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Nov. 27, 2012
By: Sean Flanery, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - When Penn State began its inaugural season, everyone knew that with a young defensive unit, having an outstanding goaltender would be a priority for the team to be successful and so far this season, junior Nicole Paniccia has proved she is just that.
Being a native of Oakville, Ontario, which is located just outside Toronto, Paniccia has hockey in her blood. In her younger years, Paniccia spent many seasons with various youth teams across Canada. Most significantly, her stint with the Toronto Aeros. While with the Aeros, she helped lead the team to a gold medal finish at the Provincial Championships and was also named MVP of the final game of the 2009 Can-Am Junior Hockey Challenge.
After receiving numerous accolades at youth levels of hockey, Paniccia began to pursue awards at the NCAA level by traveling to the University of Connecticut, which would be her home for two seasons on the ice. During her two seasons with the Huskies, Paniccia posted a 7-12-3 record in 24 appearances, which included four shutouts.
While Paniccia stated UConn was a great school, but she never felt like it was the right fit for her. When Penn State stated last year that they would be starting a Division I women's hockey program, Pannicia saw the opportunity to be a part of something special.
"It's just an awesome opportunity to be here," said Paniccia. "It's the beginning of something brand new, especially for me. I've never been an older girl on a team before, so it's kind of a chance for me to step up, be a leader and kind of start history, and I saw it as an awesome opportunity. I had heard of coach [Josh] Brandwene before and I love him as a coach. I think he's the best coach I have ever had in my hockey career. It's just an amazing opportunity to be here."
Since trading in her Husky jersey for one with the Blue and White of Penn State, Paniccia has become a tremendous leader both on and off the ice. Being one of only a few upperclassmen on the roster, she has been a voice within the locker room along with fellow UConn transfers Taylor Gross and Jenna Welch. Coming into the season, the three of them were the only Nittany Lions with any Division I experience. Paniccia said prior to the season starting the younger girls on the team would ask for advice on how to approach the games and how to make the transition to Division I hockey.
"I think it was more before we played any games," said Paniccia. "Them just coming up to me and asking, `what can we expect, what's the level going to be like?' It's good that they're asking those questions because I've had the experience, but ultimately I think it's just them being on the ice and getting the experience that teaches them how to play at this level."
Paniccia has administered wise advice to the younger players on the team off the ice, but on the ice she has led by example. So far this season, Paniccia has competed at a high level posting a 5-6-1 record while stopping 92.1 percent of the shots she has faced. Her .921 save percentage ranks third among goalies in College Hockey America (CHA).
The Toronto-area native has been the anchor of the Penn State defense all season saving 407 total shots to date, which ranks second in the CHA. Paniccia accredited a lot of her success this season to the confidence she gained this past offseason and really trying to refocus in between periods and from game to game. Penn State head coach Josh Brandwene has commented that he rarely says anything to Paniccia after a bad period or game because of her ability to refocus and forget.
"For me the biggest thing is just experience," said Paniccia. "I would be lying to you if I told you I could do that my freshman or even my sophomore year. I think it's just, for me, being off the ice, just taking a sip of water and just refocusing and putting everything behind me. Just thinking to myself, if it was a bad game or a bad period, you know you can't do anything about it. It's in the past. Try and go out there and kill it this period and be there for your teammates."
While Paniccia constantly tries to improve her game, she gains extra motivation from a family member. Paniccia's younger sister, Daniela, also plays goaltender, but is a few years younger in age. Nicole says that her younger sister provides a different kind of support and is more of a motivating factor to always be a role model.
"I actually think she is better than I was at her age," Nicole said about Daniela. "Whenever I'm having a bad night, or there's those days where you get tired and you don't feel like practicing, I kind of think of her and that I want to be a good mentor for her and just be a leader and show her the ropes. I want to be a good role model for her, so it definitely motivates me to do well."
While Nicole has many behind the scenes factors that motivate her to succeed on the ice, she never leaves anything to chance. The junior goaltender has many rituals that go hand in hand with her skill. She stated that she is a very superstitious person when it comes to playing hockey. If a puck ever hits a post during a game, at the next break in action, Paniccia will tap her post with the stick and utter the words `thank you', just to prevent karma from making it bounce in next time.
As for other rituals, she jumps rope before each game and warms up with squash balls 37 times to signify the number she wears out on the ice. Nicole says she has always believed in karma and she will continue to do all of these things no matter at what the level of play.
While the junior goaltender continues to warm up in the same way before every game, the Nittany Lions will continue to become a more well-rounded team, both offensively and defensively, and have shown positive signs of late.
This past weekend the Nittany Lions struck for their first CHA victory, a 3-2 comeback win at Lindenwood University. For a team in it's first season as a Division I program Penn State has fared well against good competition. The one constant throughout all of the ups and downs this season has been Paniccia. She has provided the team with a sturdy backbone and solid last line of defense. The main goal she set for herself before the start of the season was to be a team leader and teach the younger players what work ethic was necessary to compete at this level.
"I just wanted us to be the team that nobody wanted to play," said Paniccia. "Nobody wants to lose to a first year team. Especially, like our first game against Vermont. I don't think anybody saw that coming; winning our first game ever. Just being a team that nobody wants to play and if we work hard enough anything can happen."
So far this season, she is showing the team and the fans that with hard work anything can happen. Paniccia's lifelong dream was to obtain a Division I hockey scholarship and since doing that she still has yet to stop striving to be a better player and leader. On the back of Paniccia's game day helmet it reads `Defy The Odds' and the junior goaltender along with the rest of the Nittany Lions hope to continue to do just that throughout the remainder of their inaugural season.
Penn State will remain on the road when they travel to take on conference opponent and nationally-ranked Mercyhurst on Friday, Nov. 30 in the first of a two game series. The No. 4 Lakers will welcome the Nittany Lions to the Mercyhurst Ice Center for a 7 p.m. faceoff in the series opener.