Last season for Penn State Men’s Hockey saw a lot of firsts: The first game in Pegula Ice Arena. The first goal in Pegula Ice Arena. The first season of the Big Ten hockey conference.
They didn’t, however, have their first winning season, as coach Guy Gadowsky’s team posted an 8-26-2 overall record. What they did have was a memorable, exciting, first-round upset victory over Red Berenson’s Michigan Wolverines in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. They put up a valiant effort in round two before falling in a close game with Wisconsin.
The hype for year two began a few weeks ago when for the second straight year, Pegula Ice Arena sold out its student section — this time, in only three minutes.
"That sends a big statement on how our program, and Big Ten hockey, are received here on campus," Gadowsky said.
Tuesday afternoon saw media day for the Nittany Lions, the first "second" of their young existence.
While the only player gone from last year’s squad is forward Michael McDonagh, who played sparingly during his senior year, Gadowsky and co. are still looking for improvement, while preaching for development over immediate results.
NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN
One major change from last season comes at the top of the team’s leadership, with senior defenseman Patrick Koudys taking over as captain for forward Tommy Olczyk.
According to Gadowsky, the decision to switch captains was based on a player vote, and his approval.
"He’s earned that, and earned the respect of the team," the fourth-year coach said. "It was really a unanimous selection."
Gadowsky wanted to be sure to clarify, however, that the man he refers to as "Dice," while grinding his teeth and calling him an "animal," and a "beast," isn’t the only leader on the team.
He’s still high on Olczyk’s role on the team as a leader.
"It establishes the fact that you don’t have to wear a letter to be a great leader," Gadowsky said.
Koudys, the six-foot-three, 210-pound defenseman who led the team with an incredible 79 blocked shots last year, is ready for the task as the team’s leader. He’s been leading the team’s practices while NCAA rules don’t allow the team to practice with their coach.
"It’s a huge honor, but we’ve got a lot of great leaders on the team," Koudys said. "So it’s going to be easy."
FORMER AND NEW FRESHMEN
Last year’s team core featured a lot of freshmen, including Islanders third-round pick, goaltender Eamon McAdam, puck-moving defenseman Mike Williamson, exciting winger David Goodwin, playmaking center Dylan Richard, and the physical Zach Saar, who scored the game winning goal in the Big Ten Tournament against Michigan.
Gadowsky revealed on Tuesday that Saar, however, would be out until "after Christmas" due to late-summer hip surgery.
Goodwin had some idea about how the team would be able to replace the massive (six-foot-four) Saar.
"[Taylor] Holstrom and I are going to have to hit a lot more people," he joked, in his deadpan manner.
On a more serious note, Goodwin preached the fact that as the second-leading scorer for the team last year, he wanted to keep improving on his numbers while still preaching "healthy competition" between the forward group.
The coach seemed to be specifically excited about Richard, noting that the forward had more points in Big Ten play a year ago than any of his team’s other players despite missing some games due to injury.
The team is also welcoming three new freshmen this season: forwards Scott Conway and James Robinson, along with defenseman Erik Autio.
Autio is already one of the most interesting players on the team before ever even touching the Pegula ice, as he is the team’s most traveled recruit.
Hailing from Finland, Autio speaks English as his third language and in addition to defending hockey pucks, the coach shared that he was both a good student and, according to the team, "a really cool guy."
Gadowsky was confident in Conway’s ability to add a scoring touch to the team, mentioning the fact that Conway’s USHL team, the Indiana Ice, won the title in that league last season, and by the coaching staff’s evaluation, "he was the best player on the team."
James Robinson, the team’s third freshman, was compared to incumbent teammates David Glen and Dylan Richard as guys who can do a bit of everything when they’re on the ice.
One key difference between year one and year two in Pegula Ice Arena for Guy Gadowsky was his willingness to name a starting goalie. Last year, the decision to start Matthew Skoff over McAdam was not made until opening night.
This year, he made the same decision weeks in advance.
"He has absolutely earned the right to be our starter," the coach said about the junior goaltender.
Skoff, who recorded all eight victories that the Lions got last season, will be entering his third season as primary goaltender for the Lions, having brushed off P.J. Musico and McAdam each of the past two seasons.
Regardless of his competition, the goalie never seems to be phased.
"I don’t think it matters at all. I prepare the same way every season, no matter what anyone has to say," he said.
Many of the team’s key players will be juniors this season, as Skoff, along with last year’s leading scorer Eric Scheid, assistant captain David Glen, defenseman Luke Juha, and St. Louis Blues draft pick Max Gardiner are all entering their third years.
While Skoff and Scheid are coming off good seasons, the other three will mostly be trying to put their 2013-2014 seasons in the rearview mirror.
Juha, who recently became the first player in program history to be named to the Big Ten’s preseason Players to Watch list, put up four powerplay goals last season, but has missed extensive time with injuries over the past two years.
And Gardiner and Glen, a season after being two of the team’s top three scorers, failed to reach the team’s top twelve.
Gadowsky doesn’t seem concerned in the slightest with forward Glen’s performance.
Despite his scoring dropping from 25 points two seasons ago to only nine points last year, Glen was the only player to post a positive +/- last season, leading the Lions, who were -49 overall with a +3 differential.
Gardiner doesn’t have that as an excuse, however, as the big forward posted a -12 differential, while both missing time and dropping from 22 points two years ago to only one point last season.
NOT "SCHEID-ING" AWAY
Finally, Gadowsky thinks that his leading scorer from a year ago will be able to get even better.
Scheid, who scored 11 goals and notched nine assists last season, spent time this summer in Minnesota Wild developmental camp.
"He looks like he added a little bit of a step," the coach said about his forward.
Strong words from the coach on a player who was already arguably the best on the team a year ago; Scheid’s performance last season was impressive in more ways than one. He showed skill both around the net, as well as away from the net. His ability to score "pretty" goals, as well as "messy" goals, at times was uncanny. His vision on the ice was also impressive, as nine assists were near tops on the team.
The one improvement that Scheid could see in his game?
He put it to one word.