Its record may be getting worse, but Penn State sees nothing but improvement as the second half of its season progresses.
The Nittany Lions (7-14-1, 1-8-1 CHA) have seen themselves on the wrong end of several recent series. Even though they won their first two games of the calendar year in a combined 14-0 shutout against Division III Chatham, they have not fared as well against Division I opponents as of late.
In the team’s series immediately before its sweep of the Cougars, it lost both of its contests against St. Lawrence by two goals. The Lions also lost two nail-biters on their most recent road trip, on Jan. 11 and 12, to Union, each by only one goal.
The two sweeps are a part of a six-game skid against Division I teams. That’s not to say the team has been playing poorly, though.
“We played probably the best 60 minutes, best 120 minutes we’ve played all year [against Union],” assistant coach Gina Kearns said.
Although losing is not fun, there are plenty of positives being taken out of the team’s recent performances.
Head coach Josh Brandwene said that particularly, he liked the level of confidence, poise and puck possession he saw against Union, calling it “as good as it’s been all year.”
The deficits seen in losses are also significantly smaller. The one or two-goal losses show how much the team has grown since the beginning of the season, which saw losses by as many as six goals.
“It’s always frustrating when you don’t get the result that you want,” Brandwene said. “But you keep working, and they know if they keep working, they’re going to get better and better every day.”
The growth that players and coaches on the team are optimistic about is at least partially due to simple familiarity. Before the season began, hardly anyone on the roster, which contains 17 freshmen, had played hockey at any collegiate level, let alone Division I.
The inexperience of the team contributed to the uglier losses, Nicole Paniccia, a transfer from Connecticut with prior collegiate experience, said.
Now, though, Paniccia said the team’s experience has begun to show over the weeks.
“I think everybody in October was just really green, didn’t know what D-I hockey was about,” Paniccia said. “And now, just playing how many games we did in the first half of the season, we have the experience.”
“They know what to expect going out there,” the junior continued. “I don’t think the sense of nervousness is there, as it was before. Nobody’s new to this.”
Along with an improved confidence is a better sense of the team’s systems. Kearns said that the Lions now play instinctively, rather than thinking about what to do on the ice, which can lead to more offensive opportunities.
Shannon Yoxheimer, a freshman, said everyone on the team knows each other better, too.
“We’re really close off the ice but also we know, on the ice, people’s habits [and] their tendencies. I think the chemistry is a lot better,” Yoxheimer, who leads the team in goals and points, said.
All of this gained experience, confidence and skill will come to use the next time the Lions hit the ice.
On Friday, Jan. 25, they will play Syracuse on the road, their second series against the Orange. The first time the two teams met, it was the Lions’ first two contests both at home and in College Hockey America. They were ultimately swept by a combined score of 10-0.
Despite the previous two outcomes, Brandwene and Kearns said the growth the team has gone through has allowed it to remain positive and believe it can skate with the Orange, or any other team it plays.
“You can see the confidence, you can see the positivity every day we’re out here,” Brandwene said. “Their effort and their coach-ability makes for us, as coaches, coming to the rink fun every day.”