Penn State Reveling in New Experience
by Tony Jovenitti/CHN Reporter
Last March, Penn State’s brand new hockey program traveled to Madison to face a storied Wisconsin team in one of the biggest arenas in college hockey. After falling behind 2-0, the Nittany Lions stormed back to force overtime. Taylor Holstrom scored the game-winning tally in the final minute of overtime, capping off Penn State’s first season of NCAA hockey with a victory.
Since it competed as an independent program last year, Penn State didn’t have any postseason to play, so the Nittany Lions went back to Happy Valley savoring the taste of their first victory over a ranked opponent.
But now, Penn State finds itself in the newly formed Big Ten conference, and all six teams compete in the postseason. With postseason hockey, the only way a team can end its season with a victory is if it hoists the championship trophy in Philadelphia next month.
“This is new for us, and it’s all very fun,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said. “We’re approaching it with a lot of excitement and a lot of enjoyment.”
Penn State’s first postseason opponent just so happens to be the only Big Ten team it managed to beat more than once — Michigan. The Nittany Lions earned their first-ever Big Ten win, a 4-0 shutout over the Wolverines, on Feb. 8 in front of a sold-out crowd of 6,170 fans at Pegula Ice Arena.
Many expected Penn State to get its first win at home, and perhaps even over a ranked opponent like Michigan. But Penn State’s next win was perhaps the most surprising. Two weeks after the win in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions headed to Ann Arbor where the Wolverines hoped to avenge their loss.
Instead, Penn State stunned the Wolverines in overtime, winning 5-4.
Gadowsky doesn’t think that his team has any special success against the Wolverines, it’s more a matter of gaining confidence and getting a little lucky.
“We’ve played very well against other teams and lost those games, but against Michigan we played very well and had the bounces go our way,” Gadowsky said.
“I think the confidence we have is that we feel we’ve been playing our best hockey as of late, whether it was against Michigan or the other teams. I don’t think it’s a matter of a match-up or anything like that.”
Penn State was the conference pushover to start the season, losing its first nine conference games. But the Nittany Lions started to fight back in the final weeks of the season, giving all five Big Ten teams a scare — including a one-goal loss to Minnesota and an overtime loss to Wisconsin. They closed out the regular season with a win over Ohio State.
Gadowsky thinks the scheduled played a role in his team’s improvement down the stretch. Of Penn State’s 34 games this season, 18 of them were against ranked opponents. Four of Penn State’s opponents currently sit in the top five of the Pairwise.
“When we started looking at our schedule at the start of the year, you can get a little intimidated,” he said. “It’s a very tough grind, but looking back at it, I think it’s something we really benefited from.”
Gadowsky also credited second-half surges by younger players like freshman Dylan Richard and sophomore Casey Bailey as reasons for Penn State’s improvement. Richard finished the season with 10 assists, while Bailey netted 9 goals.
“I think Casey Bailey made the biggest stride from first half to second half,” Gadowsky said. “With him starting to put the puck in the net, it makes it easier for everybody.”
Though, Gadowsky warned that Penn State will need more than Bailey if it wants to knock off Michigan for a third time.
“For us to be successful, we really need to have scoring from all over,” he said.
If the Nittany Lions can defeat Michigan on Thursday, they’ll move on to face the team they stunned in overtime last year, Wisconsin. Gadowsky said his team is ready for the challenge, but they’re also ready to have fun and try to gain experience from their first postseason.
“We know we’re going to learn a lot from it,” he said. “We’re going to try to squeeze every bit of knowledge and enjoyment out of it that we can.”