UNIVERSITY PARK — The Penn State men’s ice hockey team liked what it got to see last weekend, and they are feeling pretty confident right now.
The Nittany Lions lost twice, but it’s hard not to feel good when you’re a first-year Division I program and you just skated to a pair of tight losses to the nation’s No. 8 team and a Frozen Four participant a season ago.
“We didn’t come away with the results we wanted,” sophomore forward Tommy Olczyk said. “But there definitely were some positives to take out of there.”
The fledgling program played to 2-0 and 4-1 losses to Union, with three of the goals surrendered in the final minute of regulation into empty nets. The Nittany Lions were the younger, smaller, less experienced team on the ice, but they hardly looked overwhelmed.
The weekend may likely be one of the major milestones of the first half, even if it’s not on the same level as first goal or first win.
“It’s a stepping stone,” freshman forward David Glen said. “We see where we are and where we have to get to. A team like Union’s a great marker for where we want to be at. I think we’re on our way.”
It’s also not hard to feel optimistic about the program. They carry a 6-5 record into a pair of exhibition games this weekend against a former rival from the American Collegiate Hockey Association in Arizona State — which is 18-0 and No. 1 in the ACHA club rankings.
The question is how will the team handle playing a club-level team this weekend after so many challenges the last few weeks.
“I think we’re progressing a little faster than everyone thought we would,” Olczyk said. “I, myself, thought it was going to be a rougher transition. We’re able to hang with a Union, we’re able to beat an Air Force. We’re trying to take one game at a time, not look too far ahead into next year, but in a very short while we’ll be able to beat some of those teams, that’s for sure.”
The Nittany Lions also got a glimpse at what a top-10 team does and kind of steps they need to take into the future.
“We had a good lesson given to us by Union how hard you have to work to be a top team,” assistant coach Keith Fisher said. “(We have to) pay attention to our details not only in practice but in games. We have to carry that over. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing a club team, a Division III team, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Bentley, whoever.”
A few games into the season, it appeared P.J. Musico had earned the honor of being the team’s No. 1 goalie with several strong performances, but then a couple shaky games reopened the door.
Matthew Skoff appears to have taken a slight lead in the battle lately, with consecutive wins against Buffalo State and Air Force before two standout performances in the losses to Union. He had career highs on consecutive nights of 40 and 42 saves in the games while surrendering just three goals.
“I think it’ll give any goalie confidence to get in the net and play against a good team like that,” Skoff said. “You can measure yourself to the best kids in the country. It was a good weekend for the team just figure out we can play against teams that are ranked in the top 10, top five.”
For the season, Skoff is 2-4 with a 2.16 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage. Musico is 4-1 with a 2.41 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.
“It’s going to be a competition all year,” Fisher said. “I think that’s healthy for both goaltenders. They’re both great kids, they both work extremely hard and I think it’s good competition. Other teams I’ve been on where you just have one goaltender and no competition, he doesn’t have anything to push himself.”
The Nittany Lions are moving one of their home games down the road to Hershey. The scheduled Feb. 1 game against Ohio, which had been scheduled for on campus, will instead be played at the Giant Center at 7 p.m. Tickets go on sale Friday morning. The teams are former rivals in the ACHA, and will still play at the Greenberg Ice Pavilion on Feb. 2.
Looking at the future
With Gadowsky on the road, Fisher, who is frequently gone during the week on recruiting trips, had the chance to talk about what the road is like trying to sell a new program. The hard part is trying to paint a picture of the future to young hockey players, especially those from the western U.S. or Canada, since Penn State does not have a hockey reputation yet like Minnesota or Wisconsin.
American athletes at least know of the university for its football reputation, but for skaters in places like rural Alberta or British Columbia, Canada, they know nothing about the school.
“You’ve got to inform people what’s coming and what we’re excited about here at Penn State,” Fisher said.
No matter what, the recruiters can’t rest, because every year they will need more — just like in every sport.
“(The) recruiting road is long,” Fisher said. “You think you’re full for one year but then you start on the next year. I call it the vicious cycle — it never ends.”