Has anyone heard there will be a hockey game Friday night?
In what might be the most talked-about hockey game in the region’s history, the Penn State men’s team opens its season and christens its new arena with an 8 p.m. contest against Army.
Yes, barring the bus breaking down or some other unforeseen incident, all U.S. government funding obstacles have been cleared and the Cadets will skate against the Nittany Lions at the new $90 million Pegula Ice Arena.
And after years of anticipation, Penn State will get to show off its new home and its new team.
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The Nittany Lions will be looking to build off last season’s surprising success with its second Division I campaign, and the team is eager to get on the new sheet of ice.
“We’re confident as a team, the training and the practice that we put in,” defenseman Connor Varley said. “These first couple months, obviously there’s going to be butterflies and excitement, but we’re definitely prepared.”
The first year at Divison I was filled with success stories, starting with a 13-14 record that included wins over Big Ten teams Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State.
But last season’s schedule also included several games against club programs, Division III opponents and a number of lower-level Division I teams.
With a new Big Ten hockey conference, Frozen Four teams like Union and Massachusetts-Lowell and perennial power Boston College, pushing the record over .500 in the program’s second year will be a challenge.
“To be successful against the teams we’re going to play,” coach Guy Gadowsky said, “you need everybody, everybody, everybody from our equipment manager on down having a great day. We need everybody.”
Combining the success with the new arena and the new conference, and recruiting has also gotten a little easier.
The roster now includes four players, who have been drafted by NHL teams — junior forward Max Gardiner returns from last season, redshirt junior defenseman Patrick Koudys has transferred from Rensselaer, and goalie Eamon McAdam and defenseman Mike Williamson are both freshman. They are chosen by the St. Louis Blues, Washington Capitals, New York Islanders and Vancouver Canucks, respectively.
There are others who may not be able to claim an NHL team but still have strong resumes and will be able to help the program almost immediately.
“I think our depth this year has added a lot to our roster,” sophomore forward Casey Bailey said. “… Bringing in guys with experience and our freshmen, we have a lot of skill there and I think that’s going to give us a little more rest when we need it and I think we might have some guys that will step up this year.”
One of the most glaring weaknesses of last year’s team was depth among defensemen. The Nittany Lions had to play a few games last season with only four healthy defensemen, and a number more with five blue-liners. It was an experience Gadowsky hopes he does not have to face again.
“In terms of the depth, it’s night and day,” the coach said. “Last year, we had two main guys go down for a long period of time so basically we’re almost adding four guys instead of three.”
The Nittany Lions return plenty of offense, headed by last year’s top scorers Bailey, Gardiner, David Glen, Taylor Holstrom and Kenny Brooks.
While the forwards and defense are merely seeing holes filled and depth added, it’s the last line of defense that has the biggest question mark heading into the season opener.
McAdam has the resume with the NHL credentials, three years of solid play in the USHL and time with the U.S. Junior Select team. However, Matthew Skoff was incredibly reliable for the Nittany Lions last season, especially in some of their biggest games like wins over the Spartans and Badgers.
That big game experience may come in handy on a night like Friday when there will be plenty of distractions.
Friday night will be one unlike any other, both before and after, for Penn State.
After that, it will just be a matter of another hockey season, and the Nittany Lions would like to pick up where they left off last February, even if there are plenty of challenges ahead.
“We all have very high expectations of where we’re going,” Gadowsky said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to say this is when we’re going to arrive and be known as a power.”
They are just glad the waiting is over and the hockey season can begin.
“I think we still have a lot to prove,” Glen said. “We had a couple of games against Big Ten opponents last year in which we did well. We proved that we could play at this level and we’re going to be competitive going into this year.”