In so many ways, the Penn State ice hockey season exceeded expectations.
In the very first season of Division I varsity play, the Nittany Lions nearly finished at .500 — better if you include exhibition games — and picked up some impressive wins in places unthinkable last fall.
The program played games in front of sold-out home crowds, and was a hot ticket away from State College as well sometimes drawing attendance figures well over 10,000, and the season ended with its signature win over No. 16 Wisconsin on Monday night.
It was a far cry from where the bar was set for the program when the puck dropped for the first time last October.
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“I didn’t think it was possible back then,” head coach Guy Gadowsky said Thursday during a session with the media wrapping up the season. “During the year, if you saw how hard the guys worked, how they gelled together as a team and how they cared about each other and this university (it) makes you believe that anything’s possible and I think we came a long, long way and had a lot of fun doing it.”
The final bottom line number was a 13-14 record, including wins over Big Ten programs Ohio State, Michigan State and those Badgers – who were the first ranked team beaten by the fledgling program.
That win alone will have an impact in so many ways, helping in recruiting and giving the team confidence through the offseason.
“That was an awesome experience,” said freshman goalie Matthew Skoff, who made a career-high 42 saves in the finale. “It felt like we won a playoff game or Game 7 or something. I was that excited.”
Another hero still savoring the moment Thursday was junior center Taylor Holstrom, who pounced on a rebound to score the game-winner with 34 seconds left in overtime to beat the Badgers. Ironically, Holstrom scored the game-winner for all three wins against Big Ten foes.
“When you’re put in those situations, you always want to be that guy,” said Holstrom, who had eight goals and six assists over the final 10 games of the season. “Lucky enough, I was. It felt great.”
The Big Ten will officially add ice hockey next fall, with Michigan and No. 2 Minnesota joining the other programs for a six-team league. It also will coincide with the opening of the Nittany Lions’ new home, Pegula Ice Arena, which is under construction across the street from the Bryce Jordan Center.
Being able to earn a win against all three conference programs the Nittany Lions faced this past season, including beating the Spartans and Badgers on their ice, proved the wins were more than flukes.
“One win, it’s fun,” Gadowsky said. “Two wins gives you confidence.”
Quite possibly the most excited about Monday’s win was Joe Battista, who is now an associate athletic director for ice hockey and whose years of effort made the new arena and jump to Division I possible. He was the head coach of the Icers club program for years, winning three national titles and had plenty of other deep postseason runs, but he called Monday’s win the most exciting of his career.
“It was like winning the national championship,” Battista said. “Especially after we got beat so handily (5-0) the night before, to see those guys and, last but not least to me, look at the seniors. They came here to play club hockey. They left beating the No. 16 team in the country in their building on the Big Ten Network. That’s pretty cool.”
Gadowsky also was glad the team’s six seniors get to graduate with such a historic win, given they had no idea varsity hockey was in their future when they enrolled at Penn State, then had to go through basically a year-long tryout to make this team.
“We talk about the excitement of the Big Ten Conference and Pegula Ice Arena,” Gadowsky said. “But we’re really going to miss this team. It’s not every team that just can gel and come through in the biggest times and they’ve proved that time and again.”
While wins and losses were not important — Gadowsky recited that mantra countless times over the course of the season — the final tally was gratifying. Counting the eight exhibition games, six of them against club programs and the other two against the U.S. under-18 national team — Penn State finished 19-16.
In addition, forwards David Glen and Casey Bailey are each among the top four goal-scorers among freshmen in the country, and when the stage was the biggest the team came up big. On two national television showings (on the Big Ten Network), Penn State won twice, and in front of crowds of 5,000 or more (including one exhibition game against club program Ohio) the Nittany Lions were 7-3.
There were a lot of reasons to call the season a strong success.
“Coach has asked to produce a foundation for this program,” Glen said. “I think we’re on the right track. The games we won this season have created that kind of excitement and we’re going to build on it going forward.”
Gadowsky called the final two-game series at Wisconsin Penn State’s “final exam” — and the Nittany Lions finished with a pretty good grade. He gave credit to director of operations Bill Downey for getting the series moved to the season’s conclusion and a fitting way to see how the program progressed from the season opener Oct. 12 — a 3-2 overtime loss to American International.
“Based on that one (beating the Badgers), the way we came together and grinded it out in the last minute of overtime, you can’t say enough,” Holstrom said. “The whole team is unbelievable.”
The tough part is now they all have to wait until Oct. 11 to play another meaningful game, when the new arena opens and they face Army during Homecoming weekend. The other Division I programs still have games on their schedules, not to mention conference playoffs and, for a select few, bids to the NCAA tournament.
The Nittany Lions, after many of them leave town together for a warmer climate for spring break, can only watch from home and work on their skills and conditioning. At least they found out Monday night — and all season — that they belong at this level of college ice hockey.
“It’s disappointing because this is the best time of year to be playing hockey,” Skoff said. “A lot of championships are won this time of year. It’s not that we’re missing out on it. It’s just the way it is. I wish we could still be playing for a playoff championship, but I guess that gives us more motivation for next year.”