Penn State ice hockey: With strong first year, eyes now on next season

gbrunski@centredaily.comMarch 3, 2013 

— They were beaming with pride and a little sorry to see it end.

After all, there a few weeks left in the regular season for everyone else, but the Penn State men’s ice hockey team had to say good-bye this week, but there was nothing wrong with what they accomplished this past season — their first in NCAA Division I.

As head coach Guy Gadowsky admitted, there were no guarantees the team would even win a game this season, let alone more than half of them (including exhibitions) and would take three out of five meetings with Big Ten programs.

No, there definitely was nothing wrong with what they accomplished.

“We have a ways to go,” Gadowsky said. “We know there are areas where we have a lot of work to do left, but there are certain things where I think we are further along. You always want a program that represents themselves well and what the university is all about and I think we have that.”

The ending could not have been written any better, rallying from two goals down after playing awful the night before to force overtime, then seeing Taylor Holstrom score the game-winner with 34 seconds left to beat No. 16 Wisconsin.

Now, a long offseason begins.

Once the players return from spring break, they will return to the ice and practice together for the next month, working both on team skills as well as individual tasks. While there were so many highlights, there were some benchmarks set by Gadowsky and his staff that were not met and will be expected to be accomplished next season.

Then, as the heat of summer begins to fade and classes resume in the fall, they can look forward to moving a few hundred yards away to their new home, Pegula Ice Arena, and begin play in the Big Ten.

“It’s closer than it’s ever been,” sophomore forward and team captain Tommy Olczyk said. “But at the same time it’s going to seem like a lifetime. We have to keep working hard and show we deserve a place like that.”

Once that new season begins, there will be many other things different besides the league and the home building. They will no longer be able to use the excuse of being a first-year program, and they will no longer be able to surprise an opponent and be taken lightly.

Thanks to the success this season, the expectations will be much higher.

“When the season starts it’s definitely going to be different,” Olczyk said. “It’s not going to be easy and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. As long as everyone comes in healthy, we’ll be in good shape.”

With no more games on the horizon, there is much to ponder about the future and many memories – most good but some not so much – from a season now completed.

The year in numbers

U The team’s leading goal-scorer was David Glen with 16, while Casey Bailey had 14, and Bailey led in assists with 13 and total points with 27. Through last weekend, they were third and tied for fourth, respectively, among freshmen goal-scorers in the nation.

U All nine freshmen who skated this season finished with at least six points, and freshman overall accounted for 67.6 percent of the team’s goals.

U The team finished with a 13-14 record, officially. Exhibition games do not count in the record, or in the scoring totals. Including the exhibition games, they were 19-16. They also finished winning eight of their last nine games.

U The Nittany Lions outshot their opponents and were not afraid to open up the offense. They had 37.9 shots per game to the opposition’s 31.9.

U On the other end, Matthew Skoff proved to be very reliable in net, posting a 9-8 record with two shutouts, a 2.48 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage. In 10 games, PJ Musico was 4-6 with a 3.22 gaa and .899 save percentage.

U The team also did well on faceoffs, winning 52.3 percent of the season’s draws.

U They also averaged 1,729 fans over their nine official home games in Greenberg Ice Pavilion, which officially seats 1,300.

U Not every set of numbers was in their favor. Penn State was outscored 80-74, gave up 19 power plays goals on 123 opportunities and only converted on 12 of 106 man-advantage chances

U Penn State’s RPI ranking as of Monday (before the final game against Wisconsin) was 49 out of 59 Division I programs, with six of its wins against teams ranked lower and two against Divison III programs. Five wins were over teams ranked higher, including Wisconsin (16) and Ohio State (27).

Ups and downs

While the finale was spectacular, there were some other highlights — and lowlights — along the way.

Penn State had a handful of games that were cringe-worthy to remind everyone they were still a fledgling program. An early 3-0 loss at Division III Buffalo State falls into that category, as did a home overtime loss to Division III Neumann and to club program Arizona State.

“It was definitely a roller-coaster ride,” Olczyk said. “We lost some tough ones to some teams we definitely should have beat, but at the same time you look at the wins … it’s definitely a year I’m never going to forget.”

The wins certainly made up for the bumps, and it is probably a five-horse race which was most special.

Olczyk’s vote was for the last game, especially after the way the team had been outshot 51-22 in a 5-0 loss to the Badges the night before.

“It had to be the way we went out,” Olczyk said. “It was our final 60 minutes together … it was an amazing end to the season.”

But the other two Big Ten wins were also special. The victory over the Buckeyes proved they could compete with the other conference powers, and it was only halfway through the season. Then there was a win at Michigan State, and although the Spartans are struggling this year, a win in a hostile environment is always significant.

Initially, the Big Ten was not supposed to bring in hockey for another season, so Penn State would have another year to break in the new arena and get used to Division I. Instead, the deep end of the pool comes next season and Gadowsky knows it will not be easy.

“We were a little nervous that we were going into this too quickly,” Gadowsky said. “You get a lot of confidence by going into Munn Ice Arena and coming out with a win, or going to the Kohl Center and coming out with a win. I think we’re more prepared now and more confident now than we were at the start of the year, that’s for sure.”

The very first win also was special, if anything just for the historical significance. Plus, as Gadowsky mentioned, there were no guarantees the team would even win one game when the season began.

But what may have electrified everyone the most was a crowd of 19,529 in the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and nearly all of them Nittany Lion fans. The 4-2 win came a few hours after the NHL season finally opened after an extended lockout.

“Having 19,000 people there cheering you on was definitely exciting,” Bailey said. “Just seeing everywhere we went, all the Penn State fans, UConn, everywhere we went it was amazing.”

Selling the program

The game in Philadelphia was the pinnacle of the marketing effort of the program. The team also played in Pittsburgh, Hershey and Wilkes-Barre.

Since there were only so many seats available in the old home arena, it worked to rev up excitement around the state.

“I thought that was a great idea,” Gadowsky said. “It was a lot of fun, No. 1, and everywhere we went there were so many great Penn Staters cheering us on. … It was great to get our product out to everybody in Pennsylvania, I think they really appreciated it.”

With the new 6,000-seat arena on the way, do not expect more tours of the state in the future.

“We need the revenue from home games,” said associate athletic director Joe Battista, who is a former coach of the Icers club program and was a major reason the team has made the jump to varsity status.

Battista said negotiations are continuing for a return to Philadelphia, but the right dates and circumstances cannot be agreed upon, and there are a lot of other sites around the country with strong alumni bases that are trying to draw in the Lions.

One definite return visit will be made to Pittsburgh, where the Nittany Lions will be back again for the Three Rivers Classic at Consol Energy Center. Next season’s tournament, during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, will feature host Robert Morris (No. 24 in the current RPI), Bowling Green (No. 36) and Boston College (No. 5).

Starting point

While the rest of the schedule is not quite set, they at least know when the season opens, hosting Army on Oct. 11. The first game on the new ice will be on Homecoming weekend, when the football team hosts Michigan the next day.

“There was a part of us saying, ‘It may not be a bad idea to wait,’” Battista said. “Just make sure the building’s finished … but I think everybody felt like, ‘Come on, what better time. It’s going to be an amazing weekend here Homecoming weekend.’ While it creates some challenges here for hotel rooms and all the other activities going, this place is going to be – I can’t even imagine the atmosphere we’re going to have.”

Battista evaded talking about any other games on the schedule — other than Big Ten games.

He said the Big Ten will not begin play until December, with 10 weekends of two-game series. The team knows which weekend they will have games, and if they will be home, but details still have to be hammered out which days they will play, such as Friday-Saturday, Saturday-Sunday, or Sunday-Monday weekends.

The Big Ten Network also is in on the negotiations, committing to show 50-60 games next season.

There also is the tricky task of coordinating the schedule with home football, basketball, volleyball and wrestling matches, among other events.

The great outdoors

While the new arena isn’t even done yet, the question keeps coming up whether a game will be played at Beaver Stadium — which athletic director Dave Joyner said will happen — and when.

“We are talking seriously about when is the right time to do an outdoor game,” Battista said. “I think we have to be careful we don’t do it too early. It’s a big deal and it’s a lot of work.”

Battista, the big-dreamer, also would not mind if the NHL’s Winter Classic came to town. They could even have an NHL-NCAA doubleheader and go after the attendance world record set at Michigan Stadium.

“Let’s walk before we can run,” Battista said.

Scoring with recruits

While there are plenty of big dreams and talk about marketing and selling seats at the new arena, there also was the much tougher task of selling a program, or the concept of one, to recruits. It got easier once the arena construction began and Gadowsky could point out all of the exciting features, but there was always that tricky question he had to answer.

“There were a number of recruits that expressed concern that we would not be able to compete by the time that they would graduate from Penn State,” Gadowsky said. “We would try to convince them otherwise. You can talk all you want, when you see the program have success against the Big Ten schools that we’ve had, in some of the big stages against a Hockey East opponent, I think that speaks for itself. I hope the perception – I know the perception has changed. We don’t get that question anymore.”

Big time, big stage

The success Penn State had overall this season was impressive enough, but something worth pondering is, when the stage was at its biggest, the Nittany Lions played their best.

They made two appearances on the Big Ten Network and won both games, and were 3-1 overall on live TV.

They played 10 times in front of crowds of 5,000 or more and won seven of those games.

The big spotlight was not a bother.

“It turned out to be maybe that’s a factor why these guys just figured out, when they’re on a big stage, they were at their best,” Gadowsky said. “That was really cool — against the toughest teams in the most fun arenas. I don’t know what it is that allows them to do that, but I sure like it.”

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