Penn State Hockey: From Division I Rookies to Big Ten Leaders
Let this sink in for a moment: The Penn State hockey team sits atop the Big Ten standings.
Early in Big Ten play, the Nittany Lions have a one-point lead over Michigan, after splitting a two-game set with the Wolverines back in November.
That’s right, the newest Division I team on the list is in first place. Of course, rankings don’t mean a thing at this point of the season, but it is certainly of emotional and historical significance. The team has taken notice, and while keeping it in perspective, is still excited.
“There’s still a lot of Big Ten hockey left to play, and the games are a little skewed, we do have games in hand,” said coach Guy Gadowsky. “We never set out to say these are our goals, we’re gonna do this in the Big Ten. It’s way too early, we’re really looking at what we can control and we still have to get better in these certain areas. It is really nice, trust me, it is really nice.”
How did the new program find itself pacing the Big Ten? Let’s take a look.
Where It Started
Penn State’s first season at the highest level of play was 2012-13, when it faced a schedule against much stronger competition than previous years. The Nittany Lions took their biggest step forward after Terry and Kim Pegula donated Pegula Ice Arena to the university and the Big Ten subsequently supported a hockey conference. Playing in what had potential to be a major conference with traditional hockey powerhouses, it looked like Penn State had a lot of work to do to catch up.
The first season at Pegula Ice Arena likely did not surprise many people. Penn State went 8-26-2, not a competitive mark by any standards. It also was 3-16-1 in the Big Ten, finishing in last place by a mile. All was not lost, however. Every team makes the Big Ten Tournament, which spelled trouble for the punching bag Wolverines.
In a play that was emblematic of the transition to next season, Penn State forward Zach Saar rifled a shot from the face-off circle to the back of the net to send his team to the Big Ten semifinals. It was a long season, often with losing results, but the team showed improvement when it mattered. And boy, did the improvements continue to show.
How It Got Here (Thanks, Casey Bailey)
Prior to the current season, head coach Guy Gadowsky said, “I hope it’s a surprise,” in response to who he thought would pick up the team’s scoring. He also stated he had high expectations for Curtis Loik and his linemates, David Glen and Kenny Brooks. While Glen has been in and out of the lineup with injury issues, Brooks has played an important role as a defensive forward. Loik has had his fair share of offensive opportunities, and is tied for fourth on the team with Eric Scheid, both having tallied 13 points.
The surprise, if it’s fair to call it that, comes from the team’s top three scorers – the Hobey Baker line. Last year’s second, third, and sixth-highest scorers have exploded this season. The combination of David Goodwin, Taylor Holstrom, and Casey Bailey has been one of the best lines in the nation, and were even praised by Gadowsky as the best line he’s ever coached.
Holstrom, now a senior, totaled 17 points in 36 games last season, and most notably was a -17 on the season. This season, the playmaker from Yorba Lina, Calif., already has 23 points in 18 games, and is a plus-9 rating. He was also nominated for the Hobey Baker Award, a fan vote for the best player in college hockey.
The next player is winger David Goodwin. He has also eclipsed his point total from last season, increasing from 18 to 22 in 14 fewer games. Goodwin is the youngest member of the line and the only to not be nominated for the Hobey Baker, but it doesn’t mean he isn’t carrying his load. He is tied for second on the team with 10 goals, and was just named the Big Ten Second Star of the Week. Even with the success he’s seen, Goodwin remains humble.
“[Holstrom and Bailey] have been very instrumental in the success I’ve had this year and my development. Just every day in practice, getting the chance to skate next to them and learn from them, talk to them in between periods and pick their brains about some of their past experiences… It’s been great,” Goodwin said. “I’m very fortunate to have linemates like them. I’m very proud to be on a line with them, two Hobey nominees.”
The final member of the line can be credited with a lot of Penn State’s success. Casey Bailey, the junior winger from Alaska, leads the nation in goals per game. His 16 goals, including five in the last four games, are more than last year’s highest scorer by five goals. Bailey has hovered around sixth place in Hobey Baker voting since the polls opened, but has a clear case for winning the award. Pictures say more than words, so here is why Bailey deserves to win at this point in the season:
It’s a concise argument, for sure, but pretty straightforward.
As things currently stand, Penn State leads the Big Ten. After claiming its first ranking earlier this season the team should be on the verge of reclaiming a spot after two consecutive four-point weekends against conference rivals Ohio State and Michigan State, in no small part due to the play of the Lions’ top line.
Where It’s Going
With a weekend series against Northern Michigan looming while Big Ten rival Michigan plays last-place Wisconsin, it’s reasonable to state that Penn State is certainly not cemented at the top of the standings. Still, the team has already proved that it can keep up with the best teams in the nation. With 15 games remaining on its schedule (12 in the Big Ten), a lot of prospective wins could be in store for Penn State. With the momentum the team has found in recent weeks, a quality run in the Big Ten Tournament and a berth in the NCAA Tournament are both looking like great possibilities.