Penn State enters the 2014-15 season with considerably less fanfare compared to their last few years. Over the past four seasons, the Nittany Lions have gained a seasoned head coach in Guy Gadowsky, made the jump to Division I into the newly formed Big Ten Conference from the club hockey level, and broke in a $88 million ice arena fully financed by Mr. Terry Pegula himself.
Now, when Penn State hits the ice this Friday night to start their season against the UConn Huskies, there will be no "firsts" accompanying the team out of the locker room with them.
Last season saw the Nittany Lions return to the status quo in a division of five well-established and historic hockey programs. While they finished at the bottom of the Big Ten, Penn State held their own with a league-high 16 one-goal games and beat budding rival Michigan 2-1 in double OT to advance to the second round of the conference tournament.
On the team's media day, Gadowsky stressed the importance of the new found consistency between seasons in the team's overall development as a program. Penn State's still a young team with room to grow, but the confidence and maturity level heading into this season is at an all-time high in their short three years of Division I play.
2013-14 Record: 8-26-2 overall, 3-16-1 Big Ten (6th)
Offseason Additions: Freshmen F Scott Conway, F James Robinson, and D Erik Autio
Offseason Losses: F Michael McDonagh, D Mark Yanis, F Zach Saar (hip injury, out until Christmas)
|Dylan Richard, SO||Eric Scheid, RS JR||Casey Bailey, JR|
|Curtis Loik, JR||David Glen, JR||Kenny Brooks, JR|
|David Goodwin, SO||Taylor Holstrom, RS SR||Scott Conway, FR|
|Tommy Olczyk, SR||Ricky DeRosa, SO||James Robinson, FR|
|Extras:||Max Gardiner, RS SR||Jonathan Milley, JR||Jacob Friedman, SR||Zach Saar (inj.)|
|Patrick Koudys, SR||David Thompson, SO|
|Luke Juha, JR||Connor Varley, JR|
|Nate Jensen, RS SR||Erik Autio, FR|
|Extras:||Mike Williamson, SO||Peter Sweetland, SR|
|Matthew Skoff, JR||Eamon McAdam, SO||PJ Musico, SR|
Storylines to Watch:
- Freshmen impacts: Penn State’s retaining 95% of their scoring from last season while adding three talented freshmen to the mix: forwards Scott Conway and James Robinson and defenseman Erik Autio. Two of the three, Conway and Autio, were featured in our 2014 All-Big Ten Rookie Team a few weeks back. Gadowsky spoke highly of all three freshmen during the team’s media day, touching on Conway’s scoring abilities and Autio’s experience in international play competing in his home country of Finland. It remains to be seen how the three newcomers to the team will be used and will be something of note as the season progresses.
- No more goaltending carousel: Last season, Penn State ran with a weekly goalie carousel after Gadowsky decided not to name a starter in net to begin the season. Well, the ride lasted only one year and now junior Matthew Skoff is the Nittany Lion's starting goaltender coming into the year after an official announcement late in the offseason. There’s no question the net should be Skoff’s over New York Islander draft pick and sophomore Eamon McAdam and veteran senior PJ Musico. Skoff was the goaltender for every Penn State win last season, all the while posting a team-leading 2.96 GAA and a .906 save percentage in his second year with the team.
- Changing of the guard: In a move that wasn't altogether surprising but slightly worrisome without an initial explanation, Gadowsky stripped two-year senior captain Tommy Olczyk of his captaincy and gave the C to defenseman Patrick Koudys over the summer. Gadowsky's love of his senior defenseman Koudys is well known, having called the blueliner an "animal" on the ice more often than not last season, but the lack of a reason when the news first broke could have been a cause for concern. However, Gadowsky cleared the air on media day that it had nothing to do with Olczyk himself, but with the direction of the program as they moved away from their transition years into a more stable and consistent period. It was a unanimous decision, but one to keep an eye on throughout the year.
- How will Penn State stack up in the Big Ten Conference that reckons to be a tighter race between teams not named Minnesota and Michigan?
Can the Nittany Lions reduce their league-leading 443 penalty minutes from last season while balancing their signature aggressive and up-tempo style of play?
What impact will Penn State's freshman class have after the successes of last year's group of newcomers and what roles will they fill as the season progresses?
Penn State's still got road to climb in terms of reaching the depth and talent of their five conference members, but this year looks to be a breakout point for this team. Last season, there were more than a handful of close games that finished just out of their reach. They went 5-11-0 in their 16 one-goal games last year, a stat that sometimes felt magnified by luck, or their lack of it. They were close to breaking through at the end of last season, which came to a head in the double OT win against Michigan, and this year, the Nittany Lions just might be able to turn those close games into wins.
Add the fact that many of the Big Ten teams lost significant pieces to their puzzles from last year and Penn State has a fighting chance to jump out of the conference sub-basement and make the race for the middle seeds more competitive this time around.
There were a lot of high expectations heading into the 2013-14 season for Penn State, a good portion of which were certainly elevated by the arrival of a new ice arena to campus. With the bulk of the hype over and the bar for expectations set at a more reasonable level, look for the Nittany Lions to capitalize more on their lessons learned and continue to make positive strides as a blossoming hockey program.