UNIVERSITY PARK — The easy thing to say, when strictly looking at the record for the Penn State men’s ice hockey team, is to say they have regressed.
Following their initial season in Division I posting a 13-14 record filled with all sorts of highlights, the expectations were high for this year.
It seemed logical to expect more big things, and to instead see a 4-10-1 record at this point probably has many disappointed in this season’s Nittany Lions.
But there are a number of major differences between last season and this season, and some major lumps had to be expected with this season, which hit the mid-point as the calendar turned to 2014 and the Big Ten season resumes Sunday with a two-game series against Minnesota.
Facing that next opponent — the Golden Gophers have been No. 1 in the country most of the season — is already a striking difference from last season.
In Year 1, Wisconsin and Union were the only ranked teams on the schedule, with a number of games against teams ranked in the bottom half of the RPI index, along with a handful of Division III and club programs.
Last year the building blocks came with growing confidence and working on playing at this level.
This season it has been pretty serious, not only with the new Big Ten schedule, but even the non-conference games were upgraded.
The four wins so far have all been against teams ranked among the bottom six in the RPI index. Out of 59 programs, Robert Morris (2 wins) is No. 54, Sacred Heart is No. 58 and Army is No. 59. The tie was against No. 48 RIT. Penn State, by the way, is No. 48.
The rest of the schedule to this point has included No. 37 Air Force in the second weekend of the season and six teams ranked among the top 13 in the RPI.
“All those teams are top 20 in the nation,” said redshirt sophomore forward Eric Scheid, whose eight goals and five assists lead the team. “Any given night those teams can beat the team we’re going up against. So I think, on any given night, we can do the same.”
While it would be nice to see more wins, the Nittany Lions are still focusing on the building blocks: Improving in special teams, in being more consistent night to night, in communication skills and working on all the small pieces to a team.
An analogy floated to coach Guy Gadowsky on Tuesday was fitting: The season has been a collection of practices with an occasional game thrown in.
“We’re working really hard, and then we get tested,” Gadowsky said. “The games really let you know haw far you’ve come. We’ve come a long way. We certainly understand we’re still in our infancy stage. We’ve got a long, long way to go.”
There have been some bright spots along the way.
The Nittany Lions uncorked 62 shots on goal in a win over Robert Morris on Dec. 27 at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center, they held a third-period lead at No. 14 Wisconsin in the game before that, and they held a 4-1 lead against No. 4 Union.
They are small morsels, but they are what have to be remembered until the wins start to roll in.
“We’re still working on us,” Gadowsky said. “Working really hard every day, every practice to get better at what we do and it doesn’t really matter who we play.”
“We hung in there with a lot of the top teams, had good games,” junior forward Max Gardiner said. “We’ve just got to find a way to finish games. That’s the biggest difference between a good team and a great team. If we want to be good and great, we’ve got to squeak out those wins.”
There also has been an improvement in special teams, with the power play unit converting 22 percent of its chances, which is No. 13 in the nation. The penalty killing unit also has been doing well, ranked among the top 20, until the last few games when they have surrendered a number of goals while down a man, and are now ranked 42nd.
The goaltending has actually been better than statistics have shown. With an 8-2 loss to Boston College in their last game and a 7-1 loss to Wisconsin, both games began to snowball away from the Nittany Lions quickly. But Matthew Skoff has been up to the challenge this season with an .895 save percentage and 3.42 goals-against average.
“Obviously our record is kind of iffy right now,” Skoff said. “But that being said, I think I’ve been playing well. Besides maybe the (Wisconsin) and BC game, we were in every game. That being said, the second half we’re going to have to step it up a bit. We’re going to be playing the No. 1s, the No. 3s, the No. 4s with Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin again. It doesn’t get any easier from here.”
The additions of Patrick Koudys and David Thompson also has strengthened the defense. Koudys has especially been quite willing to sacrifice his body to block shots.
The offense has probably been the weakest link.
Penn State’s 2.47 goals-per-game average is ranked 46 th in the nation, and the top scorers from last season have been pretty quiet.
Last season’s top four scorers — Casey Bailey, David Glen, Gardiner and Taylor Holstrom — combined for 42 goals and 49 assists in 27 Division I games. Through the first 15 games of this season, those four have a combined for four goals and nine assists.
So there is room for improvement, there are areas that are lacking, but the challenges have been great, and the biggest is for both the coaches and players to keep an eye on the big picture: Keep growing and building.
“We talk about it a lot,” Gadowsky said. “It’s easy to get down if you face a team like Boston College after – we really had a limited number of Division I games last year, so we’re really in our first season. You want a reminder about how far we’ve come and not just look at a win and loss to determine where we are in the program.”
“No one likes to lose,” Scheid said. “When you think about how we’ve played this year and everything we’ve done, I think there are a lot of positives to draw, but obviously we’d like to get some more wins out of it.”