Here is a question for young hockey players seeking a college program: If you like a fast-paced style of play, with a lot of offense and scoring, why wouldn’t you want to play at Penn State?
The Nittany Lions have had an up-tempo style for the last few seasons, peppering shots on net unlike any other Division I program, but recruits could always question whether that strategy would succeed.
Last season dispelled those fears, adding in striking defensive and goaltending performances late in the season to win a Big Ten tournament title. Then team then rolled past a loaded Union team 10-3 in the NCAA first round before losing to eventual national champion Denver in the NCAA regional finals.
The style is working, and now there is the weight of expectations on a program starting just its sixth season of Division I play — even if team members don’t feel it.
“I don’t think we feel expectations at all, to be honest,” junior forward Chase Berger said. “We don’t really talk about any of that stuff or really focusing on it, or read into it. We kind of just show up and try to get better every day.”
It all starts at 7 p.m. Friday at Clarkson. The No. 10 Nittany Lions head a few miles down the road in the Adirondack Mountains the next night to meet St. Lawrence.
In the early years, head coach Guy Gadowsky and his staff were selling the idea, the concept of what the program could be, what the young men could help build, convincing them to trade dreams of being a part of established programs for building a foundation.
Now, they get to sell a top-10 program, sellout crowds every home game, a student section that has quickly risen to rival the nation’s best — and that high-octane offense that averaged 4.1 goals and 44.1 shots per game last season.
During the team’s preseason media day last week, Gadowsky was asked about using that offense — described by the questioner as a “sexy” style — in his sales pitch to potential recruits. It’s not for everyone, but it’s something that Gadowsky has always loved since his childhood in Edmonton, Canada. The 1980s Oilers featured Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey among its many stars. Those teams were beyond prolific, with five straight seasons of 400-plus goals. No other team has scored over 400 goals in just one season.
“I like watching that type of hockey,” Gadowsky said. “I think if you get players ... where that’s what they really enjoy, I think we’re very ‘sexy’ in terms of recruiting. I don’t know if that’s for everybody, but for players that really like to create and rather than being systematic, being real creative with the puck, like the 80s Oilers, I think we could be the ‘sexy’ destination for them.”
The concept and success have drawn in talent. Last year’s freshman class combined for 64 goals and 93 assists, and this year’s freshman class, while not figuring to be so prolific, still appears to be quite talented.
“From here on out there’s going to be a lot of expectations to come in and succeed like they did last year,” senior defenseman Trevor Hamilton said. “This year’s freshmen are equally as good, if not better.”
While they hope to produce similar numbers this season, it will not be the same team.
Last year’s team lost to graduation the leadership of David Goodwin, Dylan Richard and Ricky DeRosa, and the steady defense of Vince Pedrie, who left two years early for the New York Islanders.
The team will be seeking a bit of a new identity, even if the style and substance figures to be unchanged.
The Nittany Lions expect reliable goaltending from Peyton Jones — who was a question mark entering last season. They also will still have the prolific scoring abilities of Denis Smirnov, Andrew Sturtz, Nate Sucese and Berger, each of whom were double-digit goal-scorers.
And as much as the goal and shot numbers draw attention, Penn State’s means of getting there have been pretty consistent all the way back to the first season of Division I play, with grittiness and determination to out-hustle and out-work opponents.
Finding young men willing to play tough both ways, and sacrificing, while also scoring goals, is a much more difficult find.
Now, however, the Nittany Lions know it not only gets them spectacular numbers, it gets them Big Ten titles and NCAA tournament berths.
“To get back there, we just have to actually remember what got us there,” said Sturtz, who is six goals away from the program’s career goal-scoring record. “If we play Penn State hockey, we should be all right.”
No. 10 Penn State at Clarkson, 7 p.m. Friday, Cheel Arena, Potsdam, N.Y.
Penn State at St. Lawrence, 7 p.m. Saturday, Appleton Arena, Canton, N.Y.
Radio: WAPY 103.1 FM
Leading scorers (2016-17 numbers): PSU—Denis Smirnov (19 goals, 28 assists), Andrew Sturtz (22 G, 15 A), Nate Sucese (17 G, 19 A), Chase Berger (13 G, 23 A); CU–Sam Vigneault (12 G, 14 A), Jordan Boucher (8 G, 15 A), AJ Fossen 8 G, 10 A); SLU-Mike Marnell (15 G, 12 A) Joe Sullivan (12 G, 15 A), Ben Finkelstein (5 G, 18 A)