For Penn State to make the Big Ten Tournament semifinals was improbable in itself.
The Nittany Lions held a 3-2 lead over Wisconsin with less than seven minutes left in regulation, legitimately having the Badgers on the ropes of an early conference tournament exit for the No. 1 seed.
Though the nation’s leading goal-scorer in Cole Caufield put Wisconsin on his back by scoring the equalizer and game-winning goal, the blue and white seriously gave the Big Ten’s best in the regular season a run for their money.
Despite the heartbreaking exit, Guy Gadowsky beamed when speaking about his squad and its performance.
“You saw what this team is about,” Gadowsky said. “As far as I’m concerned, we are one of the best teams in the country, for sure.”
Just a day before Monday’s defeat, the Nittany Lions shocked a Notre Dame team that had dominated Penn State as of late.
Before Sunday’s 6-3 win for the blue and white, the Fighting Irish had beaten the Nittany Lions by a combined score of 12-3 in their previous two encounters.
Of course, that pair of contests came directly after a 34-day layoff for Penn State. Not only did the team endure a prolonged hiatus, but Guy Gadowsky’s team had a difficult beginning to the year.
“We started 0-5, but after we got through that, we were one of the hottest teams in the nation in what I think you can argue is the very best conference until we got shut down,” Gadowsky said.
Sandwiched around Penn State’s difficult start and the duo of blowouts at the hands of Notre Dame was a 9-4 run for the Nittany Lions. Just as it seemed the blue and white was finding its stride, the program was put on a pause.
In lieu of Big Ten competition and a regular practice schedule, Gadowsky said Penn State held just one practice that came right before its season-finale series against Notre Dame.
According to the program’s leader, this interruption was detrimental to the Nittany Lions’ development.
“You learn from every weekend you play, and we lost a lot of learning in a very crucial time,” Gadoswky said. “I give the guys credit for what they were able to do in this tournament for their lack of preparation. That was pretty remarkable.”
In those two games back, the blue and white jumped out to first period leads but quickly let them vanish, as its players’ conditioning was not up to the level of Notre Dame’s players.
“Those two games [at Compton Family Ice Arena] were extremely difficult. You take 34 days off, you’re going to be extremely rusty — even if you get to practice — but we didn’t get to practice,” Gadowsky said.
“The cardio aspect was what really hurt us, and it was significant and it was probably a little risky in terms of injury, but we had to go through with it.”
In between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the conference tournament, Gadowsky called upon assistant director of performance enhancement Cam Davidson for his assistance.
Gadowsky said he asked Davidson to come up with a plan for not only workouts, but practices as well, that would help the Nittany Lions better recover in anticipation of the conference tournament.
The plan worked like a charm, as Penn State appeared much better conditioned in both its tournament games.
That is, up until the overtime period when arguably the best player in the country in Caufield carried the load for the Badgers as they moved onto the Big Ten Tournament final.
Even in defeat, Gadowsky was proud of what his team was able to accomplish and how it pushed Wisconsin to the brink.
“I’m extremely proud of this group, I really am,” Gadowsky said. “The way they came out, that was extremely impressive.”
In light of a difficult season due to a winless first five games, an elongated coronavirus pause and Gadowsky spending the season away from his family that was stationed in Canada throughout the 2020-21 campaign, Gadowsky spoke highly of his team.
Their determination and perseverance was not lost on him, even if this year’s team won’t come home with any championship banners or trophies.
“It really made it worthwhile for me in a very tough year,” Gadowsky said. “I will always remember this group, for sure.”
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