You would be hard pressed to find a single person who regularly watches college hockey that could have predicted the season Penn State just had. Of course, there are the optimists and idealists among the Nittany Lion faithful that could only have hoped in their heart of hearts this team would succeed the way they did. However, no one really thought it was possible that an eight win team from last year would beat every team in the Big Ten at least once and lead the conference in points until the last week of the season, now did they?
Despite ending the season with a 3-1 quarterfinal loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament, Penn State made large strides in becoming a formidable force in the college hockey world this year. Strangely, while last season held expectations that were just too high for the young program to reach, this year Penn State went above and beyond any intelligent predictions almost from the get-go.
Helped by an easier non-conference schedule than last year, the Nittany Lions went 7-2-3 over their first two months of the season, including opening their conference play with a 3-2 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor on Nov. 21. Penn State would go on to lose just one game in January and roll out an eight game unbeaten streak that would encompass three of their five Big Ten opponents.
The team faltered in their final month of the season, only winning three of their last 10 games of the year. However, many of their problems stemmed from finally catching the injury bug that had been chasing them all season that was made worse by their tough block of Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, and Minnesota twice to round out the season.
Still, this season was an impressive run for Penn State, one that many believed wasn't possible for a program in only its third year of Division I play.
2014-15 Record: 18-15-4 overall, 10-9-1 Big Ten (4th)
2014-15 Home Record: 13-2-3
First in the NCAA in: Total shots (1452), shots for per game (39.24)
Shots Attempted For Percentage: 54.9%
2014-15 Three Stars
- Casey Bailey: Without a doubt Penn State's star of the season belongs to the now Toronto Maple Leaf Casey Bailey. The junior racked up 22 goals and 40 points in 37 games to lead the Nittany Lions in both stats, along with tying for ninth in the NCAA in goals. I've talked before about what Bailey brings to the table, and his shoot from anywhere mentality combined with his ability to score clutch goals were absolutely key to Penn State's successes this season. Bailey also leads the league in shots with 211, the only player to surpass the 200-shot mark in the NCAA. The now former Penn Stater's talents will certainly be missed next season in Hockey Valley, but without a doubt Bailey deserves the chance to play on the biggest stage this sport has to offer.
- Head Coach Guy Gadowsky: What coach Guy Gadowsky has done to this team in such a short amount of time has been absolutely incredible. In just his third year with the team, he's produced the team's first winning season this past year, cultivated the talents of players such as Bailey and Taylor Holstrom -- both of whom were in the running for the Hobey Baker award -- and turned what was once a club team into one that's graced the top 20 teams in the nation twice this year. Last week, Gadowsky was awarded the Big Ten Coach of the Year award, an honor he rightfully deserves after a historic year for the program with their first winning season and first NHL signee in Bailey. Gadowsky has helped this program find its identity and blossom into a solid, exciting hockey team that will be fun to watch for years to come.
- PJ Musico: The senior netminder wasn't considered to be one of the starters in goal for Penn State at the beginning of the season. Yes, he was in the three-goaltender rotation, but most believed the work would fall on the shoulders of younger netminders Matt Skoff and Eamon McAdam. And it did, until about midway through the season when Gadowsky suddenly rode the hot hand of Musico and the goaltender appeared in more games this year than any of his previous seasons with the team. While McAdam has the better save percentage and Skoff the lower goals against average, Musico put up the best numbers of his career with a .909 SV% and a 3.05 GAA while going 6-5-1 this season between the pipes. Though often looked at as Penn State's extra goaltender, it was great to see a graduating senior and an all around good guy in Musico get a terrific sendoff in his last year with the team.
Answers to my three questions posed at the start of the season
Penn State will certainly feel the loss of Casey Bailey next season, in a move that's ultimately good for the program, but one that might cause the Nittany Lions to regress a bit if they cannot find guys to step up to fill the 40-point gap left by the forward.
"We're very happy for Casey, it's great for him," Gadowsky said. "Long run, it's gonna be nice for the program. It's gonna take a hit short term because he's such a big part of our team, such a big part of our offense. But, we're really proud of him. He's really elevated his work ethic and he really deserves it."
Outside of Bailey, eight other seniors are leaving the team, including 33 point forward Taylor Holstrom and team captain Patrick Koudys. Next year will be a test for the Nittany Lions in their first real bridge year between classes. Last season, Penn State retained a good 90 percent of their offense by only losing less than a handful of players. Now, Gadowsky and the team will have to find success without that large group of players that were the backbone of the team for the last few years.
"I really do like the culture we have right now in terms of our work ethic and the commitment that the guys have," Gadowsky said. "I like the direction we’re going, I think we improved a whole lot last year, I think we improved this year. I’m optimistic that we’ll continue."