The 2012-13 season was defined by a jump to the NCAA.
Last year at this time, it was the birth of Big Ten hockey and the inaugural season in the sparkling new Pegula Ice Arena that was getting all the attention.
All the “firsts” out of the way, now it’s time for the Nittany Lions to focus on winning.
Penn State hockey opens its third Division I season 7 p.m. Friday at home against UConn.
“This year there’s no more excuses, there’s no more growing pains,” Nittany Lions captain Patrick Koudys said. “We’ve got most of our guys back from last year, and everyone’s on the same page now so we’ll just hit the ground running and have a good start here.”
Playing with a roster that was extremely bottom-heavy with underclassmen, Penn State went 8-26-2 last season and won just three of 20 Big Ten games. The Lions, though, were peaking at the end of the campaign, beating Ohio State in the regular-season finale and upsetting Michigan in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals before a tight 2-1 loss to Wisconsin in the semis.
Penn State had a highly-successful club hockey program that was a regular national championship contender for decades prior to the move to varsity competition in 2012-13. Playing a much weaker schedule than what they’d face when the Big Ten was formed, the Lions went 13-14. (They did, however, beat Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State that season).
This season represents another step of the assimilation into big-time college hockey.
“We’re still in our infancy, obviously, so it’s very much about the process, not the results we get,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “There was one report that we wouldn’t win a game until our third year in the Big Ten, so we certainly haven’t had the experiences enough and the foundations that, ‘This what we’ve seen, this is what we are’ and ‘This is what we expect.’ We’re still in the early stages. We feel we’re well ahead of schedule, so we do have expectations to improve, for sure, but we’re we not judging our performances by wins and losses. We’re judging our performance on the process and how well we improve and continue moving forward.”
Among the top returnees for Penn State are junior goalie Matt Skoff, junior forwards Eric Sheid and David Glen and senior defensemen Koudys and Nate Jensen.
Jensen and Glen were elected alternate captains; Scheid led the Lions in goals (11) and points (20) last season.
In reality, though, the vast majority of last season’s team is back and should, theoretically at least, be better after a year of maturity and experience playing together. Three freshmen were added to the roster.
“I think our biggest strength is having everyone basically know each other; we’re only adding three more kids to our team and other than that we all learned lessons last year that we can all remember and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes now,” said Skoff, who went to Montour High School. “I think that huge as far as experience-wise. I think that’s our greatest asset, to be honest.”
Skoff entered last season as part of a three-goalie rotation but seized the starting job by the stretch run. He was the goalie of record in all of PSU’s wins and had the best goals-against average (2.95) and save percentage (.906) on the team.
Over the season’s final three games (two of them in the Big Ten tournament), Skoff went 2-1 with a 1.41 GAA and .957 save percentage.
“What I think is important is he has the great respect of the team,” Gadowsky said. “He’s a tremendous teammate, he has tremendous work ethic, he’s very much committed to Penn State University, our program, himself as an athlete and the team. He absolutely no question earned the right to be called the starter to start the year.”
Just as Penn State absolutely has earned the right to be called a legitimate Division I hockey program. The success didn’t come last year, but the facilities and fan support (student season tickets sold out in 3 minutes early one summer morning) proved it.
“And it shows at the games,” Koudys said. “We’re only getting more and more fans, only getting stronger, only getting more into it –and I love it. I love it. It’s a factor when teams come into our building. I’ve talked to some guys I know on other teams. I don’t want to say it’s scary, but there’s an intimidation factor when you have fans who are there cheering and giving them a hard time. It’s great, we love playing in front of them.
“Hopefully we can reward them with some wins.”
Photo at top: Former Montour High School goalie Matt Skoff is Penn State’s unquestioned starter entering the program’s third season at the NCAA Division I level. (Mark Selders/PSU Athletic Communications)