With a 21-win season and staying in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid to the end of the season, the Penn State men’s hockey team had by far its best year in 2015-16.
There is no more sneaking up on opponents.
“With this team, you come into the season more optimistic than the last,” junior forward James Robinson said. “Obviously we’ve made a lot of noise in the nation these last couple years, and especially last year posting a 20-win season, that’s no easy task to accomplish. We’re not trying to equal what we did last year, we’re trying to improve every year.”
Even with major departures and a large freshman class, the Nittany Lions are aiming to continue their trajectory toward becoming a national power.
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“I think the bar is set pretty high because of those two factors coming together,” coach Guy Gadowsky said of the injection of youth combined with the experience of last season. “But I think the guys in the locker room understand that. It’s a challenge. We’ve improved every year. This would take an absolute phenomenal performance all year round, consistent performance, to exceed what was done last year.”
The challenge begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, when No. 16 St. Lawrence visits Pegula Ice Arena to begin a two-game series.
After seeing minimal graduation losses the previous three seasons in the first foray into the world of Division-I hockey, Penn State was hit much harder this past offseason, when eight ex-Lions signed professional contracts. Many of the departures were part of the foundation of the program, such as David Glen and Tommy Olczyk.
In their place are a dozen newcomers, including 10 freshmen, and there is a feeling the team has added a strong class that will blend in right away.
“I know we lost a lot of guys,” sophomore forward Andrew Sturtz said. “… The 10 (freshmen) we brought in, they’re unbelievable guys and they fit right in with the culture as guys on the ice and off the ice.”
A number of the newcomers come in with strong reputations, including the first two Russians on the roster in Nikita Pavlychev and Denis Smirnov. Both played youth hockey in Wilkes-Barre to get on Gadowsky’s radar, and the 6-foot-7 Pavlychev was a 2015 seventh-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“They’re all really fast,” senior forward Ricky DeRosa said of the freshman class. “They just seem to be far along, developed, in their hockey senses. They just all seem to be grasping our systems very well, very quick.”
A brief breakdown of the positions:
Losses in net
The Nittany Lions were hurt the most from last season from losses in net. Matthew Skoff graduated, which was expected, but Eamon McAdam left a year early for the NHL’s New York Islanders.
The plan was for McAdam to be the main man this season, freshman Peyton Jones to apprentice and get a little time, and Chris Funkey to round out the position.
Instead, Jones gets the start Thursday night and Funkey will battle for more time.
Rounding out the crew for emergency needs is Matt Erlichman, who spent last season with the Icers club program
The team has perhaps the best depth it has ever seen among the blue-liners. Kevin Kerr, Erik Autio, Vince Pedrie and David Thompson all return, and are joined by three freshmen. Also hopping into the lineup is junior Trevor Hamilton, who returns to college after playing in the USHL and was at Miami, Ohio, during the 2014-15 season.
“We’ve got a good group back there,” Pedrie said. “I think you’ll see a well-rounded defensive corps.”
If there’s one thing the Nittany Lions know how to do, it’s shoot the puck and score. Penn State led the nation in shot attempts last season (41.6 per game), and tied for sixth in goals per game (3.7). Led by double-digit goal-scorers Sturtz (18), Chase Berger (13) and David Goodwin (11), there is still plenty in the arsenal to go with the freshmen who will have to make up for the graduation losses.
“You never really know where it’s going to come,” Gadowsky said. “We’re going to be optimistic that they will have great offensive years as well. But I think we’re equally about the freshmen coming in.”
Penn State was much better at the offensive end than the defensive end last season, ranking 46th out of 60 programs in goals allowed per game (3.21), but in Gadowsky’s mind, a good offense that controls the puck will cut down on the chances opponents will have to score.
“We are a program that does like to score and we play that way,” Gadowsky said. “We try not to sacrifice defense because of that. … It’s not that you want to neglect defense, but sometimes you have to give something back somewhere. But it’s something you want to address and get better and better.”
Much to the pleasure of their sold-out crowds each night, the Nittany Lions are hoping to fill the net and meet, and maybe even exceed, expectations again. They can’t wait to get started.
“It’s a long time coming,” Goodwin said. “The guys are really, really pumped.”