Saturday, March 10, 2012

What Went Wrong?

Inspired in part by the comments on my recap of the Oakland game, I decided to take one more look back before we forge ahead. Here are five things that contributed to the Icers' disappointing finish at nationals.

Not the last time Justin Kirchhevel and Nick Holmes crossed paths.

The Best Players Weren't The Best Players

It's a cliche, but one that held true here. Justin Kirchhevel and Tommy Olczyk were far and away the Icers' two leading scorers all season. Through the regular season, Kirchhevel's 36 assists and 55 points were team highs, while Olczyk's 23 goals were tops. Tommy O's 50 points were second best, and third-place Taylor Holstrom was pretty distantly so with 34. So basically, those two guys were a huge proportion of the Icer offense - maybe too huge, in hindsight.

During the tournament though, neither player was particularly noticeable except for a 1:01 sequence against Oklahoma. At the horn to end the second period, of course, Kirchhevel got involved in his tete-a-tete with OU goalie Nick Holmes. With Holmes then serving his major penalty for head butting to start the third, Olczyk (and Dom Morrone) burned cold backup Colin Fernandes twice in quick succession, for what would prove the winning margin. Kirchhevel was then benched for the fateful Oakland game due to his lack of discipline.


It's been a two-season-long epidemic, and it cost the Icers dearly against a disciplined, opportunistic Oakland team. I'll leave it at that.

Our Expectations

Given the hype of the transition to NCAA status and given the entry of those four NCAA transfers (Kirchhevel, Holstrom, Bryce Johnson and Nate Jensen) as well as the arrival of USHL vets Olczyk and Brandon Russo, I think many of us got a little carried away. When the season opened with the 12-1 pounding of Lebanon Valley and an 11-0 ripping of a good Illinois program, for example, I brought up the idea of going undefeated through the season in one of the live game blogs. It was a stupid, stupid thing to say, and I fully own up to that. I wasn't alone in that thinking though.

I think what we all forgot is this:
  • More than half of the team was not new this year. The core of the team was still largely the same as the one that finished 11th last season after a first-round ACHA tournament loss to Rhode Island.
  • The ACHA is better than ever from a talent standpoint and getting some former DI players doesn't entitle a team to roll the entire association. How many national championships have Shawn Tingley (Providence to Rhode Island), Blake MacNicol (Alabama-Huntsville to Ohio) and Blake Martin (Nebraska-Omaha to Oklahoma) won? That's not to say that PSU wasn't the most talented team this year - I do think that was the case - but the gap wasn't so wide that it was unscalable by a good opponent, especially if PSU was operating at less than 100 percent.
  • While the massive group of newcomers outweighs last year's small senior class on balance, it's foolish to be dismissive of losing all-time program greats like Tim O'Brien and Teddy Hume.

The ESCHL and the Schedule

All season long, the Icers showed signs of a team that wasn't challenged enough by a schedule that lacked for both steak and sizzle at times. I think the decision to pull out of the ESCHL for the final season of ACHA play (assuming PSU initiated that move) was a mistake.

Okay, maybe adding those lost conference games turns out to be a wash (two more against newly-minted national champion Delaware would have been great, but those West Chester and Robert Morris games...maybe not so much). However, I'm really thinking about that conference tournament over the weekend of February 17th-19th. Instead of possibly playing both UD and Rhode Island again that weekend, the Icers closed with two against Mercyhurst, and one each versus Duquesne and Kent State. PSU essentially went from February 4th until March 4th - the comeback against Oklahoma through the tournament game with the Sooners - without playing a single game they stood any realistic chance of losing. That's no way to stay sharp down the stretch.

I do understand some of the realities that led to the schedule being what it was. But I still feel like it was an opportunity lost to some extent, not just in terms of this season, but in terms of growing the program for its NCAA future. Essentially, PSU prepared for its inaugural NCAA season by playing the same schedule as usual, except with a proven NCAA coaching staff and an infusion of a few former NCAA players.

Tournaments, Generally

I've frequently thought about what a national championship really means since the Icers were stunned by the Grizzlies. It's kind of crazy if you scrutinize it. Penn State played 31 regular season games this year and won 27. That's good by any standard (except the "we're going to go undefeated!!!11!!" one, I suppose), yet the season is ultimately defined by whether you go on a four-game winning streak at the end. It seems a least a little backwards to value that over something like, say, being ranked number one through the vast majority of that 31-game season while (most of the time) plowing everyone, but hey, that's the system.

That's not meant to take away from Delaware's accomplishment this season, or the accomplishments of past Icers teams for that matter, but I do think a little perspective is in order. One loss at the wrong time should not condemn the body of work as a whole. A national championship was never PSU's birthright - again, the talent gap wasn't wide enough to consider anything automatic - and any time you play a good team, there's a decent chance you'll lose. Play three good teams in a row and, yep, multiply "decent chance" by three.

My point? If it wasn't Oakland, it might have been the Hens, who were one of the three ACHA teams to top the Icers during the regular season. Maybe, if the puck bounces a little differently in a couple of the tournament's overtime games, it would have been Ohio or Arizona State. Or Lindenwood in the final if the semifinal losers win instead. Maybe if Holmes keeps his cool, the Sooners find a goal in the third period and come out on top. They're all good teams, they all could have pulled it off in theory. Within a short, single-elimination tournament, and by extension within one game, a sole bad break can spell doom. We should be careful to not let that break or two define what we saw this season.

In the NCAA, teams and their supporters frequently measure themselves by accomplishments other than national championships. Many of those are based on the regular season, like rivalry games, the Cleary Cup (ECAC regular season championship trophy) or the MacNaughton Cup (same thing, for the WCHA). Others are based on tournaments - both the NCAA and conference tourneys - but even there, boasts of something less than "national championship" are considered valid, like NCAA tournament or Frozen Four appearances. I think part of this phenomenon is a general understanding that winning the NCAA tournament, which involves four victories in a row to emerge from a group of 16 roughly equivalent teams, is both rare and probably at least partially influenced by pure luck.

By the way, that's our reality now. Time to move on.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff. Well summarized.

    I think the competition indirectly may have contributed to the turnover problem. In the games I attended, it always looked like PSU was trying to push the puck at every opportunity and make the game as vertical as possible to take advantage of it's superior speed. That's not their fault. It would be hard not to play that way. What are they going to do? Slow down just to make it more sporting? Not pass to the open guy just because he's a bit too open?

    If you make a mistake playing that way, it leads to turnovers and odd man rushes. Even if they gave up a turnover, usually their defense could recover and if they didn't, they'd score so many goals that it wouldn't matter if they gave up one or two.

    But that's a hard way to win against a cohesive team that they couldn't outskate at every turn. Not that they didn't realize that Oakland or Oklahoma weren't a lot better than Kent State and Pitt, but the game is so much about habits and instincts, it's hard to change one's game week by week.

    Next year will be a lot different. They're going to have to learn how to buy into a system and be a bit more patient and be tactically sound. I don't think Guy will use the left-wing lock or any of that crap. I think they'll still try to play positive hockey, but it's going to require a lot of mental discipline.

    It would also help if PSU could get a real stand-on-his head steal-games kind of a goalie. I don't see that we have that right now.

    And perhaps watch Miracle and Rocky a lot to stay upbeat.