For the first time in its short Division I history, big alterations have come for the Penn State men’s hockey team.
Many faces have changed, key players have to be replaced and the program is trying to maintain, if not exceed, the impressive levels it achieved last season.
Nittany Lion fans get their first glimpse of the 2015-16 version on Sunday, when the team holds an exhibition game against Windsor at noon at Pegula Ice Arena.
The focus will not really be about winning — the Lancers have already played five exhibition games, while the first official day for practice for NCAA teams was Saturday — but instead about getting the skates in gear for a long season.
Never miss a local story.
With just one official practice with coaches, the team will hardly be in full game mode. Yes, they all have been training together in sessions led by the team captains since classes began in late August, but there likely will be plenty of instances when the team looks out of synch.
Much like what coach Guy Gadowsky has been preaching since the beginning, it’s all about the foundation and building for the long-term needs of the program. In this case, it’s about facing another opponent to prepare for the season.
“Although we have only one official practice,” Gadowsky said last week during the team’s preseason media day, “it’s going to be very beneficial as a dress rehearsal for us going into next week against Canisius. … You have to start some time.”
The puck drops for real on the season Oct. 10 when the Nittany Lions head up to Buffalo to face those Golden Griffins, and in the previous three seasons of the program’s Division I life, they have made do with one week of practice to prepare for a season. However, since they have the opportunity to tangle with a team from over the border, they are seizing the chance.
“It’s a non-conference game (against Canisius),” Gadowsky said. “But it’s an NCAA game that counts for the RPI. That’s very important, and that’s why we’re doing it.”
The Nittany Lions figure to be a work in progress for a while.
With no Casey Bailey, last year’s leading scorer who left for the NHL, there figures to be more scoring by committee. Gadowsky said last week the lines will be fluid for a while, with a number of other top scorers departed, and one of the top returners, Eric Scheid, out until likely November with an injury. There will be a lot of mixing and matching.
The same goes for the goaltenders. Senior Matt Skoff and junior Eamon McAdam both return, each has a reason to claim the No. 1 job, though both showed times of struggle last year. Gadowsky said on a Big Ten coaches teleconference on Thursday, “It’s a safe bet you’re going to see both of them.”
The team is coming off its first winning season, and thrilled fans last season by holding the conference lead for a few weeks and even making appearances in the national rankings. In some ways, it had the building process a little ahead of schedule for the long-term goals.
But Gadowsky doesn’t want that building process lost, and he wants last year’s scoreboard success put behind the needs of the program. The building for this coming season takes an important step Sunday.
“I think there’s a lot of focus not just on improving what we have,” Gadowsky said Thursday. “… You always have that (last year’s success) in the back of your mind, but this group is sort of focused on getting back and really making sure we don’t lose our foundation.”