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Breaking down Penn State men’s hockey’s upcoming home series against Niagara

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Penn State Men's Hockey vs. Arizona State, Penn State Scores

Penn State forward Connor MacEachern (29) hugs his teammates after scoring during the men's hockey game against Arizona State at Pegula Ice Arena on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020. Penn State won 5-4 in overtime.

It’s been over a week and a half since Penn State last stepped on the ice for in-game action to split a home series against Canisius, losing 4-1 in the first contest and taking the second one 5-2.

With plenty of time to prepare for its next foe, the 3-1 blue and white will host a somewhat unfamiliar opponent in Niagara on Thursday.

Though the two squads normally compete on a yearly basis, nearly two years have passed since the respective programs last met.

The most recent result swung in Guy Gadowsky’s favor — sweeping the Purple Eagles in a two-game series in the 2019-20 season.

Gadowsky made it certain there were some adjustments to be made for his Nittany Lions. The question, though, will be how Penn State intends to improve.

Now that Penn State has an opportunity to show off what it’s been working on over the bye week, Gadowsky was hesitant to set expectations for drastic changes going into the squad’s third series of the season.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do. This is going to be a process,” Gadowsky said. “We have certain areas that we absolutely have to get better at and we’re on our way.”

There have been a few moments over the course of the early stages of the season in which the Nittany Lions struggled at times, specifically in their 4-1 loss to Canisius.

However, it’s likely Niagara has not performed at a high enough level to warrant immediate fixes in the blue and white squad.

The Purple Eagles haven’t had a winning season since 2012-13 and are currently on pace to continue that unfavorable streak, starting off 0-2 after a series sweep courtesy of then-No. 8 North Dakota.

In defense of Niagara, defeating a top-10 ranked program in the country is no simple task, and losing to the Fighting Hawks is no indication that Niagara won’t compete against the Nittany Lions on Thursday.

It also doesn’t help Gadowsky that one of the team’s leaders in senior defenseman Clayton

Phillips' status is still up in the air after being sidelined after the season opener.

His injury will continue to be a huge blow to a team that has struggled defending the net, a problem that has nagged the program over the past few seasons.

Mix Phillips’ absence with a few new changes for the blue and white’s defense, and the Nittany Lions could show some growing pains in the young season.

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Sophomore forward Chase McLane is just one of the many players getting used to the system.

“We’ve got a new defensive zone this year, and I’m just starting to get comfortable with it,” McLane said.

However, Phillips’ injury has given other defenders the opportunity to step up and fill in for the senior defenseman.

Defensemen Paul DeNaples and Christian Berger have been massive for the blue and white, totaling five points and 19 blocks between the two.

DeNaples is also an important leader in his own right.

Playing in his fourth year for Penn State, Gadowsky has a lot of trust in the senior to provide quality play on the backline.

“I’m extremely impressed [with DeNaples’ leadership],” Gadowsky said. “Paul and the other leaders of the team have done an excellent job.”

At the end of the day, not much is changing for the Nittany Lions going into this series.

Looking back on what they have accomplished so far, 3-1 is a much hotter start to this year than last season’s 0-5 beginning.

However, Penn State can’t become complacent knowing that conference play is knocking on the door.

Senior forward Adam Pilewicz said the team isn’t too concerned with its 3-1 start to the schedule and that making adjustments early on is a normal part of any season.

While much of the starting lineup will remain the same ahead of this weekend series, there is some uncertainty as to whether senior Oskar Autio or sophomore Liam Souliere will start in goal.

Gadowsky remained fairly reserved about the matter, but he did, however, allude to a possible series-splitting start between Autio and Souliere.

Penn State will host Niagara on Thursday and Friday at 7:00 p.m. at the Pegula Ice Arena.

“We have to see what happens on Thursday before we know,” Gadowksy said. “I’m not making any promises, but it could happen.”

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Nate Lather is a men's hockey reporter at The Daily Collegian. He is a sophomore majoring in journalism.

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