Although a win eluded the Nittany Lions in all four contests they played with Syracuse this season, the games this weekend in New York were considerably closer than the first series on home ice in October.
Three months after being shut out on back-to-back nights at the hands of the Orange, Penn State kept the narrative on the scoreboard more interesting this weekend, losing a 1-0 game Friday, before falling short 4-1 in a back-and-forth tilt Saturday.
The lower margin of defeat was a sign of the team's steadily improving defensive unit, which has only allowed eight goals during 18 periods of play in the month of January.
The backbone of that defensive corps is the goaltending tandem of Nicole Paniccia and Celine Whitlinger.
“We all trust them to back us up, and they have for the whole season,” freshman forward Jill Holdcroft said.
Other than Nicole Renault's first-period goal on Friday, Paniccia was perfect, making 45 saves. But the Syracuse defender's first collegiate goal would be the lone tally in a game that was up for grabs until the final buzzer. Whitlinger put forth a stellar effort of her own Saturday stopping a career-high 51 Syracuse offerings.
Performances like these spark the rest of the team, Whitlinger said.
“It definitely gives [the team] confidence that there is someone there to back them up,” Whitlinger said.
That confidence was on display when Holdcroft, a State College local,answered Syracuse's three-goal first stanza with her eighth goal of the season 2:37 into the second period.
“[Holdcroft's] performance overall this weekend was terrific,” head coach Josh Brandwene said. “The energy she brings to the team. The hard work. The hustle. She's a real difference maker for us.”
However, Holdcroft's marker would be the only puck to beat Orange goaltender Jenesica Drinkwater.
For the most part, Penn State's blueliners and goaltenders kept Syracuse's potent offense, including leading scorer Shiann Darkangelo, from lighting the lamp.
But the Lion forwards struggled to produce scoring chances of their own, a scoring imbalance created by mental mishaps.
“We need to make good decisions with the puck coming out of our zone,” Brandwene said.
Turnovers at the blueline led to more time in the defensive zone for the Lions. Naturally, more time in the defensive zone left less time for offensive opportunities.
The result was a weekend shot total of 101-28 in favor of Syracuse.
But in a topsy-turvy inaugural NCAA Division I season, every contest is a learning experiencing for the youthful Nittany Lions.
“Despite the outcomes, we've made a lot of progress since the beginning of the season,” Brandwene said.