little tired but maybe we weren’t all doing what we could do outside the rink to get ready for the game and be 100 percent ready to go.”
Gadowsky’s experiment didn’t last long without some pushback. Following Monday’s practice, Assistant Director of Performance Enhancement Cam Davidson warned Gadowsky about what might happen with a full week of rigorous practices.
With the benefit of hindsight, Gadowsky admitted he should have heeded Davidson’s warnings.
“He’s great at it,” Gadowsky said of Davidson’s ability. “He’s great with the eye test in the field but also has a lot of bells and whistles to justify his numbers as well.”
Over the past few seasons, Penn State has been one of the better teams in college hockey. While not quite elite just yet, the Nittany Lions are among a handful of teams that have made the NCAA Tournament two of the past three seasons, narrowly missing out on a third consecutive last season.
The Nittany Lions haven’t made it easy on themselves, as we all know. They’ve needed late-season pushes to get on the right side of the bubble, playing “playoff hockey” a few weeks before the postseason truly begins.
The necessity for those late-season pushes stems from the team’s penchant for a mid-season slump.
Penn State’s record since the 2015-2016 season: 102-62-14
Penn State’s record in January: 15-17-4.
Who they’re playing at that time of year certainly has something to do with it, but man, that’s striking.
— David Eckert (@davideckert98) January 20, 2020
This January has certainly been kinder to the Nittany Lions, who are 3-1-1 since the turn of the calendar year. Their subpar showing against the Wolverines over the weekend may be dimming that glow, however.
The Nittany Lions have been through something similar before. Three seasons ago, the 16-2-1 Nittany Lions were voted No. 1 in the nation heading into a home series against Ohio State. The Buckeyes took five out of six points that weekend, leaving a painful image that torments Gadowsky to this day.
While plot points are similar, the complete stories of the two weekends don’t share much resemblance to Gadowsky.
“We talked exactly about that scenario and what we learned and why this was different,” Gadowsky said. “I don’t think that was the case of Friday.”
Against the Buckeyes, Gadowsky has admitted more than once that the hype may have gotten to the Nittany Lions. That week was arguably the first time the Nittany Lions were in the national spotlight for more than just being the new kids on the block.
This past weekend, the Wolverines were simply more physically prepared than the Nittany Lions.
If there is a silver lining for Gadowsky, the Nittany Lions rebounded from that Buckeyes’ series — and subsequent five-game winless streak — en route to their first Big Ten Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament appearance.
Shuffling the Deck
There’s no easy way to handle a 6-0 defeat. There did seem to be an easy solution to the embarrassing performance for Gadowsky: change everything. Literally, everything.
The differences between Friday and Saturday’s line charts were staggering. Perhaps the only players who kept their spot were the handful who were scratched both games. Gadowsky was fully aware of the extreme measure he took on Saturday.
“It was a response. We were so embarrassed by the result,” he said. “I’ve got to be honest, that wasn’t a well thought out change. It was like, ‘I don’t like anything, everybody’s too comfortable, we’re not competing. Here you go.’”
The moves were at least successful in giving his players a wake-up call.
“It was a pretty clear message,” Hults said.
The moves weren’t entirely successful on the scoreboard, however, as the Nittany Lions and Wolverines played to a 4-4 draw with Michigan taking the extra point in the Big Ten standings.
Unlike Friday night, the tie wasn’t for lack of effort.
“It wasn’t like we played a bad game on Saturday night. Things just kind of didn’t go our way a couple times and that’s going to happen,” Hults said.
Hults didn’t have much issue with swapping his usual partner, Paul DeNaples, for Mason Snell, though it did create a situation in which the defenseman receiving the puck on his off side needed an extra moment to look up the ice for a breakout pass.
Aside from that minor hiccup, Hults picked up an assist and the duo combined for four shots on goal, all in all a good performance for a tandem playing together for the first time.
“A lot of guys who were playing together never played together so I think from that standpoint, I thought we did a pretty good job,” Hults said.
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