Penn State Hockey

Penn State men’s hockey: 10 things to know about Nittany Lions’ season

Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky leads the Nittany Lions into their second season as a Division I program.
Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky leads the Nittany Lions into their second season as a Division I program. CDT file photo

There will be no speeches this time, and the festivities will be a little more subdued.

Now, it’s just another hockey season.

But it also means the Penn State coaching staff and players are concentrating on a new season, with all the focus on the ice and improving their game. The distractions are far fewer.

Nearly every member of last year’s team has returned, joined by three freshmen, and the puck drops in just five days on a new season when the Nittany Lions face off against Connecticut at 7 p.m. Friday at Pegula Ice Arena.

“This is the first year we have had continuity,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “We know where we are, we know who we’re starting with, although there are three unknowns, the basic core of the team is the same.”

Last season not only featured the first year in a spectacular new building, but also was the first as part of the Big Ten, and making that transition was a roster filled with mostly freshmen and sophomores.

With all that youth came a lot of bumps in the road, and the team ended the season 8-26-2, and 3-16-1 in the conference. They did win their first-round game in the conference tournament, beating Michigan in double overtime, before falling 2-1 to Wisconsin in the semifinals.

“As a team (with) maturity,” Gadowsky said, “we’re way ahead.”

With the season about to begin, here are 10 things, big and small, to watch for during the Nittany Lions’ third season:

1. Keep the expectations down

At the team’s preseason media day on Tuesday, Gadowsky said the program is still building and there is still much to do before Penn State can be on the same level as its Big Ten brethren.

“We are still very much focused on the process,” Gadowsky said. “We have a good vision in mind what we want to be, but it’s still not fair at this point to determine improvement just wins and losses.”

In other words, don’t be expecting the Nittany Lions to be torching through the Big Ten and surging up the national rankings. They are going to be better, they should flirt with a .500 record this year if injuries are few and everyone follows the steps the coaches have laid out.

But they are still young, the talent is not quite at the level of some others in the Big Ten, and the staff is trying to keep the big picture in mind.

“If we win more games, but we don’t improve in the areas where we have to,” Gadowsky said, “then we won’t feel that we had success.”

2. In Skoff they trust

It hardly came as a surprise that the No. 1 goaltender to start this season will be the same guy who was the clear No. 1 to close last year. As the only goalie to earn wins last season, the job is Matthew Skoff’s to lose.

Skoff was 8-13-2 with a 2.95 goals-against average, a .906 save percentage and had one shutout. The junior is battle-tested and did plenty in the offseason to be even better.

“Everyone’s just a little more comfortable,” Skoff said. “We learned a lot. Obviously our record shows we lost a lot of games, but with losing comes learning and we have all our guys coming back beside one, and we have three pretty good freshmen that can step in and play.”

While there is no reason not to think Skoff will be as good or better, the one to watch is Eamon McAdam. He came with the resume as a third-round draft pick of the New York Islanders, but he was less than stellar during his freshman season.

He had a 4.09 goals-against average, and didn’t see action after Jan. 31, seeing time in only 10 games. He also had a penchant for allowing a goal on the first shot he faced or in the early minutes of games.

As good and confident as Skoff is, the Nittany Lions need both goalies to do well this season to have a chance for success.

3. More scoring needed

Penn State also needs more scoring to have a chance at success —a lot more scoring.

The Nittany Lions scored just 80 goals all season, an average of 2.22 per game. That ranked 53rd out of 59 Division I teams.

Eric Scheid was the only Lion to hit double digits, with 11 goals and nine assists, and eight others had at least five goals.

Injuries did hamper some efforts, and several players showed flashes of a finishing touch like David Goodwin, Taylor Holstrom, Dylan Richard, Casey Bailey, Curtis Loik and Zach Saar.

“We do have players that you can anticipate should do very well offensively,” Gadowsky said.

Saar had hip surgery late in the summer and is expected to be out until after Christmas, but the rest are healthy.

Max Gardiner was one of those who struggled through injuries, but having his big body in front of the net will help the offense. Penn State needs both the pretty, highlight-reel goals and the gritty goals that come from hard work and knocking in rebounds.

It also wouldn’t hurt if they could be a little more successful on the power play.

4. Solid blue line

The team also struggled through injuries among its defensemen, and for a second straight season had stretches in which a full complement of six blue-liners were not available for games.

Despite those issues, the defensemen were fairly solid for the Nittany Lions. Team captain and senior Patrick Koudys is a force on defense, with his 79 blocks by far the best on the team. His tenacity and work ethic was driving the team during preseason workouts before the first official practice Saturday.

Luke Juha also put together a solid season and was selected as one of the Big Ten’s players to watch this year, and Mike Williamson and David Thompson figure to be strong again for their sophomore seasons.

Nate Jensen is one of the team’s triggermen on the power play, and the team suffered in that area when he sat out with a concussion last season.

5. Freshmen: quality, not quantity

After large freshman classes each of the last two seasons, this one is small with just three new additions.

New on the roster are forwards Scott Conway and James Robinson, and defenseman Erik Autio.

“The expectations are that all three of them are going to be key contributors,” Gadowsky said.

Autio arrives with plenty of international experience, having played with the Finnish under-18 national team. He is the first European to play for the program, and was a three-year assistant captain for his club team in Finland.

Conway also is European, born in England, but has been playing in North America the last couple years, his father played juniors in Canada and his uncle, Fred Perlini, got in a handful of games with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Gadowsky described Conway as “cerebral” and “gritty.”

Robinson is a native of Calgary, and Gadowsky likened the freshman’s style to a couple other Nittany Lions who are from the central plains of Canada in David Glen and Dylan Richard, with his value more in a tough style of plan than in scoring.

“We add scoring touch with Scott Conway, we add grit and identity with James Robinson,” Gadowsky said. “Erik Autio, he has a lot of great experience, obviously, internationally. He wore a letter for the Finnish national team.”

6. Everybody knows your name

The freshman class is small because the crop of holdovers is large — just one Lion graduated after last season. It means nearly everyone has been through the rough life in the Big Ten, and there is plenty of familiarity on the ice.

Every single point scored last season came off the sticks of players who are back this season.

“We’re a little bit more comfortable with ourselves,” Juha said. “We have three new guys and we lost one. ... We’re excited. We have a really good culture right now and we’re all on the same page I think. Going into the season we have high expectations for ourselves.”

7. Who’s in the box now?

Penn State will need to cut down on penalties.

The team finished 29th in penalty minutes with 191 infractions for 443 minutes, but that was a vast improvement from leading the nation in minutes early in the year.

Part of the problem was getting used to the way Big Ten officials would call games. Now they are a little more comfortable with the rules.

The power play conversions weren’t too bad, ranking 28 th at 17.69 percent, but they spent far more time killing penalties, stopping 129 of 159 chances. And Gadowsky ointed out Tuesday his team was hit with seven five-minute majors, and his team never once skated with a five-minute man advantage.

“If you’re looking for one statistic right off the top that’s going to help, that would be it,” Gadowsky said.

8. Northern lights

The Nittany Lions have a long road trip set in a few weeks, visiting Fairbanks, Alaska, to

meet both the Alaska Nanooks and Alaska Anchorage Seawolves on Oct. 17-18.

While there, Gadowsky will be inducted into the Nanooks’ Athletic Hall of Fame after

his successful coaching stint there from 1999-2004.

It will be a homecoming for Bailey, a native of Anchorage, and for Scheid, who spent a

season with the Seawolves.

9. Easier schedule

Penn State had the No. 2 strength of schedule last season, and three of the Frozen Four’s competitors came through State College, including eventual champion Union.

The slate is a little easier this year, at least based on last year’s performance.

In addition to the Big Ten schedule, the only teams on the schedule in the preseason poll are No. 14 Cornell and No. 17 Massachusetts-Lowell.

Judging by the RPI rankings at the end of last season, the schedule includes No. 42 UConn, No. 27 Alaska-Anchorage, No. 28 Alaska, No. 38 Bentley, No. 40 Northern

Michigan, No. 44 Robert Morris and No. 53 Holy Cross. No. 13 Vermont is the only other team that was ranked last year.

The schedule does include four appearances in NHL arenas, with returns to the Three Rivers Classic in Pittsburgh and the Philadelphia College Hockey Faceoff. They added The Frozen Apple to meet Cornell during Thanksgiving weekend at New York’s Madison Square Garden, and the Big Ten Tournament will be played at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena.

10. Big Ten still big

While those non-conference contests will draw some attention, the marquee events of the schedule are the Big Ten games.

Minnesota is the preseason No. 1 after spending most of last season there and falling to Union in the NCAA finals. Michigan is eighth, Wisconsin is 10th and Ohio State and Michigan State each received votes.

“You’re going to be playing someone great every night,” Gadowsky said. “That’s just the way it is.”

The Nittany Lions are expecting to be a lot more competitive in the conference this season.

“I think there’s going to be more parity,” Gadowsky said. “I think it’s going to be closer.”

Predicted finish: 16-20, 6-14 Big Ten