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Nittany Lion Notebook: Penn State at the Three Rivers Classic

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Penn State's last action on the ice in 2014 is most likely a forgettable experience for the blue and white, after the Nittany Lions headed to Pittsburgh to take part in their third Three Rivers Classic tournament at the CONSOL Center and picked up two losses to end their first half of the season.

In their first game after their holiday break on Monday, then ranked No. 20 Penn State (9-6-2, 3-1-0-0 B1G) dropped to No. 19 Robert Morris (12-2-3, 9-2-3 AHA) 4-2 on a questionable penalty to start the tournament and finished the series with a lackluster 4-1 loss versus Western Michigan (7-9-2, 2-6-2-2 NCHC) Tuesday afternoon in the consolation game.

Monday: 4-2 loss vs. Robert Morris

The turning point of Monday's game versus Robert Morris came in the second period on a controversial call on Penn State defenseman Nate Jensen. The senior was called for a contact to the head major penalty at 10:47 of the middle frame after the defenseman seemingly hit a Robert Morris player high with no score on the board for either team. Jensen was given a 10-minute game misconduct penalty along with the five-minute major to put the Colonials on a power play.

Robert Morris scored twice in 30 seconds on the ensuing five-minute extra-man advantage, beating Nittany Lion netminder Eamon McAdam despite the sophomore being lights out until that power play.

Brady Ferguson gave the Colonials the 1-0 lead three minutes into the power play on a wrister that beat McAdam from the slot, then teammate John Rey doubled the score on a weak shot from the left circle that the sophomore netminder misplayed to give Robert Morris a 2-0 lead with 5:19 to go in the middle frame.

Penn State got one back on freshman Scott Conway's fourth of the season with 2:36 to play in the second to cut the Colonial lead in half 2-1, as the forward's wrist shot went glove side on Robert Morris goaltender Terry Shafer after linemates Dylan Richard and Curtis Loik helped set up the play from the faceoff.

The Nittany Lions nearly had a tying goal from Luke Juha in the first minute of the third as the defenseman's slapshot hit iron and stayed out of the net. Despite constant Penn State pressure through the first few minutes of the period, Robert Morris sucked the life out of the Nittany Lions with a 3-1 deflection tally from Daniel Leavens 4:36 into the third.

There seemed to be life for Penn State after Casey Bailey put the Nittany Lions within one again after McAdam was pulled for the extra attacker with 1:49 to play and the forward put home a loose puck past Shafer, but Robert Morris' Zac Lynch stopped any hopes of a Penn State comeback with an empty net goal with 48 seconds to go.

McAdam saved 29 shots in his second loss of the season while Penn State won the shot count battle, beating Robert Morris 37-33. However, the Colonials went 2-for-6 on the power play while the Nittany Lions could not cash in on any of their three attempts.

Tuesday: 4-1 loss vs. Western Michigan

In the consolation game, Penn State faired no better against Western Michigan, putting in an uninspired two periods of play before tacking on their only goal of the game in the first five minutes of the third period thanks to Loik in their 4-1 loss to the Broncos Tuesday afternoon.

Western Michigan came out strong in the first and put up their first score of the night 7:22 into the game on a wrist shot from Sheldon Dries, who beat Penn State netminder Matt Skoff from the slot to put the Broncos up 1-0 in the first ten minutes of the match.

Penn State outshot Western Michigan in the middle frame 16-12, but had nothing to show for their efforts as the Broncos put in two more goals in the second. Western Michigan was aided by another 10-minute misconduct on the Nittany Lions - Tommy Olczyk was the guilty party this time for extra curriculars after the senior was called for a hooking penalty 55 seconds into the period. Twenty four seconds after Olczyk was taken to the box, the Broncos took advantage of the penalty thanks to Aidan Muir's third goal of the season to put Western Michigan up 2-0.

The Broncos added to their lead with 5:02 to go in the period on a tally by Colton Hargrove after Penn State committed an egregious turnover trying to clear their zone. The wrister off a quick spin by Hargrove beat Skoff for the 3-0 Western Michigan lead heading into the second intermission.

Loik's goal to start the third period was helped by solid passing between linemates Luke Juha and Erik Autio on defense. Autio's shot rebounded off of Bronco goaltender Lukas Hafner right to Loik to cut Western Michigan's lead to 3-1.

The Broncos' final score came with 8:38 to go in the period on Muir's second tally of the game and the goal chased Skoff for senior goaltender PJ Musico, who put in four saves in his first appearance in net for the Nittany Lions this year.

Skoff saved 28 shots in net for Penn State while the Nittany Lions outshot their opponent again, this time beating the Broncos on the scoresheet 33-32. Special teams was key in the game, with Western Michigan going 1-for-2 on their power play attempts while Penn State was held to 0-for-4.

The Good

Despite ending 2014 on a sour note and taking a step backwards to end the first half of their season, Penn State will enter 2015 at 9-6-2 with a 3-0-1 conference record. The Nittany Lions are still leading the Big Ten standings and are 5-0-1 at home, with 12 of their remaining 19 games at Pegula Ice Arena.

Sure, a bad two games to finish out their 2014 portion of the season isn't what head coach Guy Gadowsky drew up heading into the Three Rivers Classic, but there's still a lot of hockey to be played and harder opponents to be had. Penn State has thrived under adversity in the past and where they sit now, there's no reason for the Nittany Lion faithful to panic over one off series heading into the new year.

The Bad

Special teams killed Penn State in the Three Rivers Classic. Monday's possibly phantom misconduct call against Jensen was the start of the Nittany Lions' downfall in their game against Robert Morris, who scored twice on the five minute contact to the head major.

"That [penalty] was the game," Gadowsky said after the loss Monday. "We watched it over and over, and we were going to tell Nate Jensen to make that exact play, the exact same way every single time."

Penn State's penalty kill let in three goals on eight attempts in the tournament while getting no goals on their seven chances on the power play. The Nittany Lions have the sixth best ranked power play in the NCAA and the second highest in the Big Ten with 23.88 percent, while their penalty kill ranks near the bottom of the pack at 43rd in the NCAA at 80 percent and third last in the Big Ten.

Special teams can make or break games and that certainly looks that way after the series Penn State had.

Series Standout Players

  • F Curtis Loik: 1 goal, 1 assist, 9 shots
  • G Eamon McAdam: 29 saves on 33 shots (Season: .908 SV%, 3.09 GAA)
  • G Matt Skoff: 24 saves on 28 shots (Season: .914 SV%, 2.45 GAA)
  • Upcoming

    Penn State will host Big Ten opponent Ohio State (5-9-1, 1-2-0 Big Ten) at Pegula Ice Arena for their first series of 2015 on Jan. 9 and 10.