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By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - As the second semester begins, so does the second wave of conference play for the Nittany Lions. The team travels to Syracuse this weekend after a stretch of four games over the break against some of the top programs in the country outside the CHA.
"Any opportunity, you take it as a chance to grow," head coach Josh Brandwene said. "We want to keep getting better every day. Turning the page and getting towards conference play, we've gotten better in so many aspects of the game this year. We're excited for the next steps."
"Especially in the middle of the season, you want to keep yourself moving at a high speed and I think that's what playing higher-skilled non-conference teams really helps us do," senior Laura Bowman said.
The Lions certainly hope to build off their non-conference experience as they take on a new mentality with every game meaning so much more in terms of the CHA standings. The Nittany Lions currently sit in third-place, one point behind second-place Syracuse.
Speaking of Syracuse, the return to conference play represents a return to familiarity in more ways than one. Freshman Abby Welch has three older sisters who play or have played college hockey, and one of those sisters, Madison, is currently a sophomore goaltender for Syracuse. Welch is one of two players from New York, along with senior Kelly Seward.
One area the coaching staff has stressed since the beginning of the year has been special teams, and the Nittany Lions have certainly had their success in those areas throughout the first half of the season.
"The hard work that this team puts into special teams, both power play and penalty kill, is something that they are consistently getting rewarded for," Brandwene said. "Right now, we've got the top power play in conference and our [penalty kill] is ranked number two. Those are things we still have to keep working at, but we want to keep growing and being successful in those areas."
"We have emphasized that we need to pay attention to the little things," freshman Katie McMillan said. "Paying attention in the D-zone, sticks up when the puck goes to the point, celebrating a blocked shot, just stuff like that. I think the girls are excited for the second half of the season, especially going into the big conference stretch here in the next couple of weeks."
Offensive numbers have also been up this season in comparison to years past, but the coaching staff attributes that to the dedication and determination of the athletes.
"We've got a room full of hard-working athletes," Brandwene said. "They're incredibly coachable and when you add the skill, talent, and hard work together, that's when you get those kind of results on the offensive side of the scoreboard."
This time of year represents a chance for some of the younger players to reflect on their experience in the program thus far.
For McMillan, her first semester at Penn State has been a journey she won't forget with some relationships on which she can always fall back.
"I think that this team is the closest team I've ever been a part of, especially these seniors. I look up to each of them so much and I'm really playing the second half of this season for them because they deserve it."
Puck drop on Friday is set for 7 p.m. and Saturday's game will start at 3 p.m. The Nittany Lions return to Pegula Ice Arena on January 21st for a four-game homestand.