No. 2 Penn State (13-1-1) has progressed year to year to get to where it is now, a top contender at the highest level of college hockey. The team is currently ranked No. 3 in both the USCHO.com and USA Today hockey polls. More importantly the team holds the No. 2 spot in the PairWise Rankings, which select the field for the 16-team college hockey playoff at the end of the season. Another measurement of success, the KRACH Rating, has Penn State ranked No. 1 at this point.
This season the team is experiencing a series of high-end ‘firsts’ as a Division 1 contender. As the Lions moved into the top-10 and up the rankings in each of the voter polls and the PairWise Rankings, each spot above 14 became a new all-time high for the program, which reached a peak of 14 last season. The current 11-game win streak, and 13-game unbeaten streak, are also program records.
For the first time in the program’s five-year existence it is getting serious respect throughout the entire college hockey community. Until recent months much of the success that Penn State has had has been tempered by the fact that it is only impressive in relative terms. Few teams celebrate being ranked in the mid-teens as PSU did briefly last season. This year the run that the team is having needs no qualification; the success in Hockey Valley is astounding for any program, established or relatively new.
Let’s take a look at each season leading up to this one and remember some of the milestones that the team experienced along the way. While there is a great deal of hockey to be played, the ultimate goal when the program made the move to D1 was to compete for Big Ten and National titles. It appears that the team is in position to do just that, in only its fifth season of competition.
And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack. And you may find yourself in another part of the world. And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile. And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself, “Well...How did I get here?”- David Byrne, Once In A Lifetime.
2012 Scoring Leaders
In 2012-13 Penn State was an independent hockey team, as the Big Ten did not begin competition as a conference until the next season. As a result, it was very difficult for the team to put together a full schedule of D1 teams. With a final record of 13-14-0, Gadowsky’s squad held its own against a schedule of mostly the lowest-ranked schools in college hockey.
It was the season prior to the opening of the Pegula Ice Arena and the Lions were only able to schedule 9 home games compared to the 18 games that it played away from home that year. With a roster made up of a mixture of club hockey level players, a few D1 transfers, and a sprinkling of lessor-heralded D1 recruits, it was an accomplishment that the team was able to hold its own with as many opponents as it did.
At this point in the program’s history it was grateful for any chance that it got to play a Division 1 program. The invite that the team got to the Three Rivers Classic, held in Pittsburgh at the end of December, gave the Lions their first chance to defeat a future B1G team while competing at the highest level. It did just that, gaining a 5-4 win versus Ohio State. Penn State went on to add wins against Michigan State and Wisconsin later in the year. It was a huge step in the progress of the program, to be able to skate on the same ice and also hold their own with future conference foes.
There wasn’t much that the team could do at this point to hasten the process of becoming competitive other than play out the season and use it as a learning experience. Only four Division 1 teams were willing to schedule a game with Penn State in State College. It was considered a favor for the three future-Big Ten teams, along with established in-state program Robert Morris, to play the Lions at all.
The novelty of seeing hockey players wearing blue and white with Penn State written on the front, competing at the Division 1 level, was enough for most fans to get through the up and down season. There were no expectations that the team would compete for anything other than one game at a time. A sense of calm surrounded the team as everything it did was new, a first, and everyone involved seemed to roll with the punches.
The 2013-14 season was the most challenging year for the program. It was the first year of Big Ten conference play. As a result, the Lions had to play 20 games versus top hockey teams just in the conference schedule. Add to that the fact that the team scheduled a top-5 UMass-Lowell squad and also the eventual National Champion, Union, for a pair of games each, and the Lion’s final record of 8-26-2 is easy to understand.
It was the first season that the team played its home games at Pegula Ice Arena. The newly-opened facility was at the time and remains one of the nicest venues in all of college hockey. The team got its first-ever win at the Peg when it defeated Army on opening night on October 11. It was the Friday before Penn State football defeated Michigan 43-40 in a four-overtime game. The entire campus was electric with anticipation of the football game, and also the unveiling of the beautiful new arena.
As the season wore on it became clear that the Lions did not have enough talent on its roster to compete in the Big Ten. The team had a mixture of low-rated D1 prospects and former club players on the team. The lack of talent was not an indicator of how hard the team played, however. While the team was one of the least talented in college hockey that year, it was also one of the largest overall, and was possibly the most aggressive. The hitting that season highlighted some of the otherwise forgettable losses. The frequency with which the team shot the puck also became notable.
One statistic that Penn State held that was regularly in the top-10 that season was shots on goal. With the lack of results in the win column, there were many around the country that scoffed at the amount of shots that Penn State was taking. It was a gimmick, they said, and was almost embarrassing to the team, if not the entire sport, that PSU played such a massively unique style with such little success.
The season was not a complete loss by any means. Young goalies Matt Skoff and Eamon McAdam were able to gain experience that would become critical in the following seasons. The team also defeated Michigan three times, which at the time was enough to have Wolverine fans questioning their future as a hockey program. Coached by Red Berenson for decades, the Michigan hockey team had the longest streak of trips to the hockey playoffs, spanning 22 consecutive seasons from 1991-2012. The three losses cost Michigan dearly, as it barely missed the field of 16 that year. A double-overtime loss at the hands of Penn State in the Big Ten tournament was the final game of the season for Michigan. There was no ignoring the fact that the Wolverines would have continued their streak of playoff appearances had they just taken one fewer loss to what was considered one of the worst teams in the country.
By the end of the season PSU strung together a number of firsts. It was the first win in conference tournament history when they dispatched the Wolverines. The team also had its first 6-game losing streak early in the season. That record was later broken when it went on to lose 9-straight in January. Not to be out-done, the team matched its previous record, losing 6-straight once again before it picked up a win versus Ohio State on the final regular-season game of the year. The win versus OSU added to the win with Michigan in the conference tournament was the first conference win-streak, be it only two games, in program history. That streak ended the next day, as did the season, when the Badgers sent PSU home with a 2-1 loss.
While the team did not have the success it would have hoped in the win column, the season was filled with just enough ‘firsts’, and a lot of hitting and shooting, to make it worthwhile for the fans. The three wins versus Michigan and their subsequent missing out of the playoffs for the first time in many PSU players’ lifetime was icing on the cake. There were still very little expectations for the team at this point in its development. The hope was that the team would improve slightly on its 8-26-2 record, buying time until it could attract the recruits that it would need to compete in the Big Ten.
2014 Scoring Leaders
The 2014-15 team was the first time that fans were able to see the progress that the program was making on the ice. Not even the most optimistic fans thought that Penn State would improve much on the previous season. Instead the team shocked many people by finishing with a record of 18-15-4. Led by Casey Bailey on offense and a three-goalie platoon, the Lions were riding high until it finished with a disappointing 3-8 skid to end the season. Much of the late-season falter came due to key injuries, one in particular to Taylor Holstrom, Bailey’s linemate and setup man.
Until this point the team had trouble scoring at the D1 level. The shots the team took never seemed to find the back of the net. It had just enough offense to get by but the overall talent of the team remained below that of its competition on nearly every night. The team was still a larger-than-average group but it was also very slow and not athletic compared to the competition it faced.
Three of the first major-league recruits joined the team. James Robinson, Erik Autio, and Scott Conway were the first class of top-level Division 1-caliber players that joined the team as freshmen. The trio had immediate success and their skill surpassed all those on the team except a few upperclassmen. It was a sharp contrast, to see players that had to work for four years to gain the skills that the newcomers already had coming in. It gave an appreciation for what Guy Gadowsky was able to do, cobbling together a winning record, with just a half-dozen or so true D1-talented players.
While the players that were on the team in the first few years will be remembered and respected in PSU hockey history, they were not as talented as their opponents. Teams that were speedy could skate right past the big, shot-happy Lions as they exposed their defense with quick, low-percentage shots from the blue line that created many breakout opportunities for their opponents.
Ohio State exposed this weakness in the final game of the season when it sent Penn State home with a 3-1 loss in the Big Ten tournament. The Lions were limping to the finish, literally, as Taylor Holstrom returned from a two-month injury, skating on essentially one leg, to try to give the Lions a boost. The difference in speed between the teams raised the question of whether the Lions needed to play a different style in future years, taking fewer shots and thereby creating fewer high-percentage chances for their opponent.
The team had an amazing story if only paying attention to the goalie situation. Coming into the season it was believed the Matt Skoff, a junior with a great deal of experience, was set to be the starting goalie. Sophomore Eamon McAdam, an NHL draft pick of the New York Islanders, was slated to fill in as a rising backup. PJ Musico was the third goalie that was not figured to get much, if any, playing time at the start of the season. Instead all three played at various times. On a team that finished just three games over .500 on the season, three goalies finished with a winning record for the year. It is even more unique when factoring that there weren’t any injuries. The platoon was a creation out of necessity by coach Gadowsky, doing everything imaginable to keep his team in the game.
Each of the three goalies from the 2014 team are now playing at various levels of professional hockey, which is another statistical improbability. After the conclusion of the season there were some questions regarding the future of the program. Casey Bailey signed an NHL contract and made an appearance in the NHL just weeks after playing for Penn State. It was the first time a Penn State player saw the ice in the NHL. With the loss of Bailey and a few other key contributors, it was believed that the team would need a couple of seasons to return to having a winning record.
2015 Scoring Leaders
The 2015-16 Penn State hockey team completed the transition from club hockey to a team that was equipped to compete at the Division 1 level. The influx of 8 freshmen players, each ready to play at the highest level of college hockey, was the story of the season. The Lions finished 21-13-4 for the year and were in consideration until the final week of the season for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
The 8 new additions replaced 8 players that were less talented. That’s not intended as a knock on the players that left, but the roster was still continuing to fill out with a complete list of players that were ready to play D1 hockey. While the team had the highest number of players with D1 skill that it had ever boasted, the actual number of players that Guy Gadowsky had at his disposal was the fewest in college hockey on most nights.
There were many times when PSU played with fewer players than its opponent due to injuries. This forced the team to play players out of position, to flip flop lines which interrupted team cohesion, in addition to tiring the team quickly. That makes the 21-13-4 record that much more impressive. Coach Gadowsky had a winning record against his fellow coaches while having fewer, and less-talented, players to deploy. It was the first clear indication of his coaching abilities.
The previous season, with his juggling of three goalies, it was seen as taking a strange gamble that paid off by many watching. Like a season-long Hail Mary since the team didn’t have the overall talent to play it straight. To the credit of the voters and those who were watching, Gadowksy was rewarded with Big Ten Coach of the Year honors even though his team finished third in 2015. The job he did with the talent that he had was astounding.
For the first time the team had defensemen that were able to contribute on the offensive end. Kevin Kerr and Vince Pedrie joined the team and their offensive skills created goals for forwards as well as themselves. The freshmen forwards produced as though they were veterans. Chase Berger, Andrew Sturtz, Vince Pedrie and Alec Marsh each scored more than 20 points as freshmen. In 2012, only 3 Penn State players reached 20 points while playing the weakest schedule imaginable. In 2013, Eric Scheid led the team with 20 points scored.
After the season there were once again serious questions surrounding the team. There was another huge class of incoming recruits, 11 in total, slated to join the team. Would the incoming group be able to match the success of the freshmen that joined in 2015? Another gaping hole that the team had to fill was the loss of both goalies, as Matt Skoff ran out of eligibility and Eamon McAdam left the Lions early to pursue his career with the New York Islanders in the NHL.
Entering the season there was a common perception that Penn State would struggle to replace Casey Bailey and the scoring he provided. Instead the team scored at a much higher rate, getting goals from a variety of players. The team continued to shoot more than every other team in college hockey. The improvement that the team made on the defensive end, and with its overall skill, allowed it to play a more complete game. Penn State was becoming a dangerous foe and the fact that it was shot-happy was no longer a laughing matter for teams that had to face off with the Lions. They shot a lot. They scored a lot. They played defense. They won a lot.
There were still many odd-man break opportunities allowed by the Lions, as the overall team speed and athleticism just wasn’t quite what was needed to chase after faster teams. Many game plans were to try to slow down PSU in the neutral zone, not allowing it to get down the ice to take the quick shot. That approach proved not to be successful. However, when teams allowed PSU to shoot, setting up a quick, down-ice pass for a break, teams could get 4-5 clear breakaways per game. It was a hole in the Lions’ approach that needed to be addressed.
The 21-13-4 final record was not good enough to get into the NCAA playoffs due to the weakness of the out-of-conference schedule. This should not be held against coach Gadowsky. It should be remembered that the team had been at the mercy of the rest of the college hockey world just a couple of years prior, begging to be given a chance with anyone who would schedule them. Some of the deals that Gadowsky made in the first couple of years that were considered great opportunities became liabilities once the team became a candidate for a playoff spot years later.
When Robert Morris scheduled Penn State in 2012, and then invited the Lions to the Three Rivers Classic tournament, it was seen as an incredible break for the young program. The following years the tournament, and generosity of the host to continue to invite PSU, was seen as a tremendous favor to the fledgling program. With the elevation of Penn State, now considered a much stronger program than Robert Morris, the tables have turned. Penn State has decided not to take part in the Three Rivers Classic, as it gives Robert Morris a de facto home game with no return favor to the Lions. Since pulling out of the tournament Gadowsky has mentioned that it would be nice to play Robert Morris at home. That indicates that the puck is on their side of the ice. If RMU wants to play Penn State, their most widely recognized in-state rival, they will have to travel a couple of hours east.
The other factor that weighed on Penn State’s strength of schedule was a down year for the Big Ten conference. With Michigan and Minnesota, the league had two high-end teams. In Ohio State and Penn State, there was a solid second-tier. The problem was Wisconsin and Michigan State had terrible seasons, finishing toward the bottom of the college hockey standings. Big Ten teams face one another 4 times during the conference schedule. Having 8 games versus two of the worst teams in college hockey hurt Penn State. It was a phenomena that wasn’t supposed to happen when the league was formed. If any program was thought to be a candidate for weighing down the rest of the league, it was believed to be Penn State. Once again the tables were turned, but unfortunately that didn’t keep the Lions from missing out on the NCAA tournament.
2016-17 Scoring Leaders
The 2016-17 Penn State team is off to a tremendous start. 13-1-1 speaks for itself and the national media has given the team the adulation that it deserves. Penn State is ranked No. 3 in both major voting polls. The team is No. 2 in the PairWise, and that number is being weighed down once again by the Lion’s strength of schedule.
Another influx of talented newcomers, 11 in all, has given Penn State a roster full of capable Division 1 players for the first time. There are no holes on this team. Freshman goalie Peyton Jones has replaced the platoons of recent years with great success. He is out to an 11-0-1 start and is the only regular starting goalie in college hockey that has yet to lose a game.
The scoring has been led by underclassmen as well. Sophomore Andrew Sturtz (13 goals, 2 assists) and freshman Denis Smirnov (10 goals, 27 assists) are among national scoring leaders. Sophomores Chase Berger (6 goals, 7 assists) Nate Sucese (8 goals, 6 assists) and Vince Pedrie (5 goals, 8 assists) are providing solid production as well.
Penn State opened the season with a pair of games versus St. Lawrence, a team that has been ranked for most of the season. The series was split, the loss the Lions took in the second game was their only defeat of the season. Penn State added a series win, on the road, with Notre Dame, another top-ranked team. The Fighting Irish will join the Big Ten hockey conference next season.
The two series, four games, are the only tests that the Lions have faced in their non-conference schedule. The remaining games have been with some of the lowest-ranked teams in the country. As a result PSU’s strength of schedule is currently No. 33 in the KRACH ratings. The beauty of this ugly spot on the Lions’ resume is that the number is sure to come down as the conference schedule plays out.
Unlike the past few years the Big Ten does not have a team, or multiple teams, that are languishing at the bottom of the PairWise rankings. Michigan (35), Michigan State (33) and Wisconsin (28) are the lowest-ranked teams in the conference. Last season both MSU and Wisconsin finished outside the top-50, killing the conference’s PairWise rankings.
Add Penn State (2), Ohio State (8) and Minnesota (9), and the Big Ten is set to absorb the inter-conference losses that are going to happen when the teams begin to face off after the break. There is a very good chance that three teams in the Big Ten will gain NCAA playoff births at the end of the season.
Penn State leads the nation in goals and shots on goal per game. The days of others questioning Guy Gadowsky’s tactics are over. It is no longer a laughing matter that the Lions put up nearly 50 shots on goal per game. The team is playing a more complete style with the addition of more athletic, savvy defensemen. The team has a full stable of forwards that are able to get back on defense. The shots are coming from closer in, leaving fewer breakout opportunities on the rebound.
The Lions swept Michigan in the opening conference series of the season. When play resumes on Jan. 6 in Columbus, Penn State will have a chance to make another statement to the rest of the Big Ten and beyond. Many of the final 19 regular-season games will be televised so it will be easier to follow the team. There’s plenty of room on the bandwagon. Hop aboard and enjoy the ride.