Penn State Hockey

Penn State hockey hits ice for first time Sunday

Denis Smirnov, Penn State’s leading scorer last season, and the rest of the Nittany Lions meet Ottawa on Sunday at Pegula Ice Arena.
Denis Smirnov, Penn State’s leading scorer last season, and the rest of the Nittany Lions meet Ottawa on Sunday at Pegula Ice Arena.

It’s been a long wait for the Penn State men’s hockey team.

On March 26, the Nittany Lions suffered a 6-3 loss to Denver in the NCAA regional finals.

While losing the final game of the season is never ideal, it is hard to complain about the season the team put together, breaking tons of records, winning the Big Ten tournament title in dramatic fashion and losing to the eventual national champion.

Six months later, the Lions want to pick up where they left off.

“Right when we lost (to Denver), I wanted to play another game right away,” goalie Peyton Jones said Thursday at the team’s preseason media day.

No. 10 Penn State, ranked in the preseason poll for the first time, finally gets to play again at 3 p.m. Sunday at Pegula Ice Arena, meeting Canadian Interscholastic School Ottawa in an exhibition game. The regular season begins Friday with a visit to Clarkson.

While the game doesn’t count, and is just one day after the first official practice with coaches, it is still a chance to get a glimpse of a program that had college hockey stunned by a rise to a national contender in just the fifth year as a varsity program. It was a feel-good story that had both the team and fans eager to see the 2017-18 sequel.

“The nice thing about it was walking around the community here, the campus, and there was quite a buzz, excitement, even in the summer” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “That was really nice. That was an interesting part I don’t think we’ve seen in the past — the real optimism toward what they feel the team can accomplish.”

Combining a fun, fan-friendly offense that pushes the tempo and pours on the offense — the Nittany Lions led the nation in shots and goals per game last season — with the enthusiasm of the arena crowd and the attitude of team members, it was hard not to like the skating Lions.

The team is getting deeper and more talented each season as well, with five NHL draft picks on the roster.

Since he hadn’t been able to watch his team skate through captain’s practices once everyone returned to campus for the start of the semester, until Saturday, Gadowsky doesn’t yet know if this team can recapture the magic. He doesn’t think the team’s chemistry has been altered too much, though several key emotional leaders were lost to graduation. The schedule appears more difficult, especially in the opening weeks, than the start of last season, and that may impact their confidence early.

However, with the lessons and thrills of last season, this Nittany Lion team is eager to get back to work.

“There are more expectations on the team,” said Denis Smirnov, who led Penn State and was the nation’s top-scoring freshman last season. “If we all do good, the team’s going to do great. We have higher standards now too. It’s not like last year our goal was win (a) national championship and Big Ten. We only got one out of two, so now we go for national championship, hopefully.”

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @GordonCDT

Men’s hockey exhibition

Who: Ottawa at No. 10 Penn State

Where: Pegula Ice Arena

When: 3 p.m. Sunday