UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It was a team that you expected to grow as the season
progressed and the Nittany Lions haven't disappointed through 15 games in their
inaugural season. They launched 63 shots in the first game in program history,
reeled off three wins in a row early in the year and, along the way, have shown
steady improvement on the ice.
When I watched this program play three months ago you could tell that they were in the infancy of their transition into Division I hockey. However, when the Nittany Lions faced off against Robert Morris on Dec. 15, you could tell that this was a much more confident and mature team.
"As a whole, I can't be too disappointed," said head coach Guy Gadowsky after the Nittany Lions last game on Dec. 15. "We have certain objectives that we want to achieve...it's a matter of learning how to put it all together."
One thing that has made this transition easier for the Nittany Lions is the person at the front of the program. Since Guy Gadowsky took the reins at Penn State it has been nothing but positives and optimistic building blocks. To observe Gadowsky on the ice during practice, on the bench during games and listen to him speak with the media, you know that he is committed to making Penn State into a national competitor, soon.
No one expected this team to run through their schedule undefeated and everyone knew that there would be bumps along the way. Through it all, this team has shown the moxie of their leader in taking every moment and building on it. Mistakes will be made, especially mental lapses, like the one that allowed the go-ahead goal vs. Robert Morris, but it is about limiting those mistakes and making progress towards playing a full 60 minutes of focused, intense hockey.
"We've kept our focus pretty well," Gadowsky said after the Robert Morris contest. "We got some pucks on net and got to net. I thought we were much improved (overall). We made one big mistake, which is better than making five big mistakes, like we had earlier (in the season). We're not going to win an NCAA tournament in the first semester of our first season and I think we have come a long way."
That last statement shows me that Gadowsky is in this for the long haul. He is dedicated to molding this program and doing it his way. He knows expectations are going to be high from the Hockey Valley faithful, but also knows that this young program has a high ceiling and shouldn't be rushed along.
Early in the year it was evident that this team was young. It was hard to gauge where they stood early on, because we really didn't have anything to compare to, but over the past couple of week this team has started to show signs of clicking into place. It has developed like a 10,000-piece LEGO set that Gadowsky started building last year, not knowing if those pieces he had put together were ever going to form into a team. Now he looks on and sees that with a good number of those pieces starting to take place that he has a team forming.
The puck movement has steadily improved throughout the season and each line is communicating better. They now have a knowledge base on how one and other work, are reading each other's body language better and anticipating moves instead of forcing passes to where they hope their line mates are going to be. That comfort level has allowed them pick up their pace of play and that has led to more quality scoring opportunities.
The game has also become more physical now that the Nittany Lions are skating as a cohesive unit. Against Robert Morris, there were more glass shaking hits and a tougher backcheck, which comes from solid play in the neutral zone and a trust between teammates.
There is a heightened trust on the lines now, one that comes from playing day-in and day-out with each other. The early season breakdowns in the neutral ice have been replaced by steady play from all lines through the neutral zone. A timid power play has gown and unleashed eight shots during a two-minute shift versus the Colonials, which is a step in the right direction for Gadowsky.
"We had worries when we weren't getting many shots," Gadowsky said in an earlier press conference. "If we weren't getting opportunities, if we weren't working for opportunities or were being selfish and not shooting pucks, I would be concerned. It's tough to get 40 shots on net and be too concerned that you are not getting enough offense."
Sitting in the end zone at the Greenberg Ice Pavilion on Dec. 15 you couldn't be concerned about this team. You can see that this team has taken some giant steps forward and will enter the final weekend of the 2012 season with two more opportunities for improvement after a much needed break for the holidays.