Hello Black Shoes Diaries readers. My name is Nathan Wells and I'm the assistant editor at SB Nation Minnesota and a NCAA Hockey contributor for SB Nation. College hockey is one of my passions and it's great to see a new team and fellow Big Ten school join its ranks.
Penn State has an interesting schedule for 2012-2013 being an independent for a year before the Big Ten begins play in 2013-2014. One of the pitfalls with the present structure of college hockey is that teams only have a limited amount of non-conference games. 4 of the 5 conferences only allow 6 or 7 regular season games against non-conference foes and it makes scheduling those games that much harder. That's been a problem for Alabama-Huntsville (the other independent in D1 Hockey) as well and a reason why the Nittany Lions only have 23 regular-season games compared to a normal 34. The rest is filled up with exhibitions against club, D3 teams and the US Under-18 team, which features many of the next stars in American hockey.
While the on-campus home games leave something to be desired - there are only six against D1 teams - Penn State's inaugural season had both challenges and winnable games alike. Playing 8 of the 12 Atlantic Hockey teams (arguably the weakest college hockey conference) will be a good barometer for the Lions early in the year while series against Big Ten foes Michigan State and Wisconsin will give motivation when they are conference rivals next year.
After the jump, I'll break down each of Penn State's opponents. I won't discuss any of the D3 or exhibition games because I don't much about them and those games don't count in the standings.
AIC - A good program to open the Pegula D1 era because the Yellow Jackets are one of the saddest and smallest programs in D1 hockey. Even though the Ice Pavillion holds 1,350, filling it would be 7 times the average of an AIC home game. It's also an interesting series given they won 8 games last season.
RIT - The Tigers poise an early challenge as one of the top Atlantic Hockey teams along with Air Force. They finished fifth in the regular season but were within one game of getting an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. RIT was also a Frozen Four semifinalist in 2010.
Army - The Black Knights are a lower-end Atlantic Hockey team that hit rock bottom last season. Army only had four wins but should be a better team than that this year. Regardless, it's an interesting game for the Lions.
Sacred Heart - The fourth straight Atlantic Hockey opponent in a row, . I got a chance to watch them last season against Minnesota and it wasn't pretty as the Gophers beat them 9-0 and 6-0. In terms of programs and teams, they're up there as the worst.
Air Force - Since joining the league from the now-defunct CHA in 2006, the Falcons have perennially been the team to beat in Atlantic Hockey. Only once in that period (RIT in 2010) has another team won the automatic bid and Air Force has played spoiler, upsetting Michigan in 2009, in the NCAA Tournament. They're a tough team and easily the best home opponent Penn State has all season.
Union - The second consecutive team to make the NCAA Tournament last year, Union advanced to the Frozen Four semifinals as the ECAC regular season and conference champions. The Dutchmen should once again be a good team despite losing leading goal scorer Jeremy Welsh, who signed a free agent contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. Goalie Troy Grosenick, who finished in the top-5 of most goalie categories, returns and helps lead a team that relies on its defense (they led college hockey giving up only 1.83 goals per game).
It's a tough stretch for the Lions but one that will make them a better team down the line.
Holy Cross - One of the better Atlantic Hockey teams. While they're behind Air Force and RIT, the Crusaders find themselves in the next tier with Mercyhurst and Niagara. They also have a way of beating better teams as Boston University last season (and Minnesota in 2006) found out.
Robert Morris - The Pennsylvania rivals are mid to lower-tier Atlantic Hockey team. The Colonials will have a lot of turnover in 2012-2013 after losing 11 seniors and their top 4 scorers so it will be interesting to see how they recover; especially on the road.
Miami/Ohio State (Pittsburgh College Hockey Invitational) - Along with Robert Morris, the two Ohio teams and PSU make this one of the bigger holiday tournaments on a name value. Miami has been near the top of the CCHA over the last 6-7 years while Ohio State has been inconsistent. OSU looked good for the first half of the year before fading fast. The Buckeyes will be a good battle though.
Connecticut - As far as BCS schools playing college hockey go, UConn by far pays the least amount of attention to their program (although that may change soon). While others are leaders in their respective conferences, the Huskies haven't had a winning record in Atlantic Hockey in a decade and play in a 2,000 seat rink to less than capacity. It's likely that Connecticut could be Penn State's biggest win from a name perspective. And if not...
Vermont - ...it could be the Catamounts in Philadelphia. They're another team I got a chance to see in person last year and remain an enigma. While they were the worst team in Hockey East last season, three of their six wins came against NCAA Tournament teams, including Frozen Four semifinalist Minnesota and runner-up Ferris State. They also lost goalie Rob Madore, who led them as a freshman to the Frozen Four, along with leading goal scorer Sebastain Stalberg, but return forward Connor Brickley (a Florida Panthers draft pick).
They should be a better team than last year - or at least more consistent - as Vermont gains depth.
Michigan State - The third Penn State opponent to make the NCAA Tournament last year (they lost to Union in the first round), the Spartans are another defensive-minded team. Michigan State did lose Torrey Krug (the Spartans' leading D-man) so that may hurt at both ends of the ice but given that first-year head coach Tom Anastos was able to get more out of them than anyone thought, they'll be a tough test for PSU.
Alabama-Hunstville - The other independent in college hockey were also one of the worst last season, winning two games (although one of them was against a good Denver team) and almost lost their program. The Chargers should be a winnable opponent and (along with Oklahoma's club team a week later) a good end to the Pavillion as PSU's hockey home.
Wisconsin - Penn State's final opponent is also one of their toughest. Although the Badgers finished 10th in the WCHA last season, they return the majority of a young roster - including sophomore Mark Zengerle - with junior defenseman Justin Schultz (who will be one of the top NHL free agents come July) being the only exception. The fellow Big Ten school also looked better as last season went on and played their best hockey at the end of the year; gelling as a defensive-laden team with a deadly power play.
So there you have it, all of Penn State's Division 1 hockey opponents in a nutshell - congrats on reading this far. If you have any questions, feel free to ask and I'll try to answer.