Friday, October 5, 2012

It's Time

Vermont's Gutterson Field House, the eventual answer to a trivia question, awaits the Nittany Lions.

The Pennsylvania State University will play an NCAA Division I hockey game tomorrow.

Take a second to let that sink in. Read it again if you want. Maybe a third time, if you still don't believe this is really happening. It is.

For the first DI game in PSU history, of course, the women's team is in Burlington, VT to take on the UVM Catamounts for a pair of games. Both tomorrow's tilt and Sunday's rematch begin at 2:00 p.m. and will be streamed by NSN Sports.

So what should you expect on this historic occasion? I normally pride myself on having answers, but I really don't have one for you here. The simple fact is that there are seventeen freshmen on this team, and unless you're a scout, live near the home base of their previous teams, are a parent/family member of one, or somehow have the means to jet all over the place watching girls hockey games without being paid to do it, you've probably never seen any of them play before. I know I haven't, beyond Wednesday's open practice as part of media day.

With that in mind, let's run down what I think I know about this team.

There, of course, are the three Connecticut transfers - Taylor Gross, Jenna Welch and Nicole Paniccia. All three, as players who have already proven themselves at the DI level, are likely to be vital to any success the Nittany Lions enjoy. Each, as you might expect given the shared conference affiliation of the Huskies and Catamounts, has played against Vermont before. None, however, have lost to Vermont before. Welch played in all six meetings over 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, going 4-0-2. She scored the game winner in a 3-0 victory on November 20, 2011 - a match where Paniccia also earned a shutout in her only appearance against UVM. Gross played in the three 2010-2011 games, and UConn didn't allow a goal in any of them.

Between Paniccia, Celine Whitlinger and Brooke Meyer, I feel like the team's goaltending will be in good hands which, to be brutally honest, is probably vital when discussing a first-year NCAA program. Whitlinger has several USA Hockey Player Development Camp invites on her resume. Meyer brings a mentality to the crease that I absolutely love - think Tim Thomas (before he flipped out).

Penn State's goaltending, including Nicole Paniccia (left), Celine Whitlinger (center) and Brooke Meyer (right) should be a team strength.

Josh Brandwene has promised a balanced approach from his team, and based on what we do know about the remainder of the roster, that's probably an accurate statement. Of those 17 freshmen, Birdie Shaw and Shannon Yoxheimer shown a scoring touch at their previous stops. Emily Laurenzi is a two-way playmaker. Paige Jahnke and Jordin Pardoski should be sturdy defensively, while Taylor McGee is more offensive minded from the blueline. Of the team members we've seen play for the Lady Icers, we know that Tess Weaver and Jess Desorcie (who is returning to her home state for these games) formed two-thirds of maybe the most dominant line in ACHA Division 1 over the second half of last season (with Gross as the third member). Lindsay Reihl, Cara Mendelson and Madison Smiddy are the most experienced members of a highly inexperienced defense corps.

However, we have yet to see how most of the last two paragraphs translates at the next level. Beyond the former UConn players, really, it's all a giant unknown.

Vermont, which has been an NCAA Division I program since 2001, is a little bit less of an unknown. Of course, given that the Catamounts haven't managed better than a .348 win percentage in any DI season, maybe they'd rather be in PSU's position. Tim Bothwell's six-year tenure ended rather unceremoniously after last season's 4-22-6 mark, part of Bothwell's overall record of 39-138-21. Jim Plumer, who guided Amherst College to a pair of Division III national titles, will step in to try and reverse course.

Other than the coaching change though, very little has changed at UVM. The team suffered just four roster departures during the offseason, although one was leading scorer Chelsea Rapin, who had 15 points last season. Appropriately, the Catamounts have offset the departures with four freshmen. One of them, forward Emily Ford, played for Brandwene and Casey McCullion at Kingswood-Oxford School. Another, blueliner Dayna Colang, played with Yoxheimer at NAHA, scoring 31 points in 77 games.

This lightly reconfigured team has already seen some action, thanks to a 2-1 exhibition loss to the University of Montreal last weekend.

One returning Catamount to watch is Amanda Pelkey. She is another NAHA product who has been picked three times for the U.S. National Under-18 Team, and has two medals from the IIHF World Championships to show for it. Pelkey stepped in as a freshman last year and was second only to Rapin in team scoring, resulting in her being named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team.

Expected starting goalie Roxanne Douville, a junior, is undoubtedly one of UVM's vital players as well, but one that's a little bit of an unknown herself. As a freshman, she had a .931 save percentage and a 1.91 goals against average while starting 22 games. Last year, those numbers were .901 and 3.52. At the risk of oversimplifying things, it's fair to wonder which one of those we're getting this year. The answer probably will have a lot to do with how this weekend proceeds.

Really though, this is about an almost completely new Penn State roster facing its first-ever NCAA challenge on the road. The challenge comes from a UVM program that, yes, has done a lot of losing in the past - but at same time, the Nittany Lions haven't even done that yet.

How's it going to go? I don't know, and you probably don't either. But finally, finally, after decades of waiting and wondering, and after the interminable wait for actual, live NCAA hockey from September 17, 2010, we're about to find out. And even if our heads start spinning from trying to keep track of all the firsts, it's going to be a blast no matter what happens, you can trust me on that much.

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