Coach Guy Gadowsky has managed to put together a favorable non-conference schedule for the hockey team. There are many challenges facing a new division one hockey program such as Penn State, and setting a non-conference schedule that allows the team to face opponents that will help the PairWise ranking is not as easy as clicking your heels together and wishing it to come true. There's no place like home, and very few high-quality teams are willing to travel to a venue like Hockey Valley for the non-conference schedule.
The Lions will play two opponents that it has not faced since joining division one, Arizona State and Mercyhurst. It will also play an exhibition game with a new opponent at home on October 2 with Queens University, a school in Kingston, Ontario.
The team will play 16 of its first 21 games in the friendly confines of Pegula Ice Arena. That is an incredible advantage for the young squad that will feature only five upperclassmen. The past two seasons Penn State has traveled nearly 4,000 miles to Alaska for a pair of games. The Alaska trips, and continued relationship with the region's players, were important for recruiting opportunities for Guy Gadowsky, who coached in Fairbanks for five seasons (1999-2004) and was inducted into the University of Alaska Hall of Fame in 2014. He is a local celebrity and beloved figure in Alaskan hockey circles.
This year the longest non-conference road trip will be just under 500 miles to Notre Dame. The Alaska trips have been necessary, and a positive experience, but they are very taxing on the team. While there hasn't been a noticeable travel hangover for the team after the recent trips to Alaska, it has certainly taken a toll on the learning curve and coaching windows for the program as they have lost nearly a week to travel and recovery from the trip in the heart of the season.
The Irish will join the Big Ten in 2017, and that trip is shorter than all but one conference foe. The Lions will play two non-conference games in Pennsylvania, at Mercyhurst in Erie, and a neutral-site game in Philadelphia with Princeton. While Princeton's campus is closer to Philadelphia than is State College, the annual game typically is a home-away-from-home game for Penn State. This will be the fifth consecutive season that the Lions will play a game in the Wells Fargo Center, the previous four were versus Vermont.
From the start of the regular season, October 6, to February 3 when the team makes its first 'long' road trip to Minnesota, the team will only have to venture as far away from home as South Bend, Indiana, and Columbus, Ohio. That is a very subtle, but huge, victory for Gadowsky and his rising program.
For the third year in a row, the team will be home for THON weekend, as it hosts Minnesota on February 17 and 18. Building off the already noticeable rivalry with the team from Ann Arbor, the Lions will begin and end the Big Ten schedule facing off with the Michigan Wolverines. After a couple of seasons where Penn State got the best of the Wolverines, Red Berenson's team defeated the Lions five times last season and suffered no losses. Had Penn State won two of the five games, it likely would have played in the NCAA tournament.
Another rivalry that will not continue this season is with Robert Morris. For two consecutive seasons, the Lions lost heart-breaking games to the team from just outside of Pittsburgh, in a holiday tournament held in the Steel City. While it is nice to have a rivalry with a strong in-state team such as the Colonials, it is understandable that Gadowsky chose not to continue to give Robert Morris an endless amount of home games. Maybe one day the Colonials will venture 150 miles east to try their hand in Pegula Ice Arena.
It's extremely hard to prognosticate just how talented a program will turn out to be by the end of March, so calculating the quality of this schedule is somewhat pointless in June. One thing that can be said with reasonable certainty is that Notre Dame and St. Lawrence will be very important games for Penn State. It is likely that the pair of teams, four games in total, will be in the top-half of the final PairWise standings. Notre Dame finished in 12th place last year and St. Lawrence 18th. The Lions ended up in the 20th spot.
St. Lawrence was the only team other than Michigan that Penn State played more than once last season and was unable to garner a victory. The Saints hired a new coach for 2016-17, Mark Morris, and the program is on the rise. The biggest challenge for the Lions when facing the team out of the ECAC conference is the contrast in the style of play. St. Lawrence plays a very controlled style, not allowing Penn State to get its high-flying offense started. While the Saints are not known as a top tier team, the Lions will have to learn how to play against their style of play if they want to compete with many of the best programs in college hockey, who also play a similar style.
The downside of the schedule is that there are nine games with teams that finished in the bottom ten of the standings of the sixty-team NCAA division one league last season. It is hoped that the teams will elevate their games enough to turn potential wins against them into something other than 'ho-hum, they were supposed to win' games. If Princeton, Niagara, Canisius, Alaska and Princeton continue to dwell at the bottom of the PairWise rankings, the Lions will need to win at least three games of five versus Mercyhurst, St. Lawrence, and Notre Dame in order to hold steady in the PairWise rankings that determine the field for the NCAA tournament.
Scheduling top-tier non-conference games is the final frontier for Guy Gadowsky's program. In such a short time, Gadowsky has established a fan base, a recruiting pipeline, a winning tradition, and a roster full players that are adequate to win an NCAA championship. As much as we would all like to see St. Cloud State, North Dakota, and Boston College on the schedule, that will take time. And it will likely come with Penn State conceding to play on the road for a few years. With games versus UMass-Lowell and Notre Dame in the past years, the program has been able to sprinkle in a few high-end opponents in the infancy of its existence.
Another headwind that the Lions faced last season in terms of determining their PairWise rank was the down year that the Big Ten had overall. If Wisconsin and Michigan State can return to a level of play that is considered normal for their programs, it will certainly give the Lions a better chance to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team. While Michigan and Minnesota are likely to take a slight step back from last season, Ohio State is a serious threat to make a run at the NCAA tournament. Wisconsin and Michigan State had such disappointing seasons that it is hard to imagine that they won't improve in 2016-17.
Looking forward, when Notre Dame becomes a Big Ten member after the end of this season, gaining four games annually against a perennial powerhouse will help the strength of schedule.
Here's what the schedule looks like.
|Sun. Oct. 2||Queen's (exhibition)||University Park, Pa.|
|Thu. Oct. 6||St. Lawrence||University Park, Pa.|
|Thu. Oct. 7||St. Lawrence||University Park, Pa.|
|Fri. Oct. 14||Mercyhurst||Erie, Pa.|
|Fri. Oct. 21||Notre Dame||Notre Dame, Indiana|
|Sat. Oct 22||Notre Dame||Notre Dame, Indiana|
|Fri. Oct. 28||Canisius||University Park, Pa.|
|Sat. Oct. 29||Canisius||University Park, Pa.|
|Thu. Nov. 3||Niagara||University Park, Pa.|
|Fri. Nov. 4||Niagara||University Park, Pa.|
|Fri. Nov. 11||Alaska Anchorage||University Park, Pa.|
|Sat. Nov. 12||Alaska Anchorage||University Park, Pa.|
|Fri. Nov. 18||Arizona State||University Park, Pa.|
|Sat. Nov. 19||Arizona State||University Park, Pa.|
|Thu. Dec. 1||Michigan||University Park, Pa.|
|Fri. Dec. 2||Michigan||University Park, Pa.|
|Fri. Jan. 6||Ohio State||Columbus, Ohio|
|Sat. Jan. 7||Ohio State||Columbus, Ohio|
|Fri. Jan. 13||Michigan State||University Park, Pa.|
|Sat. Jan. 14||Michigan State||University Park, Pa.|
|Fri. Jan. 20||Ohio State||University Park, Pa.|
|Sat. Jan. 21||Ohio State||University Park, Pa.|
|Sat. Jan. 28||Princeton||Philadelphia, Pa.|
|Fri. Feb. 3||Minnesota||Minneapolis, Minn.|
|Sat. Feb. 4||Minnesota||Minneapolis, Minn.|
|Fri. Feb. 10||Wisconsin||Madison, Wis.|
|Sat. Feb. 11||Wisconsin||Madison, Wis.|
|Fri. Feb. 17||Minnesota||University Park, Pa.|
|Sat. Feb. 18||Minnesota||University Park, Pa.|
|Fri. Feb. 24||Michigan State||East Lansing, Mich.|
|Sat. Feb. 25||Michigan State||East Lansing, Mich.|
|Fri. Mar. 3||Wisconsin||University Park, Pa.|
|Sat. Mar. 4||Wisconsin||University Park, Pa.|
|Fri. Mar. 10||Michigan||Ann Arbor, Mich.|
|Sat. Mar. 11||Michigan||Ann Arbor, Mich.|