By standard measures it was a step back and a disappointment.
But the Penn State men’s hockey team was living by a different standard this past season, and while moral victories are usually shunned by coaches and athletes, they had to be accepted this season.
Yes, the Nittany Lions just finished their season last weekend with a mere 8-26-2 record, falling well short of the 13-14 mark from their first campaign as a Division I program.
This season, however, was spent in the deep end of the pool.
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There were a lot of good teams, only a few of lower quality and hardly anything came easy.
The season was all about laying the foundation for the future, about putting pieces in place each week, and the metrics used were not wins and losses but about progress in areas, and whether Penn State was competitive.
In those respects, it really was a success.
“Really proud of how far, of how hard the guys worked during the season to improve as vastly as they have,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “It shows statistically, it shows on the scoreboard.”
When you start beating top-10 teams, and losing one-goal contests against top-five teams, then you are not that far off.
“We definitely saw a lot of rough times,” team captain and junior forward Tommy Olczyk said. “Just like our coaches have confidence in us, we have confidence in them. We believe they put us on the right path to do what we need to do in order to be successful.”
The season was a winding road, from the opening of the team’s stunning new home, to a long losing skid in the middle to a number of exciting wins over the final weeks.
The wins should come more often next season, and it will be thanks to the building blocks laid over the last two years.
“I’m very happy with where we are in the program,” Gadowsky said. “We have tremendous people both as student-athletes and as a staff.”
With that, here are one observer’s opinions of the best — and worst — of the 2013-14 hockey season.
MVP (on the ice)
Kenny Brooks. Offense? Defense? He does it all.
Typically the MVP goes to a team’s top scorer, or maybe a goalie who racked up shutouts galore, but Brooks gets recognized for something that doesn’t show up in the box score. During the Nittany Lions’ first Big Ten win over Michigan on Feb. 8, defensemen Nate Jensen and Luke Juha were each lost to concussions in separate incidents. With the blue line depleted, Gadowsky asked Brooks, a forward who had a little experience playing in the back while in juniors, to shore up the defense for the rest of the game. The night ended with a 4-0 shutout, and Brooks stayed on the blue line for another three weeks.
“He did a tremendous job,” Olczyk said. “… He went back there in the middle of the game, and it was like he was playing there all year.”
MVP (off the ice)
David Glen. It’s hard not to like and appreciate a young man, at the peak of good health, missing three games and undergoing a procedure to help save someone’s life — someone whom he has never met. The sophomore, who was the team’s MVP and top goal-scorer last season, made several trips to Geisinger Medical Center in Danville for a series of injections before he had hematopoetic stem cells harvested to help an anonymous woman who is battling leukemia. Glen found out late last year he was a definite match for the woman, and after talking it over with family and the Nittany Lion coaches, was more than willing to sacrifice a few games to help the stranger. Not one to call attention to himself, he nonetheless got the spotlight for his “ultimate assist,” and it has inspired many not only in central Pennsylvania but elsewhere in the U.S. and his native Canada.
Matthew Skoff. It took most of the season, but the Nittany Lions finally found their No. 1 goalie. Skoff was the only netminder to win a game this season, he kept Penn State in both Big Ten Tournament games, and kept the team in the hunt in a number of close losses. He had a regular-season shutout of Michigan, closed the regular-season slate with a win against Ohio State, held the fort into double overtime before beating the Wolverines again in the tournament opener, then nearly helped the team steal a win from Wisconsin in the semifinals.
“He was top form the last two games,” Glen said of Skoff. “He’s a heck of a netminder. For him it’s about work ethic. He exhibited that every day on and off the ice and it’s something that the whole team looks towards.”
Skoff was expected to battle Eamon McAdam for the job. The pair shared the No. 1 spot at the beginning of the season, trading starts, but McAdam had some issues. Six times in 10 starts he allowed a goal in the first five minutes, often on the first shot he faced, and he eventually fell to third on the depth chart behind P.J. Musico, not getting a minute of ice time after Feb. 7.
Best defensive anchor
Patrick Koudys. Gadowsky used quite a few adjectives to describe the junior defenseman who transferred from RPI. Koudys is “a man,” “an animal” and “a beast,” among others. He led the team with 79 blocked shots, with no one else within 20 of his total. He rarely had a bad game, and he also did well in mentoring freshmen David Thompson and Mike Williamson. While defense was his strength, with major importance on the penalty kill, when pressed into service he also did well helping the offense on the power play when Jensen and Juha were out with injuries.
Michigan. Does it even need to be asked? After the way the Wolverines were stunned over and over by the Nittany Lions, the hard part is picking out which of the three wins was the best one. Was it the 4-0 game at Pegula Ice Arena? The overtime surprise in Ann Arbor, complete with a goal to tie it with 4.6 seconds left, then a David Goodwin breakaway in the final minute of overtime? Or the double-overtime win in the conference tournament. Each was a historical marker for the program.
Opening night. All those wins were great, but for the team it was hard to beat the pomp, circumstance and impact of the first game on Oct. 11, 2013 when they beat Army 4-1 and the new $90 million arena was unveiled. So many players, and even Gadowsky, said they made a point of looking up to the student section when they hit the ice, just to appreciate the support they were getting from their classmates.
“I absolutely love the atmosphere at Pegula Ice Arena,” Gadowsky said. “The student body is everything we thought it would be in here and more.”
March 8 vs. Wisconsin. There were a number of losses that were tough to take, and the Nittany Lions got stuck in plenty of one-goal games, finishing with a 5-11 record. But on this particular night the team rallied with a late goal to tie the Badgers and force overtime, and thought they were headed to a shootout when Mark Zengerle won it with 21 seconds left in the extra period.
“We all want that one back,” Gadowsky said. “That one stung.”
One senior. Mike McDonagh is the only one on the team scheduled to graduate, and while there are a number of redshirt juniors who may decide they do not want to stay or those who feel they do not fit in, Gadowsky said on Tuesday he did not know of anyone who was looking to leave early. If that is the case, then 100 percent of the offense will be returning, and the entire defense as well. It should be expected for a program in just its second season, but it still helps to see.
The schedule. The Nittany Lions already knew they were entering the Big Ten this season, which was going to be bad enough, but the fledgling program decided to make things even tougher. The non-conference schedule also was filled with obstacles. The final regular-season USCHO poll’s top five teams all were on the Penn State list: Union, Minnesota, Boston College, Wisconsin and Massachusetts-Lowell. No. 14 Vermont, No. 15 Michigan and No. 20 Ohio State also were on the slate, and seven of the NCAA Tournament’s field of 16 went through Penn State. They finished No. 2 in strength of schedule. A team usually sets a schedule a couple years in advance, so the Lions did not know how big the challenge would be, but if nothing else it toughened them for the conference.
Goals leaders: Eric Scheid 11, Casey Bailey 9, Taylor Holstrom 8, Curtis Loik 7, Goodwin 7
Assists leaders: Goodwin 11, Juha 11, Dylan Richard 11, Scheid 9, Holstrom 9
Plus-minus leader: Glen (+3) was the only Nittany Lion with a positive number.
Penalties leader: Glen 20 for 62 minutes
Records: 8-26-2 overall, 3-16-1 Big Ten, 4-12-2 at home, 2-11-0 away, 2-3-0 neutral ice
Home attendace: 108,193 total
Average attendance: 6,011
Pegula seating capacity: 5,782. Penn State was one of five teams to average better than 100 percent capacity for this season.