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Penn State Hockey: Nittany Lions Know Exactly What These Early Games Mean To Postseason Chances

on October 09, 2018 4:00 PM

Minnesota was a lock to make the tournament following the 2017-18 season.

Well almost a lock.

There was one situation the final day of conference tournament play that would see the Gophers go from a postseason participant to simply an observer. Six games all going to wrong way on the same day. That would work the numbers in the wrong direction, bursting the Gophers' bubble.

And all six did exactly that. Minnesota sent home, longtime coach Don Lucia fired not long after.

it's a lesson Penn State hockey almost learned the hard way as well, the Nittany Lions looking at losses to American International, Mercyhurst and a smattering of close Big Ten games the months prior. It left the program in a precarious situation, needing to beat Minnesota in four straight games to punch a ticket. Beat a team it rarely beats, and do it four times in just over a week.

But the Nittany Lions pulled it off, a double-sweep was just enough to make it two-straight years in the postseason.

The result, Penn State and coach Guy Gadowksy aren't pretending these early games are any less important than the ones to come in the following months. Every game matters. They've always known that, they've always said it, but now they've experienced it.

"We actually have talked about it, because it's the truth. It's absolutely the truth," said Gadowsky. "I haven't looked at Minnesota's schedule last year but if there was a game that they didn't have success in early on that could have been the difference between an NCAA lock at the end of the season. We know it's extremely important."

It's a thought process in stark contrast to that of probably the most in-the-moment coach on campus, James Franklin, whose "1-0 this week" mantra has been adopted by nearly everyone in town as far down as State College Area High School football.

But there's something to be said about the approach, the hockey season just long enough to feel like a grind, but short enough that the importance of every win is hard to forget. Slumps can end otherwise good seasons, streaks can turn them around. You can only take care of it one game at a time, but you can't ignore the big picture.

So why does Gadowsky bring it up?

"I think the reason we do talk about it, the new guys that are incoming, they may not realize that, but it is absolutely the case," Gadowsky said. "But I think that's part of what makes college hockey so fun, the games that were NCAA game this weekend are just as important as they are in March. So it's fun to scoreboard watch even now."

If there is anything weird about hockey, it's how much the length of the season can change depending on at what level the hockey is being played. It can range from 30 to 70 games up to 82 regular season contests in the NHL. Football, it's more or less the same, basketball up until the NBA is roughly the same. 

But in hockey, the new guys might be used to a week or two of slumping in juniors or overseas. Now though, there's no room for that kind of thing, it all matters, may as well admit it.

"I think it's a little bit of an adjustment," sophomore forward Brandon Biro said on Monday. "In juniors you can lose a game here or there and you'll still be alright, but as you saw last year we almost missed the tournament because we lost games in October and November. It is pretty crazy that every single game matters it doesn't matter who you're playing. Any single game can ruin your whole season."

Then again, it's not hard to get up for a game when they all matter. And fittingly, few in the non conference slate can do more to help the Nittany Lions than a season-opening series against Clarkson, a program that made its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008 last season.

“I think these games are so important because we don’t play as many as we are used to so I know for me I get way more excited for the first game now than I used too when I was a kid,” captain Chase Berger said.

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