This loss caused the Nittany Lions to finish 16th in the Pairwise, computer-generated rankings which determine the at-large bids in the NCAA tournament. This ranking kept Penn State outside of the NCAA tournament field for the first time in three seasons by a single spot.
It was ultimately heartbreak for a Nittany Lions squad which has shown so much potential throughout the season. Despite expectations prior to the season, which did not necessarily guarantee an NCAA tournament berth, performances throughout the season showed flashes of something greater.
Not always looking the part
There were several games which allowed Penn State to potentially look like a team which could not only make the NCAA tournament but potentially go on a run. This includes a 9-1 thumping of the aforementioned Notre Dame in the regular season and the 5-1 win on the road against the regular season conference champion Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten tournament.
Unfortunately, inconsistency impeded the Nittany Lions from reaching their true potential. For every great win, there was an equally great loss. A blown 4-1 lead against Princeton and 4-2 lead against Michigan haunted Penn State.
In the end, the Nittany Lions’ offense, which led all of college hockey, scoring an average of 4.54 goals per game, could not compensate for a defense which ranked 56th out of 60 Division I teams, conceding 3.56 goals per game.
Despite success in recent years, it is worth posing the question – would a change of tactics help such a talented hockey team reach the “next level” of making an inaugural Frozen Four appearance and even competing for a national championship?
The phrase “defense wins championships” tends to take no exception in the sport of college hockey. After all, fifteen of sixteen tournament teams rank within the top 20 in scoring defense.
Penn State’s defensive woes have no doubt been what is holding this team back. The defense has continued to regress since the Nittany Lions inaugural NCAA tournament berth in 2016-17. It is also worth noting that Penn State’s deepest postseason run came in its best season defensively at the Division I level.
Penn State finished the 2016-17 season tied at 24th nationally in scoring defense, conceding only 2.77 goals per game. This body of work coincided with a Big Ten tournament title and the program’s lone NCAA tournament victory.
However, it looks like no tactical change is coming. Coach Guy Gadowsky has remained adamant that he will continue implementing his style of play, pushing defensemen further up the ice to pinch the puck in the offensive zone, fully running the risk of leaving his team susceptible at the back.
Gadowsky on whether team philosophy can change year-to-year: "We're pretty comfortable with what we do. Its not a matter of changing the answer, its more just about getting better at what we do."— Penn State CommRadio (@PSUCommRadio) March 19, 2019
With Gadowsky making his stance clear, the focus shifts primarily to the depth of the Nittany Lion roster. Can this Penn State offense truly carry this team towards progress, or will this pattern of regression these past two seasons continue?
Only time will tell, but luckily for the Nittany Lions, they will not experience the troubles of NHL prospects leaving school early. Both Evan Barratt and Nikita Pavlychev were in serious talks with the organizations which have their draft rights, the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins respectively, about leaving school early in going pro. Ultimately, it currently looks as though both are almost locks to return to “Hockey Valley” next season.
In addition, leading scorer Alex Limoges will also remain at Penn State. Limoges went un-drafted during his eligibility window but could have left school and signed with any team interested in his talents.
Guy Gadowsky doesn't have any indication "right now" that Penn State will be losing anyone for an early departure. Notes -more as a caveat than a warning- that things can change.— Ben Jones (@Ben_Jones88) March 27, 2019
It is very possible that coach Gadowsky could field his most talented Nittany Lion team yet this coming season. Now, with a long offseason ahead of them, will they be able to make the changes necessary to improve in 2019-20?
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