UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State men's hockey is headed back to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. Although the championship features a new format this year, there's no denying the Nittany Lions have been here before and they know what it takes to earn the title.
Winners of the last five straight, Penn State heads to South Bend, Indiana riding some serious momentum. Averaging nearly five goals per game within the stretch, the Nittany Lions knocked off Minnesota in back-to-back weekends to earn the semifinals matchup with Notre Dame.
Powered by the support of a passionate crowd inside Pegula Ice Arena, Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky once again gave credit to the fans for creating a truly home-ice advantage to flare momentum.
For Gadowsky, there's only one word to describe Penn State's perfectly timed momentum though - fun.
"I think a bit of that momentum we're riding comes from the great crowd that we've had," Gadowsky said. "Obviously senior weekend, alumni weekend, that was really emotional and we gained a lot of momentum from the emotion of the weekend and the crowd was phenomenal. Then to come back on such a quick turnaround and see the support of the community and so many students come back from spring break, we certainly rode that momentum as well."
Momentum isn't anything new for the Nittany Lions, who have weathered their fair share of high and low points throughout the season.
From 11 unbeaten outings spanning mid-November through mid-January, Penn State navigated an eight-game stretch without a win before regrouping to respond with its current streak.
Rather than pin pointing a turning point though, Gadowsky describes where the Nittany Lions are now as the culmination of little lessons along the way.
"I think there have been experiences that we had to learn from, early losses to AIC or Mercyhurst," Gadowsky said. "I thought we learned a lot through the streak that we were unbeaten in 11 and I thought we learned a lot through the streak that we had where we played really well and didn't win. You can point to a number of things, not only in our games and competitions but in our practices as well."
A product of those experiences has been consistency, something Gadowsky is hoping the Nittany Lions can continue to sustain headed into Saturday's meeting against the fourth-ranked Fighting Irish.
"In terms of consistency, it's so elusive, it's so hard to get and I think they're a pretty smart bunch," Gadowsky said. "They figured out what they have to do to play a consistent game and they did pretty well for four games in a row and hopefully we can keep it going, but that's not an easy thing to do."
The Fighting Irish have lost four of their last five, at 4-6-1 in their last 11 games, which also includes a 2-2 tie at Penn State, although Notre Dame grabbed the extra point in a shootout victory.
All momentum aside, Notre Dame will hardly be easy outing for the Nittany Lions, especially with the Fighting Irish entering fresh from an off week.
Penn State has plenty to draw from when it comes to game planning, having already seen Notre Dame four times during the regular season, most recently in the 2-2 tie, where the Nittany Lions battled back from a two-goal first period deficit.
"I think that if you look at the last weekend that we played here at Pegula, I think you have to tip your hat to Notre Dame in the sense of how disciplined they were and how structured they were," Gadowsky said. "They were very disciplined, very structured, very consistent team in what they did. I think you can learn from others as well, not just your own experiences. I think we learned a little bit from that."
Throughout all the meetings, Notre Dame goaltender Cale Morris continues to be among the best in the nation.
It doesn't take much dissecting when it comes to what makes him so good either, with both Gadowsky and junior forward Chase Berger keeping it simple - he's just really good.
"I don't know, I played against him in juniors a couple of times too and he was really good." Berger said. "We just have to shoot the puck."
Morris owns a .945 save percentage that's ranked first in the Big Ten and second nationally, while Notre Dame opponents are also averaging fewer than two goals a game to date.
When it comes to game planning though, the Nittany Lions will have to play well in all areas, and Penn State isn't looking to divert from its own style to get there.
"Certainly we understand their goaltender's performance throughout the year and their goaltender's performance against us," Gadowsky said. "I think that we have to somehow figure out a way, without changing what we do too much, to maximize our chances."
No. 13 Penn State and Notre Dame meet Saturday, March 10 at 5:30 p.m. at the Compton Family Ice Arena. The Big Ten Tournament semifinal matchup will also broadcast live on ESPNU.
- Switching it up in this week's Penn State weekly check in, Berger takes to the microphone for a one-on-one with senior teammate James Robinson.
- Penn State's Brett Murray made an appearance on the fourth line at center for the Nittany Lions in place of an injured Nikita Pavlychev. While Gadowsky noted Pavlychev is day-to-day, he was most impressed with Murray's collegiate debut performance at center, which included one assist.
"I thought he came out and won the opening draw of the series and I think it gave him confidence," Gadowsky said. "It set the tone. I thought he played really, really well. You have to admit, part of Nikita's not just value, but part of his effectiveness, has to do with he's such an imposing figure. Every team that see's Nikita is out of the lineup is happy and then all the sudden they see Brett Murray is maybe an inch and a half shorter and I think he did a really good job of diminishing the loss."