On Jan. 16, the Penn State men’s hockey team was flying.
It had just completed a weekend sweep of Wisconsin at Pegula Ice Arena. The Nittany Lions were ranked in both national voting polls and climbing in the PairWise rankings. They had one of the nation’s top offenses, had lost just twice in 15 games, was playing before sold-out crowds every night at home and had their fans electrified.
Nittany Lion fans can ponder what might have been if things had been a little different after that night.
The team could still be playing this weekend, among the 16 who made it to the NCAA Tournament.
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They might have been there if not for a couple key injuries in the final weeks of the season, forcing them to play shorthanded, with incomplete forward lines and a full complement of defensive pairings. Plus, the power play unit wasn’t converting, the penalty kill wasn’t working as efficiently and the team wasn’t as disciplined and taking more penalties.
We also were taken in by the illusion of the schedule.
Penn State played only two teams that made the NCAA Tournament — Michigan and Notre Dame. In the final U.S. College Hockey Online top 20 poll, those two teams, and Minnesota, were the only ranked opponents on the Lions’ schedule. In the PairWise rankings, an indicator of seedings for the NCAA, Robert Morris and St. Lawrence, which were tied for 20th, were the only other teams Penn State faced among the nation’s top 30.
In other words, only five opponents, among the 16 Penn State played, resided in the top 50 percent of the nation’s Division I teams.
In contrast, five opponents were among the bottom 10 in that same list.
Plus, a lot of those games were played at home. The young program has knowledgeable fans who pack the building each night. It translated into a 12-5-1 home record. After that January night mentioned earlier, only three home games remained among the 14 left on the schedule.
Given all that, the team still was just a few wins away from having a serious shot at the NCAAs. A few bad losses late — 4-3 at Wisconsin and 7-4 at home to Ohio State immediately come to mind — left some extra bruises. If they could have beaten Michigan once, instead of going 0 for 5, the resume would have looked even better.
We will never know.
However, while we lament about what might have been, we can also ponder that this team still exceeded expectations from before the first puck dropped on the season.
Combining a number of player departures — graduation took a bunch, Scott Conway was booted off the team and Casey Bailey left early for the NHL — and the realistic expectation had the team maybe winning a game or two fewer than last year.
But it was quite apparent in the season’s first five games, when the Nittany Lions outscored opponents by a combined 28-17 for four wins, there would not be a dropoff. And pretty much all season it was a fun team to watch. A lot of scoring, a lot of end-to-end action and a lot of speed made for an exciting brand and style of hockey. With so many teams bogged down by defense around the country, Penn State fans are lucky to get this show, and that style kept the fans in the games.
Now, we have to wonder what next year holds. Eight pretty important seniors will be gone, as will both starting goaltenders. Junior Eamon McAdam left earlier this week for the pros, the New York Islanders’ third-round draft pick signed to play for the team’s AHL affiliate in Bridgeport, Conn.
And, sorry to say to coach Guy Gadowsky, this is no longer a fledgling franchise. Spend two seasons in the national top-20 rankings, finish in the top half of the conference rankings and land in the NCAA tournament conversation, and you’re no longer beginners. Expectations are now the same as any other Penn State program.
Adding Notre Dame to the Big Ten in two seasons will definitely benefit the conference. Six teams are too few, and many of the Big Ten teams performed poorly in non-conference games. It would be nice to add another associate member, or convince another Big Ten school to elevate its club program, but every little bit will help.
Needless to say, Penn State hockey is moving in the right direction. After just a couple seasons, we now expect to see wins when we go to Pegula Ice Arena. The standards are high. There are a few teams with offices at the other end of Curtin Road — in Rec Hall — that have hauled home big trophies in the last few seasons.
There is still a lot of work to do to match what the wrestling, volleyball and soccer teams have done, that is much higher up the ladder, but this team keeps on surprising.