The 2018-2019 college hockey season has reached its unofficial “midway” point with a short winter break which halts competitive action until the weekend following Christmas.
This first half of the season has seen Penn State men’s hockey soar to new heights on a national scale. The Nittany Lions have treated the country to one of the best offensive displays this century.
However, Penn State will have to clean up its act defensively if it wishes to compete for both a Big Ten and national championship down the stretch.
Penn State is not just leading the country in team offense this season, they are scoring goals at a historic clip. The Nittany Lions are averaging an astounding 5.22 goals per game. This over a whole goal better than the second-ranked scoring offense – St. Cloud State – which averages 4.13 goals per game.
Penn State is on pace for the best scoring mark since Quinnipiac averaged 5.42 goals per game in the 1999-2000 season.
This is not just a one-man show either. Coach Guy Gadowsky has numerous Nittany Lions firing on all cylinders this season. The sophomore duo of Evan Barratt and Alex Limoges are tied atop the individual scoring list with 29 points each. Juniors Liam Folkes and Brandon Biro are also ranked in the top 20 nationally – with 22 and 20 points, respectively.
Penn State is the only team in college hockey with four players who have eclipsed the 20-point plateau at this point in the season.
So, with all the historic offensive success the Nittany Lions are experiencing this season, why are they ranked sixth in a seven team Big Ten conference? The main answer becomes the team’s execution on defense.
Some Defensive Difficulties
Penn State ranks 56th nationally out of 60 Division-I programs, and last in the Big Ten, in team defense. The Nittany Lions concede an average of 3.72 goals per contest. Far too often this season, the defensive play has lead to lapses in performance and killed Penn State’s momentum. This has especially been exposed since the beginning of conference play.
Late-game collapses and blown leads have also become a norm for Gadowsky’s bunch this season. The Nittany Lions have four blown third period leads, only winning one of those matchups in overtime, and losing the other three. Most notably, Penn State has fallen victim to a four-goal collapse at home against an unranked Michigan side, along with blowing a 4-2 lead to Princeton in Philadelphia last Saturday.
What is the difference between Penn State with an anemic defense and Penn State with a fluid defense? The results were shown two weekends ago against No. 5 Notre Dame.
On Friday, the Nittany Lions dropped the series opener to the Fighting Irish 5-4, despite outshooting their opposition 48-24. Penn State fell victim to a lack of concentration after scoring, failing to score successive goals and conceding an average of 2:37 of game time after scoring.
On Saturday, Penn State came out with a much more solid defensive game plan. After conceding the opening goal early, the Nittany Lions scored nine consecutive goals, including five against the reigning Mark Richter award winner and Big Ten goaltender of the year, Cale Morris. They also maintained their focus and did not give up high-quality chances right after scoring.
Penn State showed the entire country the potential it has with consistency on defense with a blowout victory over a top-five program.
The Nittany Lions are fortunate to receive an even longer holiday break, as they do not resume action until January 4 against Minnesota.
Hopefully, Gadowsky and his staff can take this longer interval and shorten up the mistakes made in the first half of the season, so Penn State can find consistency in time for another NCAA tournament run.
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