Monday, March 24, 2014

Penn State eager to look ahead after first Big Ten season

Courtesy of USCHO
Mary Clarke is a junior at Penn State and an aspiring journalist. She spent copious amounts of time on site, covering both the men's and women's hockey teams.

The following is her account of the just-completed campaign for the Nittany Lions' men's program.

STATE COLLEGE, PA – The college hockey season came to an official end in Happy Valley, or Hockey Valley to die-hard locals in the heart of central Pennsylvania, this past weekend.

The Penn State Nittany Lions hockey team, led by second-year head coach Guy Gadowsky, completed their first season in the Big Ten Conference Friday night, losing out to the second-seeded Wisconsin Badgers by a 2-1 count in the semifinals of the inaugural Big Ten Tournament.

"We just didn't have any jump today at all,” said Gadowsky after the loss. “Maybe some of it is for playing a game, almost two games last night and then having to play a great team like Wisconsin.”

One night prior, the Nittany Lions shocked the hockey world by upending the Michigan, 2-1 in double overtime on a goal from Zach Saar, keeping Penn State’s season alive for at least one more day. It also ended the Wolverines' dreams of an NCAA Tournament bid. However, it was well rested Wisconsin, which earned a bye, that came away with the narrow victory, definitively ending Penn State’s second Division I season.

The Lions went 8-26-2 overall, and 3-16-1 in a conference filled with high-caliber opponents, two of which -- Minnesota and Wisconsin -- made it to the NCAA Tournament. That record falls well short of their 13-14-0 mark the team posted in the 2012-13 season, which was their first year of Division I play after holding status as a club team since the 1946-47 season. One thing that rang true throughout the season, according to opposing coaches who made their way through State College over the past season, was that Penn State’s record does not reflect their talent as a team.

More than 200 fans over the official building capacity of 6,014 filled the standing-room only sections on opening night against the Black Knights of Army on October 11 in the House That Terry Pegula Built, better known as Pegula Ice Arena. The government shutdown almost put the historical game in jeopardy but even that could not stop the Nittany Lions as the team rode their high-flying emotions to a 4-1 win. The buzz leading up to the game was ecstatic and almost had a football-weekend feel to it, an atmosphere no other sport until then has really been able to create as even shops downtown moved football jerseys to make way for hockey sweaters in their front windows.

Reality then kicked in. Penn State went 1-3-1 in the month of October, finishing off the opening month being soundly beaten by the Vermont Catamounts 5-2 in the second annual Philadelphia College Hockey Faceoff. The Blue and White won only two games in November but ran into top ranked teams in 2013 Frozen Four entrant UMass-Lowell and ECAC champions Union, which halted their momentum.

Big Ten play finally kicked off in December on the road against Wisconsin, where they suffered their biggest losing goal differential of the season in a 7-1 setback, only matched once afterwards in an 8-2 loss to Boston College later in the month as they fell short in the Three Rivers Classic title game.

From there, the road only got tougher. Only one of the remaining 19 regular-season games starting in January was against a non-conference opponent, as this time the Nits hosted then-No. 2 Boston College but only lost by one goal in a 3-2 defeat on January 25.

"It was a marked improvement from the team we saw over Christmas. They were more cohesive as a team, played more physically. They're right in the mix against some quality teams, BC head coach Jerry York said in praise of his opponents.

It took until February 8 for the Nittany Lions to claim their first Big Ten conference win of the season. A 7-3 loss to the Michigan Wolverines the night before to kick off a weekend series at the 'Peg -- their ninth in a row -- lit a fire under the team as sophomore starting goaltender Matthew Skoff made 32 saves and the Lions blanked their first big hockey rival 4-0 thanks to a three-goal first period.

Two of their three remaining conference wins also came against the Wolverines, both in overtime, with a tying goal in the dwindling seconds by last season’s leading point scorer Casey Bailey which led to a 5-4 overtime victory (on a David Goodwin marker) at Yost Ice Arena on February 21. The Wolverines were the only Big Ten team that Penn State held a winning record against (3-2-0) for the season, including the playoffs.

Their only other conference win came against Ohio State in the final game of the regular season. That 4-2 win against the Buckeyes in front of a friendly crowd helped catapult the team into the Big Ten Tournament, where they held the sixth and last seed in the one-and-done quarterfinals. The job was simple, yet impossible: win out in order to secure a berth in the NCAA Tournament for a chance to make it into the Frozen Four. It was a long shot from the start, but PSU managed to put a scare into their fellow programs for one night.

The team fell short of their NCAA dreams in the 2-1 loss to Wisconsin but Gadowsky remarked after the loss on his team’s obvious improvements from the start of the season.

“This was a tremendous experience and we're very proud of the strides that our team took. I thought we improved a ton. It was a phenomenal year to compete in. It was an absolute honor,” said Gadowsky of the inaugural Big Ten tourney. “Disappointed we came up a little short today but extremely proud of how far we've come.”

Starting goaltender for most of the year and netminder in the 2-1 loss to the Badgers, Skoff echoed his coach’s sentiments on the team’s defensive improvement after the loss Friday: “From our first Big Ten game… we lost 7-2 to Wisconsin. That was a 2-1 game in the playoffs. That just speaks about how good we got defensively throughout the year with sticks on puck or just backchecking to the house. It was a full team effort.”

Gadowsky, who rebuilt programs at Alaska-Fairbanks and Princeton, feels “extremely optimistic” about the team’s future, saying they have “come a long, long way” from the start of the season.
“There's just a difference in confidence and a difference in our experience. And I feel like we're just a much, much different hockey team,” said the 46-year-old native of Alberta.

Gadowsky and Skoff have more reasons to be optimistic for the coming years. Penn State played in 16 one-goal games this season, finishing 5-11-0 and proving it can hold its own against many of the best teams in the nation. Every single one of the Lions' point-holders will be returning for the 2014-15 season, only losing senior Michael McDonagh while adding at least five recruits to the mix.

The Nittany Lions also have three capable goaltenders in rotation with Skoff, upcoming sophomore and 2013 New York Islanders draft pick Eamon McAdam, and rising senior PJ Musico. Skoff and McAdam shared most of the minutes this season but Musico is a competent starter and can fill the role of a backup just as easily.

Most of the problems Penn State encountered during the season was that its brand of aggressive play paved the way for too many unacceptable penalties at inopportune times, especially earlier in the season where the team was still trying to feel out the new Big Ten officiating style.

Two of the team’s leading scorers from the 2012-13 season, Bailey and David Glen, also got off to slow starts to open the year but were helped out by the resurgence of newcomers Eric Scheid and  Goodwin as the duo totaled 38 points on the season.

Penn State proved it will belong amongst a dominant and traditional class of major programs in their first year of Big Ten participation. They skated with the best teams in the country and galvanized a ready-made fan base that sold out Pegula Ice Arena in 16 of the team’s 18 home games. Placing last in the Big Ten seems like a step down from their almost .500 record a season ago, but to compare the two seasons would be a disservice to a team that has taken large strides on and off the ice in the past few months.

For a second-year Division I hockey program that was thrown into a conference full of big, established hockey schools with proud histories, I would have to say Penn State is well on their way to making some new history of their own.
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