Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Penn State hangs with Minnesota, but has long, long way to go

Thanks to the Centre Daily Times
This is what it's like if you're the #1 program in all of Division I hockey.

You don't necessarily need to go into any game, even a conference clash on the road, and have to prove you're the top team by aiming for blowouts each time.

Minnesota (15-2-3) took both games of its back-to-back Big Ten road contests at Pegula Arena on Sunday and Monday, but didn't have to break a sweat and didn't have to put up much effort as the pluckier Penn Staters buzzed around, trying to make a name for themselves by stealing a win or at least a tie.

Ahead by just one and then only two, the Gophers were clearly outplayed through the middle portion of Monday's eventual 5-2 victory, but refused to panic as the Nittany Lions wasted quality chance after quality chance and failed to dent Adam Wilcox.

“I thought we generated a lot more chances,” PSU head coach Guy Gadowsky said. “I felt really good about the chances we had. What doesn’t show up here is we hit a crossbar, we hit a post, I thought we sort of missed an open net on a 2-on-1 rebound and I thought we generated some legitimate good chances so I felt good about that.”

By the time Kenny Brooks stuck one by the sophomore netminder, it was 3-0 for the visitors and only 9:59 of game time remained. Any good feelings from that first strike and any potential thoughts of a momentum shift were wiped out only 17 seconds later when Nate Condon put one by Eamon McAdam and the Gophers restored their three-goal edge.

McAdam played so well in the series opener, making a career-high 42 saves to keep his school in the contest, but Penn State had to use up all of its energy to erase a 2-0 deficit and ended up dropping a 3-2 decision after Ben Marshall's tally with 4:01 left in regulation.

"Tip the hat to their goaltender,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. "He played very well for Penn State. We had a lot of good looks and good rebound opportunities, but he was there to make the save almost every time."

He deserved a better fate. Even junior captain Tommy Olczyk remarked in the first intermission on Big Ten Network on Monday that his club "deserved to be in this game" down only 1-0. But as USCHO's Hockey East writer Dave Hendrickson once told me in an electronic correspondence, "deserve's got nothing to do with it."

“I thought he played a great game yesterday and started to get confidence,” Gadowsky added. “We wanted to get him back right away for a couple reasons: One, to continue that process of confidence, but also it’s deserved.”

Confidence, yes. Wins, no. Moral victories are no comfort as McAdam fell to 0-5-0. 

It's something both McAdam and Matt Skoff might be hearing quite a bit as the program tries to carve out a reputation in their conference and on the national scene. The grit, determination, enthusiasm and coaching are all there. The recruiting is not. That has to change, especially when facing five other national powerhouse programs who have a 60-year head start on the process. 

You could see it in the way they moved. The Nittany Lions desperately wanted to make a good impression, if not an outright statement, in their first home games since December 1. Nonetheless, against the school which has set up residence at the top of the rankings this season excepting one week, it was wishful thinking.

For Minnesota, both games were studies in economy of motion. Score in timely fashion, take multiple goal leads and then let the opposition tire itself out making a comeback. Such is the luxury of elite ranking.

Penn State outshot the Gophers 38-25 and won 40 of the game's 76 faceoffs in the back end of the double-home contests. On Sunday, the hosts won 32 of 65 in the dot. None of that matters when the amount in the cash register is lesser than your opponent.

"You certainly don't expect that," Gadowsky admitted of certain stats being on his team's side. "We are happy with that performance. As you know, the No. 1 team in the country doesn't need a ton of opportunities to finish and they did that, so give them credit."

How long will it be before the mutual admiration society will dissipate, and Gadowsky will become disappointed in the results? Will he even be the guy to give those rancorous pressers after disappointing defeats where close just isn't good enough anymore?

Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin aren't the juggernauts they were at the start of this Millennium. The Gophers, Spartans Badgers are a collective shadow of the teams which took home national titles in 2002-03 (MIN), 2006 (WISC) and 2007 (MSU). They're ripe for the plucking, and it would go a long way if the Blue and White could muster up a win or two before the end of the year.

Thing is, all of the above programs know they're in a bit of a well, and will be looking to feast on the weakest team in the six-member Big Ten to prop themselves up.

Still, despite any hope that can be drawn from playing two close games against the toughest foes on the schedule, there are inescapable facts: Penn State has lost nine of its last 10 games. They are just 4-12-1 on the year. The gauntlet only gets tougher from here, with back-to-back road games in East Lansing, a one-shot home deal against a Boston College team who blitzed them in Pittsburgh two weeks back, then two more on the road at Ohio State before four in a row back at the 'Peg against the Wolverines and Spartans.

Talismans won't work either. On Monday, it was former NHLer and Penn State parent Ed Olczyk and new head football coach James Franklin, who has made a great show since his hiring of how he intends to immerse himself in the university milieu.

“It was a good atmosphere,” There was good energy in the building, especially after they scored. It’s a really nice facility – they have a great base and a really good future. It’s unusual for us to go on the road and not have anybody hate us,” Lucia magnanimously added. “That’ll take some time.”

Leave that for the North Dakotas, Wisconsins, and Michigans of the world to cast their best insults against the Gophers...for now. Whipping up a healthy disrespect for a rival is also something that will need more close calls, stunning victories and crushing defeats to foster and foment in Happy Valley -- which is also a clear sign that a program has truly arrived.

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