By: Sean Flanery, Student Writer GoPSUsports.com
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Since their home opener versus Syracuse in early October the Nittany Lions have come together and changed significantly as a team both on and off the ice.
The Lions faced much anticipation when beginning their inaugural season this past October and in their first-ever home series, Oct. 13 and 14, they were shut-out by scores of 4-0 and 6-0, respectively. However, over the past few months, Penn State (7-14-1) has gained experience and confidence at the Division I level while making history along the way.
Penn State has accomplished so much since the first time they were matched up against the Orange, bringing highlights to the ice such as the team's first-ever shutout and hat trick when they hosted Sacred Heart on Nov. 2. The Blue and White began the season with 17 freshmen on the roster, but since that time junior goaltender Nicole Paniccia believes the entire team has come a long way.
"We're just more experienced in general," said Paniccia. "When we played them at the beginning of the season, I think it was like one of our first weekends pretty early in the season, we've just gained so much more experience since then. We have all gotten so much better and (have improved) as a team. Just our chemistry, and the freshmen aren't really freshman any more, they've had experience, so I think we're going to be, knock on wood, a lot better going into this series."
In the beginning of the season, the team struggled primarily in creating offensive opportunities. However, more the half way through the season the team has developed a defensive presence that has allowed them and head coach Josh Brandwene to begin trying to focus on the offensive zone. Since the two home losses to the Orange in mid-October, the Lions have only been shut out only three times in 18 games.
Coach Brandwene believes the team's overall chemistry in the locker room, in addition to the focus on defense, is the reason behind the Lions' offensive success.
"We want to be even better in our own zone because great defense leads to great offensive opportunities," said Brandwene. "Then when we have the opportunities we want to be smart, strong, and possess the puck as long as we can."
As Penn State continues to develop into an offensive rhythm on the ice, the scores of contests are continually creeping closer and closer in their favor. At the beginning of the year, the Lions struggled to keep themselves in games, losing to teams such as Syracuse and Mercyhurst by multiple goals, numerous times. However, the Lions haven't lost a game by more than two goals since its bout with Mercyhurst on Dec. 1.
Since then the Lions have played some of their best hockey of the year including a series with Union during which the Lions dropped both games, but only lost by one goal each time. Despite the two losses to Union College, some have slated those two games as the best games of the season for the Lions.
Freshman forward and team points leader Shannon Yoxheimer believes that series was promising in terms of getting closer to making winning a reoccurring thing in Happy Valley. A large part of the success in the Union series was due to the defensive intensity the Lions displayed, which led to more scoring chances at the other end.
"I think it's encouraging because it just means that we are going to keep getting better and eventually we are going to start winning those games," said Yoxheimer. "We've come a long way in the defensive zone because we kind of struggled in the beginning (of the season) with getting the puck out and now we are making breakout passes and creating offense off of that."
Penn State hopes to keep making strides as their upcoming series with Syracuse (10-11-1) will be a large test in judging just how far the team has come since October. The Lions still have a week of practice remaining before they face-off in their second series with the College Hockey America opponent on Friday Jan. 25, at 7 p.m.