Penn State Hockey Showing Improvements Across the Board
What a difference a year makes.
Last year, in its inaugural season as a member of the new Big Ten Hockey Conference, Penn State finished with a record of 8-26-2. The team upset Michigan and reached the Big Ten Tournament’s semifinals. Overall, the team’s season was a success but nothing spectacular, which was all the young program could ask for.
This year, at the holiday/finals break, the team is already off to a 9-4-2 record. At this same point last season season, the team’s record was 4-10-1. It’s obvious that the team has grown in a year’s time, but how much? Let’s take a look.
The team lost defensemen Michael McDonagh to graduation and Mark Yanis to a transfer. McDonagh played in 14 games and Yanis played in 23, while tallying all three of the pair’s points. The duo were useful to have, but didn’t leave the team with unfillable holes. In addition, forward Zach Saar (who scored the game-winner in the playoff upset of Michigan) has yet to play this season following an offseason surgery.
Forwards Scott Conway and James Robinson and defenseman Erik Autio, all freshmen, were brought in to replace the losses from last year’s team. Conway and Robinson have contributed a combined 11 points through 15 games, while Autio has established himself as a smart, crucial, dynamic two-way defenseman and has totaled four assists.
Otherwise, the team has remained completely intact. In all sports, especially hockey, familiarity with a coach’s system is key. Coach Guy Gadowsky, having almost the same exact team as a year ago, was able to pick up where he left off at the end of last season.
Since the team only lost two players, the members of last year’s eight-person junior class have stepped into their roles as seniors and are performing admirably. Key seniors include captain Patrick Koudys, leading scorer Taylor Holstrom, and reliable defenseman and three-time assistant captain Nate Jensen.
Last year’s captain, Tommy Olczyk, was replaced in a preseason team vote by Koudys, while the alternate captains, Jensen and David Glen, reprised their roles. Koudys has plenty of help in the locker room, as the team is full of players that can step up and lead by example. Koudys, Jensen, Glen, Olczyk, and Holstrom have all already proved their leadership abilities.
Eric Scheid led last year’s squad in goals (11) and points (20), while David Goodwin paced the team with 11 assists through the entire 36-game season. In 15 games this season, the stat sheet is very telling of the high-octane Nittany Lions offense. Casey Bailey leads the team with 10 goals, while Holstrom has a team-high 14 assists and 18 points.
Since the team’s top-end production already rivals last year’s in less than half of the games, the average scoring is much higher. Luke Juha (0.58 points per game), Scheid (0.56), and Goodwin (0.53) led the team in that department a year ago. This season, the team’s leaders are Holstrom (1.5 PPG), Casey Bailey (1.2), and Goodwin (0.93).
In fact, there are eight players on this year’s team that currently eclipse Juha’s team-leading pace from last year. Lots of hockey remains to be played, including the vast majority of the Big Ten schedule, but early on, the Lions offense is playing out of its mind.
In addition, goaltenders Matt Skoff and Eamon McAdam have shown vast improvements. Skoff finished last season with a .906 save percentage and a 2.95 goals-against average, while McAdam’s marks were .882 and 4.09. Through 15 games this season, Skoff’s stats are .919 and 2.27, and McAdam’s are .908 and 3.10.
Team vs. Team Comparison
Through 15 games, the two teams’ respective records stand at 4-10-1 and 9-4-2. The improvement goes far beyond the record, though. In fact, almost every measurable statistic shows improvement.
The easiest stat to decipher is goals. Last year’s team, through 15 games, had scored 37 and allowed 59. This year’s team has 52 goals and has surrendered 39. Team offense and defense have improved drastically as a whole.
Next is the statistic that has been synonymous with Penn State’s success this season — shots. The Nittany Lions lead the nation with 39.6 shots per game, a nice increase over last year’s 35.2. Gadowsky’s team always racks up high totals in that department, so where the real key to success lies is in shooting percentage. This year’s team scores at a higher rate than last (.088 to .063), so offensive efficiency is one reason why the team is performing at such a high level.
Finally, one of the motifs of last year was the team’s inability to win close games down the stretch. Last year, the team was 3-4-1 in one-goal games through its first 15. This season, the Nittany Lions are 3-1-2 in games decided by one goal or less.
It seems like Penn State is on a pace that will be difficult to maintain, winning lots of games courtesy of its ludicrous shot totals. A popular adage in hockey is to discredit win totals if they come courtesy of unsustainable stats, such as the Nittany Lions’ shots per game, but the difference between their situation and most other teams is that they have proved it can be sustained. The number is similar enough to last year’s that it’s a part of the team’s identity, and the Nittany Lions should continue outshooting their opponents in almost every game.
With the Big Ten schedule looming, the time is coming to prove if the hot early season start is more exception or rule. Penn State has only played 15 games and has 21 remaining, so a lot of work remains to be done. After a stretch of more than two months without a home game, Penn State will have 12 of its remaining games at Pegula Ice Arena. The most difficult part of the schedule lies ahead, with 16 Big Ten games, but if this team has shown anything swaggering through 15 games, it’s that it is ready for the challenge.