At first, it was hard to tell how Penn State’s first season in NCAA Division I hockey would go.
On Oct. 6, the Nittany Lions won the program’s first game against Vermont, 5-3. The next day, they took a tie game against the Catamounts into the third period before falling, 3-1.
Although it may have been easy to give the team high expectations for the season after that opening series, the growing pains were bound to happen.
They were seen in the Lions’ next series, which was their first at home and against a College Hockey America opponent. In those two games, Syracuse combined for 10 goals, winning both games in shutout fashion.
Those first two series are a microcosm of the team’s season so far, as it enters its second half. The Lions have shown signs of promise, but have also gone through some bumpy stretches this season.
In reality, it would have been a stretch to predict a dominant start for the Lions. Out of the 27 members on the team roster, 17 are freshmen. Of the remaining 10, even a fewer number had played at the Division I level before the season began. Growing pains are unavoidable for young, new teams, and the Lions were no exception.
However, with those rough patches have come plenty of valuable learning experiences.
The Lions’ schedule has been littered with tough challenges. They have already played — and tied — last season’s NCAA Division III champion, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and are fresh off of two close losses to the defending Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference champion, St. Lawrence. In addition, the Lions have squared off with defending CHA champion Robert Morris and conference powerhouse Mercyhurst, who had won every other CHA tournament prior to last season.
All of these match-ups have given the Lions ample opportunities to see how top teams play hockey. The tough games have also allowed them to see where improvements need to be made in order to play at their opponents’ level. While the progress has been slow, the Lions have steadily improved.
After being shut out on the power play through the first five games, the Lions exploded with three goals on the advantage against Sacred Heart on Oct. 20. That began a streak of three games with a power play goal, and the team has not gone more than two games without a power play goal since.
While the team is still outshot consistently and by too much, the offense has looked better, too. Even though it has not translated to the scoreboard often, it is apparent that the Lions’ on-ice chemistry has improved. The team has seen more scoring chances appear in recent games, and it should only be a matter of time before the number of goals pick up.
It can’t be found on the stat sheet, but the scrappiness of the team was also evident in the first half of the season. Underdogs in any sport need to be aggressive and play hard until every whistle to pull off upsets, and the Lions are following that gameplan well.
This can be seen in their Nov. 30 showdown with Mercyhurst. The Lions allowed a goal in the first minute, but almost went to the midway point of the second period before allowing another. The next day, they went up 1-0 early against the Lakers and did not fall behind until the middle of the second period, too.
Even after games appear to be out of reach, the level of effort does not seem to decrease. When the rest of the team’s game improves enough, upsets will be more likely because of the Lions’ mentality and desire to “defy the odds,” which has been a recurring theme this season.