The fanfare is greatly reduced this year, but not the enthusiasm.
It’s now just another season for the Penn State men’s ice hockey team, even if the benchmarks measuring the season will still be marked more in progress than in wins and losses.
However, with the way the Nittany Lions closed last season, they have been eager for the puck to drop on this year.
“The reason why we’re so excited is the distance that we came last year,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “We improved so much and we achieved some great results at the end of the year.”
The team held its preseason media day Tuesday, will hold its first official practice Saturday, and begin its season at 7 p.m. Oct. 10 hosting Connecticut. The Nittany Lions and Huskies also will play at 3 p.m. Oct. 11.
Two years ago, Penn State was just getting its feet wet in Division I hockey after elevating the program from club status. Last year, the team opened its new arena, and all of the benefits that comes with it, and also began playing in the Big Ten.
Even with all the “firsts” in the past, there is still plenty of excitement about another season. The program saw 95 percent of last year’s season-ticket holders renew their seats, and student season tickets sold out in just three minutes a few weeks ago.
“If anything there’s less noise in the background with all the firsts that we had last year,” senior defenseman Patrick Koudys said. “This year we’re just excited to get back.”
One of the main things the Nittany Lions will have going for them is experience – just one player was lost to graduation.
Every player who posted a goal or assist last season has returned to the roster.
“We expect that we’re going to be a lot further ahead come Oct. 10, than we were Oct. 11 last year on our opening night,” Gadowsky said. “Everybody’s together. We’ve been through it with our systems, and we’ve been through it with Big Ten opponents.”
Aside from three freshmen joining the team, everyone has been through at least one season together, and there are plenty of comfortable feelings.
“We all know how everyone plays,” senior forward Taylor Holstrom said. “We kind of have a general idea how the lines are set up and the guys that we’ve played with before. Since we’re all older, I think we’ve bought in and it’s going to be a lot quicker for our team to get the new guys on board and start where we left off from last year.”
They are going to need the additional experience to be competitive in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions were 3-16-1 in the conference last season, although they won their first-round Big Ten Tournament game 2-1 over Michigan in double overtime, and fell 2-1 to Wisconsin in the semifinals.
Making noise in the Big Ten will be a tall order. Minnesota is the preseason No. 1 team in the USCHO.com poll after spending most of last season at the top and making it all the way to the NCAA finals. In addition, the Wolverines are eighth and the Badgers are 10th, and both Ohio State and Michigan State picked up votes.
“These are the monsters of college hockey,” Gadowsky said. “We’re still playing catch-up.”
The first official practice may not be until Saturday, according to the NCAA, but it doesn’t mean the Nittany Lions haven’t been on the ice. Most of the team spent part or all of the summer in State College, and they have been holding informal practices for weeks.
“As much as we like ‘Captain’ Koudys’ practices,” said sophomore forward David Goodwin of the team’s new team captain, “we’re really excited for the first official (practice).”
Gadowsky frequently refers to Koudys as “an animal” and “a man” while gritting his teeth. So what are his practices like?
“Hard,” Goodwin answered. “A lot of skating.”
With two wins and four one-goal losses in the season’s final 11 games, Penn State was gaining on its Big Ten brethren, but there is more work to do.
“We have a long way to go,” Gadowsky said. “We’re really, really focused on the process. We have a lot of improvement to do, and it’s not just in isolated areas. We have to improve all over.”