If it feels like a long time since Penn State fans have seen the men’s hockey team play in person, it has been.
“It’s been too long,” junior forward Casey Bailey said.
The last time the Nittany Lions hit the Pegula Ice Arena floor for a game, carved pumpkins were sitting on porches and children were ringing doorbells looking for candy.
More than two months later, they finally have another home game, hosting Ohio State (6-9-2, 1-2 Big Ten) at 7 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday as Penn State (9-6-2, 3-1) returns to its Big Ten schedule.
“We’re really excited to get back on home ice and see the fans again,” said Bailey, whose 11 goals lead the team and is tied for third in the conference. “We want to hear the ‘Roar Zone.’”
While that “Roar Zone” student section will be filled, it won’t be with students, since classes do not resume on campus until Monday. However, another sellout crowd will be on hand.
When the Nittany Lions last played a home game, beating Bentley 3-2 on Oct. 31, they were just eight games into the season, sporting a 5-1-2 record.
In the 70 days since, Penn State has played nine games, moved into first place all alone in the Big Ten and traveled about 3,870 miles.
There also were breaks in there, with weekends off and time for exams and the holidays, and they got in plenty of practice sessions on their home ice, but nothing compares to 6,000 fans full-throat for the Nittany Lions.
“The biggest advantage is the atmosphere in Pegula Ice Arena,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “It’s really motivating.”
The long break between home games was for a collection of reasons, according to Gadowsky. It is the way the non-conference schedule worked out, with three regular games and two tournament games outside of the Big Ten, and the conference sets the schedule independently from the schools.
“You have to be a pro when you’re on the road,” Bailey said. “You have to get used to some challenges and differences, but getting back here, having a lot of games here in the next couple weeks, months, we’re excited for the opportunity.”
It meant Penn State played the first four of 20 Big Ten games on the road, but it also means 10 of the last 16 are in State College, and the Nittany Lions are not going anywhere for a while. They are home the next three weekends for six games, and after a short trip to Philadelphia on Jan. 31, they get two more at home.
“It can work both ways,” Gadowsky said of the long stretch away from home. “If you’re on the road a lot at the start, it can sometimes be gelling for a team, and if you can sometimes manage to have pretty good results, you can set yourself up for maybe more success. At the same time, there have been times it can bury you too.”
For the Nittany Lions, it is the former, even with a number of key players missing time with injury. On Tuesday, Gadowsky listed just forwards Jonathan Milley and Jacob Friedman on the injury list.
“Whenever you have the chance to get everybody back in the lineup like we might have this weekend,” Bailey said, “it’s exciting to see what kind of offensive opportunities we’ll have.”
Penn State should be eager to get its offense cranked up. It had been as high as second in the nation in scoring, but has dropped to a tie for 13th.
Leading that offense are Bailey and Taylor Holstrom, who has four goals and 14 assists. The linemates got the additional honor Wednesday of being the program’s first two nominees for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the nation’s top college player.
The Lions will be trying to erase the memories of their last two games of their road odyssey, however. A five-minute major on defenseman Nate Jensen led to a two Robert Morris goals and Penn State never recovered the rest of the team’s time at the Three Rivers Classic with losses to the Colonials (4-2) and Western Michigan (4-1).
“We’ve put those two games behind us,” Bailey said. “It’s a Christmas tournament at the end of the day. They were huge games and we’re not happy with the outcomes, but we have to put the games behind us.”
The Nittany Lions have had a long break and a long time away from home, but they are hoping to regain the momentum against Ohio State, a team Penn State beat in the final game of last year’s regular season.
“That was a tough-fought series,” Gadowsky said. “I’m pretty sure the players will remember it. … It was pretty tough hockey. It was physical, tough, rough.”