It was barely five years ago that Penn State was the new name in college hockey. There were predictions that the Nittany Lions would be competitive in no time, with State College centrally located in the heart of eastern hockey country, and with a new rink being built on campus.
Naysayers weren’t so optimistic, with some predicting the new program would be buried in the competitive Big Ten, and it would take a decade or more for Penn State to sniff success. But if Lions coach Guy Gadowsky drew up a five year plan, it might look almost exactly like what’s transpired in Happy Valley.
In the Lions’ fifth season of Division I hockey, after announcing the elevation of their longstanding club program in 2010, they won the Big Ten playoff title, upsetting the Gophers in two overtimes in the tournament’s semifinals, then beating Wisconsin, also in two overtimes, for the conference playoff crown.
Penn State made its NCAA tournament debut a week later and upheld its reputation for shooting pucks, scoring 10 goals on Union to advance within a game of the Frozen Four. The dream would end there, as eventual national champion Denver ended their season. But Penn State comes to visit the Gophers this weekend no longer viewed as the underdog new guys, but as a true conference title contender.
“They have a good location. You drive a 300-mile radius around State College and you’re on the East Coast, you’re up in Ontario, you’re in Michigan, and in Pennsylvania hockey has really improved. Now that they’re in the Big Ten they can come into Minnesota and get kids, so their footprint is huge,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said this week. “You can go to British Columbia or to Edmonton and because of football, everybody has heard of Penn State. They did it the right way, and two or three years of recruiting are all you need now because in many cases you don’t have seniors. You could see them getting better every year.”
There’s a running joke about the generosity of the stats crew at Penn State, as shot totals of 40 or 50 seem to be commonplace in State College. That might be part of that, but the other part is the Lions’ propensity to puck every puck possible on the opponent’s net.
“They’ve got a lot of returning guys and they shoot a lot,” said Gophers goalie Eric Schierhorn, who faced 63 Penn State shots in the two-overtime loss last March. “We kind of know what they’re bringing. Rebound control is the biggest thing. They step inside the blue line, they fire it on you and they’re looking for rebounds so if I can just suck everything up or put everything to the corner it makes it more difficult for them to create offense.”
The Gophers (1-1) host Penn State on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. in a game that was rescheduled due to football.
The Gophers rank ahead of Big Ten rivals Michigan and Ohio State, but just behind Cornell, in one very unscientific poll that came out last week. Mark Majewski, the hockey sports information director at Boston College and a sports uniform guru, has compiled an exhaustive and thorough ranking of all 60 Division I college hockey teams based on what they wear when taking the ice. He’s got the Gophers ranked 12th in the nation, and fourth in the Big Ten (behind Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan State).
“The Gophers bash you over the head with that classic, funky looking ‘M’ that Minnesotans hold near and dear to their hearts,” Majewski says, in his analysis of the U’s three primary sweater options. “There are many times I’m not in favor of slapping a logo that big on the front of the sweater, but this just looks too good to say otherwise. It’s a perfectly-shaped ‘M’ for the front of a hockey sweater and one that has a pretty good amount of cachet built up over the years.”
To view the entire rankings from 60th (Bentley) to 1st (Michigan Tech) complete with photos and analysis, check out the Hockey By Design website.
Defense keys Huskies impressive debut
Last season was a rare down year for St. Cloud State under coach Bob Motzko, with the Huskies finishing in the bottom half of the NCHC and failing to make the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2012. But with all 10 of their top scorers from a year ago back, along with experience in goal, the Huskies were picked for second in their eight-team conference in the preseason polls.
They started the season for real on Saturday in Mankato, and it was the defense that was perhaps most impressive in the 4-0 win over Minnesota State. The Mavericks were picked to win the WCHA, but didn’t get a sniff of offense, with Huskies junior goaltender Jeff Smith stopping all 42 shots he faced for his first career shutout.
“I started to play better at the end of last year and tried to build off that into the off season,” said Smith, a British Columbia native who transferred to St. Cloud State after spending his freshman season at UMass-Lowell. “I trained hard and got better, I think. So I have a lot more confidence plus more confidence in my team and our defense too.”
The Huskies’ home openers are this weekend when they host Alaska for a pair.
Amid all the hype of the Golden Knights’ 3-0 start, with the NHL’s newest team leading the Pacific Division and offering a moving tribute to the victims of the recent mass shooting at the home opener on Tuesday, it’s equally fun to see the national media discovering the gem that is Nate Schmidt.
The three-year Gopher, who hails from St. Cloud, was known during his time at the U as the go-to guy for the media, as his on-ice skills were matched only by his friendly and talkative demeanor off the ice. Schmidt was undrafted and signed with the Washington Capitals as a free agent after his junior season with the Gophers. He flashed some skill with the Caps, but never had his share of the spotlight on a roster dominated by the likes of Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie. That’s not the case in Vegas, who claimed him in the expansion draft over the summer. In Sin City, Schmidt’s big personality and hard shot from the point are quickly making him a fan favorite on Nevada’s first major pro sports team.