UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State has a new arena, a new conference and is coming off an impressive first season.
Pegula Ice Arena, the new home for the men’s ice hockey team, figures to be sold out nearly every night and the Nittany Lions have been the talk of the town.
The team hasn’t even had its first official practice yet, but the expectations are already getting big for Penn State’s men on ice.
“We still have a lot to prove,” said sophomore forward David Glen, who led the team in goal-scoring last season. “We had a couple games against Big Ten opponents last year and we did well. We proved we could play at this level and we’re going to be competitive going into this year. We have a lot to prove, a lot to earn as far as respect goes as far as this league and the NCAA level.”
The Nittany Lions held their preseason media day on Monday, showing off their new home and eager to get started on the season.
They have been skating together, and lifting weights together, for weeks already, but they cannot hold an official practice with coaches until Saturday.
The season then opens the following week, Oct. 11, with an 8 p.m. game against Army in their brand new home, Pegula Ice Arena.
Last season finished officially with a 13-14 record, along with several other exhibition victories, and the triumphs included beating Big Ten opponents Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State.
Coach Guy Gadowsky admitted after last season ended that expectations were far exceeded, and now he, the team and fans will be using that season to measure this one.
“I don’t know if it has raised the bar,” Gadowsky said. “It certainly has accelerated the process for what people think is going to happen.”
This season, Penn State will be a member of the six-team Big Ten. A poll of conference coaches a few weeks ago had the Nittany Lions finishing sixth in balloting, and no one on the team was picked for the preseason watch list. With the Badgers, Michigan and Minnesota all in the preseason top-20 rankings, Penn State faces a tough road.
“It was great experiences that we had last year,” Gadowsky said. “I think we learned lot from the successes that we had, some of the times that we didn’t see results, (but) certainly some of the wins … against Big Ten opponents that we were able to play last year, those wins probably came a year ahead of when anybody thought they might even be possible.”
Goalie Matt Skoff didn’t think there would be any intimidation when facing their Big Ten foes with long histories, since many players were once teammates or opponents during their junior hockey days, and the Nittany Lions are looking forward to the chance to prove themselves again.
“We like the underdog role,” redshirt junior defenseman Nate Jensen said. “It’s an honor being in the Big Ten. You’re going against Minnesota, Michigan — they have great traditions. They’ve had a lot of success already. We’re obviously the underdog already, and I think we’re going to surprise some teams this year.”
The first official practice, and the first official event open to the public will begin at 12:01 a.m. Saturday — late Friday night — to help stir up more excitement. The team held the same session last year with about 500 people on hand. Far more are expected this Friday night.
“We’re really looking forward to it,” Gadowsky said. “This will be many of their first look at Pegula ice rink, so it’s going to be a lot of fun. The guys want to get it going.”
An added bonus for fans? Following practice, they can step onto the ice and skate with the team.
Every Division I program is in the same boat, but there is very little time between that first practice early Saturday morning and the season opener. It puts extra pressure on the sessions the players have had on their own, and their conditioning in the offseason.
“It puts an added premium on our work ethic,” Gadowsky said. “It also puts an added premium on your leadership because so much of the work that has to be done is done through captain’s practices. We’re very fortunate.”
If you haven’t gotten your tickets yet, there is still time and opportunity — but not much. Associate Athletic Director for Ice Hockey Joe Battista said Monday that 15 single season tickets remain scattered throughout the arena. Beyond that, 200 single-game seats and 233 standing-room tickets will be going on sale Thursday. Also, general admission seats for the student section, which were not part of the student season packages and fall during winter and spring breaks, also will be on sale. The opener against Army is already a sellout.
Who’s in goal?
Without an official practice, Gadowsky was in no position to name his starting goalie for the first game, but the Nittany Lions have three strong candidates from which to choose.
Skoff and P.J. Musico shared the duties last season, with Skoff getting eight more starts while posting a lower goals-against average (2.48 to 3.22) and better save percentage (.921 to .899).
Added to the competition is Eamon McAdam, a prized recruit who was drafted by the New York Islanders in the third round of last summer’s NHL entry draft.
“We don’t have any pre-conceived notions of how that’s going to play out,” Gadowsky said.
“We’re going to let the goaltenders handle that. We’re very, very fortunate. We’re very young, but I think we’re really good too. Is it a negative that we don’t have an established guy? I don’t think so.”
Skoff is looking forward to the challenge.
“Throughout the year we kind of work off each other,” the sophomore said. “Whoever’s in the net is going to give his best effort to help a team win. That’s what a goaltending job is.”
McAdam is not the only name on the Penn State roster that has drawn NHL interest. There are three other Nittany Lions who also have been selected by teams.
Redshirt junior forward Max Gardiner was picked in 2010 by the St. Louis Blues, freshman defenseman Mike Williamson was chosen by the Vancouver Canucks last summer, and redshirt junior defenseman Patrick Koudys, who transferred from Rensselaer, was a 2011 choice of the Washington Capitals.
“We have equally high expectations of everybody that we’ve brought in here,” Gadowsky said. “NHL draft choice or not. College hockey has proved to be a great ground for NHL free agents, guys that have become extremely successful in the National Hockey League, and we feel like we have guys like that.”