October 3, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Time to Roar

Penn State Looks to Show Last Year's Run Was No Fluke

by Jashvina Shah/Staff Writer (@icehockeystick)

Just six months ago, Penn State was skating into history. The team was following its first-ever Big Ten tournament championship — earned with a pair of thrilling double overtime victories — with their first NCAA tournament win after smoking Union. The run ended the next day with a loss to Denver, the eventual national champion, in the Midwest Regional final.

“Getting the confidence and getting the experience and getting to play a team like Denver gives us a lot to grow off of,” captain James Robinson said. “[It] gives us a lot to see where we need to get to and areas where we needed to improve in over the offseason. I think we did an excellent job of that and I think it’s just going to give us more confidence going into this season.”

The Big Ten title was a heroic accomplishment itself — Penn State skating in three games in three days, including two double-overtime contests. In a season of broken school records, Penn State also won 25 games, 10 conference contests and housed the highest-scoring freshman in the country, Denis Smirnov.

An unprecedented season placed the Nittany Lions at the top of the conference, so it makes sense team expectations are to repeat as champions. On the other hand, this is right where the program hoped to be after five years of existence.

“After the finish that we had last year we obviously gained a lot of momentum and a lot of confidence,” Robinson said. “To be honest with you, our expectation is a national championship let alone a Big Ten championship.”

Some of that team has changed. David Goodwin, the team’s second highest scorer, graduated. Vince Pedrie, the team’s most offensive defenseman, signed a professional contract. But the core of the team has remained, starting with goaltender Peyton Jones and stretching to defenseman Erik Autio and forwards Andrew Sturtz, Nate Sucese and Chase Berger.

“I guess there’s some outside pressure but as a team we don’t really look into it too much,” head coach Guy Gadowsky said. “We know what we can do, we know what we’re capable of, we try not to think of what’s going on outside of our locker room. From within I think like I said we have high expectations for ourselves so we’re not going to step out of what we need to do and we’re just going to put our head down and go to work.”

The biggest hurdle for Penn State lies in a tougher conference, bolstered by the addition of Notre Dame and former ECAC Goaltender of the Year, Kyle Hayton. They’ll be facing, once again, a stacked — and slightly healthier — Gopher team.

Penn State was picked fourth by coaches in the preseason poll, a large drop for a team coming off a Big Ten tournament win retaining most of its players in a poll where coaches tend to vote for whoever finished the season well.

“I think we’ve always added pressure on ourselves to improve and that’s the goal again this year. So in that sense I think it remains the same,” Gadowsky said.

Despite an unprecedented season for a Division I team just five years old, last year’s Nittany Lions weren’t without flaws. The defense and goaltending struggled at times, being exposed in conference play against high-powered, skilled offenses.

Netminder Peyton Jones still played a role in the team’s success, filling in for Eamon McAdam who signed early last offseason. Jones struggled at times during the season and in Big Ten play, finishing the year with a .904 save percentage. But he played well in the Big Ten tournament, allowing five goals over three games. In the team’s championship win over Wisconsin, Jones allowed one goal on 52 shots — recording an in-game save percentage of .981.

“He was an absolute workhorse, he was extremely committed to his academics and he was extremely committed to being the best athlete he could be off the ice,” Gadowsky said. “He was extremely committed to working at his trade on the ice.”

The question mark comes on the defensive end, where Gadowsky said there’s room to make the defense more consistent. They also lost Vince Pedrie to an early departure, but Gadowsky said he expects left-handed freshman Cole Hults to fill some of Pedrie’s spots. The defense also gets junior Kevin Kerr back in the lineup after he missed much of last year with an injury.

“We have seven other defensemen that are all growing and improving and we’ll see where the chemistry is and maybe we won’t get the same, I’m sure Cole as well as the other defensemen will develop their own style and way of contributing,” Gadowsky said.

Despite the question marks that lingered throughout the season, it all came together for Penn State during that postseason run. Players like Nikita Pavlychev and Kris Myllari, two sophomores this year, went from promising newcomers to impact players. After years of gradually building a winner, but spending much of last year seemingly overwhelmed by raised expectations, everything coalesced for the Nittany Lions in a glorious two weeks.

If that carries over, Penn State has every reason to believe it will be a force to be reckoned with.

“I know there’s very well defined areas that we have to improve in but every team develops its own identity and does its own things well, so I’m very curious t see what those things are,” Gadowsky said.

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