A team that’s built around its speed on the ice, Penn State will embark on a daunting season-opening road trip that leaves the Nittany Lions little room for a slow start.
Penn State travels to northern New York for games against Clarkson and St. Lawrence, two teams that finished 23rd and 24th in last season’s pairwise rankings, respectively.
The two-game stretch will likely be the toughest of Penn State’s nonconference schedule. Aside from a home-and-home with in-state foe Robert Morris in early December, there are few other opportunities for the Nittany Lions to pick up quality wins outside of conference play.
Facing a Big Ten slate that includes 16 games against teams ranked in the top-20 of USCHO.com’s preseason poll, Nittany Lion head coach Guy Gadowsky acknowledged these early season nonconference games take on an added importance.
“There’s going to be teams that are in the basement in the Big Ten that are excellent hockey teams,” Guy Gadowsky said. “It’s going to happen. But I think that’s what everybody envisioned is a league of extremely, tough, tough teams that when they play nonconference they’re going to be pretty successful.”
To hold up their end of the nonconference success Gadowsky alluded to, the Nittany Lions will first have to deal with one of the best goaltenders in the 12-team ECAC Friday night.
Jake Kielly was named to the ECAC’s All-Rookie Team a season ago for his efforts in net, as he stopped 91.1 percent of the shots he faced and limited opponents to 2.56 goals per game.
When Penn State takes the short trip down Route 11 to take on another ECAC team in St. Lawrence, it won’t get any easier. The Skating Saints return seven of the eight top scorers from a team that split with the Nittany Lions at Pegula Ice Arena a season ago.
Unlike Clarkson, the Skating Saints have question marks in goal, where they must replace last season’s ECAC Goaltender of the Year, Kyle Hayton, who transferred to Wisconsin.
Penn State’s ability to keep pucks out of its own net will be crucial. The Nittany Lion defense surrendered just 21 shots to the University of Ottawa in an exhibition game last Sunday, but four of them found the back of the net as the Gee-Gees spoiled Penn State’s unofficial season opener.
One of a few newcomers on the Nittany Lion blue line, freshman Cole Hults said he needs to improve his play in the defensive zone this weekend.
“I think just a big part of our game is our backchecking,” Hults said. So I think we can get a little bit better at that...I’m still getting the system down a little bit. I think from a defense perspective just shutting down a play early, reading a play, shutting the down early to create in transition, that’s big on the D-side of things.”
The puck will drop on Penn State’s season at 7 p.m. Friday night, followed by another 7 p.m. tilt on Saturday.