The locker room for the Penn State men’s hockey team has a countdown clock, and typically it shows just a few days until the next scheduled game for the Nittany Lions.
Today the numbers are just short of 200 days.
“I’ll probably go unplug it,” junior Tommy Olczyk said Tuesday afternoon. “That’s way too long to go without a hockey game.”
The team captain is not alone with that sentiment.
With the way Penn State closed out its season, seeing wins and strong showings as a result of a lot of hard work throughout the season, it was a shame the season had to end when it did.
“As exhausting as it has been lately, I think everybody’s disappointed that it’s sort of stopped,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “We were continuing to improve.”
Even though they will still be gathering for workouts and getting in a few practices over the next couple weeks, the Nittany Lions put the wraps on their season Tuesday.
While using the standard of the final record of 8-26-2 says they team did not have a good season, especially when compared to a 13-14 record a year ago, the measuring stick was calibrated a little different this season.
The first season of Division I included a number of easier programs, including a handful of Division III teams, and it was a chance to break everyone in a little more gradually.
This season featured 20 games in the Big Ten, more than half of the games against teams ranked in the top 20 and a strength of schedule that, according to the Ratings Percentage Index at the end of the season, had the Nittany Lions with the second-toughest schedule in the nation. Of the 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament, which begins Friday, seven were on Penn State’s schedule.
There is little doubt the team was challenged, but it helped them grow.
The first half of the season was a little tough to watch. After kicking off the year in spectacular style with the opening of Pegula Ice Arena and a 4-1 win against Army, the team had a 3-3-1 record on Nov. 8. The team then went on to lose 15 of the next 16 games, with all but four of the losses against ranked teams.
“We went through our fair share of struggles and maybe rough games,” sophomore forward David Glen said. “It was nice to see it pay off in the end.”
There were several low points in there, like a 7-1 loss at Wisconsin, an 8-2 setback to Boston College or a 5-2 loss at Ohio State after holding an early 2-0 lead.
But also somewhere in there were a pair of 3-2 decisions to No. 1 Minnesota and No. 2 Boston College. They were starting to believe.
“We proved ourselves that we can play with the No. 1 and 2 teams in the nation,” Olczyk said.
While there may have been moral victories against the Golden Gophers and Eagles, it wasn’t until Feb. 8 that they, and the fans in Pegula Ice Arena, could really see progress.
There is nothing like a 4-0 shutout of No. 10 Michigan, for decades a standard of excellence in college hockey, to mark a program’s arrival.
“Maybe that win over Michigan took some weight off our back,” Glen said. “I think guys were starting to grip their sticks a little bit tighter and maybe not playing as loose as we should.”
“It was a big weight off our shoulders,” Olczyk said. “We proved that we could do it, we proved to ourselves, I guess, that our coaching staff wasn’t crazy for doing what they do. We stuck to our systems and did what we needed to do.”
The Nittany Lions were not done making history against Wolverines, also winning in Ann Arbor and last Thursday in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
“The guys proved that when they really play their game and perform at a high level,” Gadowsky said, “that they can go blow-for-blow with some of the best teams in the nation.”
Leading the way over the last few weeks was goalie Matthew Skoff. It may have taken until the end, but the sophomore grabbed the reins as the No. 1 netminder, and it will be his job to lose when next season begins.
“The team and Skoff, at the end of the year, were playing our best hockey,” Gadowsky said. “When your goaltender’s playing your best hockey, and your team’s playing its best hockey, the improvement’s in huge leaps.”
The regular season closed with a win over the Buckeyes, then they got a double-overtime win against Michigan to open the conference tournament with Skoff making a career-high 52 saves — several in spectacular fashion.
“That was absolutely earned. Nothing was given,” Gadowsky said. “ He had some tremendous performances, especially down the stretch when you needed them most.”
Skoff was the only goalie to win a game all season, finishing with a .906 save percentage and a 2.95 goals-against average, but he said he will take nothing for granted during the offseason despite earning the No. 1 spot.
“That doesn’t change anything about me or the way I play or the way I prepare,” Skoff said. “The goaltending position is a very important position. It can change in a day, it can change overnight.”
Starting with the win against Michigan in early February, Penn State was outscored by its opponents by just 36-31, a far cry from those days of 7-1 and 8-2 losses.
“A little momentum definitely at the end,” Glen said. “We were definitely coming together. It is tough to take that kind of time off and keep the momentum going.”
While there is all that momentum, and all the time to think about next season, Gadowsky cautioned that the building of the program is not done yet. There are still more little steps to take, little details that have yet to be addressed, that can make a difference between a competitive team and a team that wins consistently.
“We’re not there yet,” he said, snapping his fingers to emphasize the point. “You don’t just do it like this. There’s a lot of work that we have to do. We certainly improved in a lot of areas, but there areas that we haven’t addressed strongly yet, that to be a championship team you have to (address).”
The team only graduates one senior — Mike McDonagh — who did not score this season, meaning 100 percent of its offense should return along with all the defense, assuming everyone does choose to return. Gadowsky said “We do not anticipate it, but you never know,” when it comes to anyone deciding to transfer or leave school.
While some will head home for part of most of the summer once the semester ends, many also are planning to be in town, taking summer classes and continuing to work out together.
And if Olczyk doesn’t unplug it, they will all be checking that clock, eagerly awaiting a chance to get back on the ice and see what the Nittany Lion hockey program can do next season.
“(I have to) get my body where it needs to be, and I have 190 days to do it,” Olczyk said. “Definitely won’t procrastinate like I do with some of my school work.”
“The first couple days was nice to take a little time off,” Glen said. “But even now I know some of the guys are already anxious to get back in the gym and on the ice. It’s a long summer, five or six months until we play again, so there’s a balance there that we have to meet but we’re already looking forward to next year.”