Hours after the final buzzer sounded in the Penn State varsity men’s hockey team’s overtime loss to Neumann on Tuesday, Penn State club ice hockey coach Matt Morrow gathered his players at center ice for their late night practice.
The ACHA Division II Ice Lions (15-4-1), currently in second place in the Southeast Division, came off of a successful weekend on the road with a 4-3 comeback win at Liberty and a 3-2 shootout victory at Virginia Tech.
“Those come-from-behind wins are two games that I don’t know if we would have won earlier this year,” Morrow said. “Sometimes it’s not the prettiest… but at the end of the game, we are finding ways to win, and that is character building that I think is going to pay off in the long run for us.”
Morrow, while not new to coaching or to the Ice Lions, is new to his position as head coach — he was the assistant coach last year. Morrow has also coached at his alma mater, North Broward Preparatory School in south Florida, with former NHL player, Peter Worrell.
Morrow said the transition from assistant to head coach has been fairly smooth, working off of the foundation set by the previous head coach, Josh Hand.
“I think that I have done a pretty good job trying to continue on with the foundation that was set last year…I have a lot of really good senior leadership,” Morrow said.
Goalie Ryan Demuth (senior – finance), a four-year veteran on the team, has seen a new head coach for the club each year he has played. Demuth said Morrow’s transition has been easier than previous coaching changes due to his experience with the team, similar systems and concepts transitioning from last year.
“The team has changed a lot since my freshman year,” Demuth said. “Workouts were optional, and it has become a little more intense each year. This year, we have had more guys that have had to step up, and leadership is not coming from one consistent voice.”
Morrow and Demuth agree that team continuity and player development has been a unique part of the Ice Lion’s success this season. With only six seniors on the team this year, the young depth within the program is essential for further team stability in years to come.
“I feel like every year we get younger,” Demuth said.
With two-thirds of the players being freshman and sophomores, the Ice Lions are populated with young talent — a luxury Morrow hadn’t previously worked with.
“This is the deepest roster of players that I have had a chance to work with in terms of talent level,” Morrow said. “Down in Florida you have kids with really high level of talent, but usually only one or two lines deep, where you come here, everyone has the fundamentals.”
Morrow said the work the team has put in this season is directly related to their current ranking and success.
“These guys put in a lot of hours studying their playbooks. They also put a lot of work in off the ice in the weight rooms,” Morrow said. “They put in a lot of work and a lot of hours… We are starting to get a little bit better now because we are starting to get some more experience under our belt as a younger team.”
The Ice Lions will play back-to-back midnight games this weekend at Kentucky. The puck will drop at 11:55 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday.
“Kentucky is a really fun place to play,” Demuth said. “They pack the house with fans, and everybody is excited to play, but at the same time, we know that they are a good team, and they’re a team that has beaten us in the past, so it is definitely something that we have to remember.”
Littered with injuries within their depth chart, this weekend’s matchups against Kentucky will be a good opportunity for younger players to solidify themselves in the lineup in two of the biggest games of the season.
With six games left in the regular season, the team hopes to keep its ranking as No. 2 in the Southeast Division, and receive an automatic bid to nationals, which will be held March 15-19 in St. Louis, Mo.
However, even with their current ranking, Morrow said he’s still pushing for improvement and he hopes to peak at the right time going into the ACHA Division II National Tournament.