Once upon a time, Penn State hockey used to measure itself against opponents with "(NCAA)" following their names on the schedule. The reason, of course, is obvious. For all of the Icers' ACHA success, we always aspired to what we have now gained. For individual players, NCAA competition was a chance to show that yes, they were good enough for that level. For the program, and even the ACHA as a whole, it was a chance to - if only temporarily - shed the "club hockey" stereotypes and gain the respect of the hockey community.
|The Icers upended Jason Durbin and Wayne State in their first year of DI play.|
Division III opponents were more common, but Division I opponents were more memorable, and the Icers managed to chip off two wins over teams in transition to the top flight of college hockey in recent history. On November 27, 1999 PSU rode two goals each from Neal Price and Rob Shaner, as well as 36 Mark Scally saves, to a 5-2 win over Wayne State at the University of Findlay. Six years later, Lukas DeLorenzo and Michael McMullen each had three-point nights and Paul Mammola was the goaltending hero with 41 saves in a 3-2 win at Robert Morris.
Sound vaguely familiar? The hunter is now the hunted, with ACHA big dog Arizona State looking to make their own history Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Ice Pavilion.
It's different, you say? Penn State is better than 1999-2000 Wayne State and 2005-2006 Robert Morris? The Nittany Lions have guys from the USHL?
Well, Arizona State has that too. Freshmen forward Stephen Collins and freshman defenseman Jordan Young spent a combined five seasons in the league, most recently with the Youngstown Phantoms.
PSU has Canadian Jr. A players?
So do the Sun Devils. Seven ASU players spent significant time in one of the leagues, including forwards Faiz Khan, Kale Dolinski, Connor Buchanan, Kory Chisholm, Ben Findlay and Liam Norris, along with goaltender Joseph D'Elia.
PSU has NCAA Division I transfers?
ASU even has one of those, in the form of forward Brian McGinty, who was a member of the Canisius Golden Griffins for two seasons.
Arizona State coach Greg Powers understands that he has a stacked roster for an ACHA team.
“We have a high caliber group of guys that I think, at one point or another, really believed that they would be at [the NCAA Division I] level. This is a great opportunity for them to prove to people at that level that they passed on our guys.”
|Goaltender Joe D'Elia (left) and forward Colin Hekle will be vital to ASU's hopes for competitive games.|
None of this is to suggest that the Nittany Lions and Sun Devils are equally talented. Penn State runs much deeper, and generally, the PSU players performed better in the prior common leagues. But I would give ASU the nod over, say, NCAA Division III Buffalo State, which beat PSU on October 19th. In fact, Arizona State - 18-0-0 and ranked No. 1 - just might be the best team the ACHA has ever seen (at their current rate, and provided they end the season with the Murdoch Cup). They haven't earned that mark against dusty programs either - five of the wins were against ACHA top ten teams Oklahoma (a future PSU opponent as well), Lindenwood and Oakland. An additional seven came over Arizona, Iowa State and Central Oklahoma, all ranked between 11th and 20th in the ACHA.
Within the mass Sun Devil name drop above, one particularly important player considering the expectations of most for this series is D'Elia. The Davenport transfer has a 12-0-0 record with a goals against average of 1.73 and a save percentage of .929. Dolinski, himself a transfer from Minot State, McGinty, Collins, and Colin Hekle lead a balanced offensive attack. Perhaps most concerning of all is that it's evident that the Arizona State side sees this as a program-defining weekend. Is Penn State, which dismissively labels these games as exhibitions wherever possible, going to be ready for that intensity? Stack the Pads' Derek Meluzio believes so.
I can honestly say I feel Coach Gadowsky will have his players more then up to the challenge and they will come out playing hard. Why might you ask? Lessons learned from the past. Just prior to defeating RIT in the huge upset I talked about earlier, I failed to mention that Penn State was shut out 3-0 by Buffalo State which is an NCAA D3 team.Here's hoping.
Coach Gadowsky will remind his team of that game and how if they do not come to play the goals won't get scored on their own. In fact, he probably won't even have to remind them. They will know it on their own and they will want to avoid it from happening again.
The greater point to be made in all of this is that there are more good hockey players out there than roster spots on the 59 NCAA Division I hockey teams. We used to know that an awful lot of talent ended up in the ACHA as a result, and I hope we still do. Otherwise...
For a preview on ASU with much more depth than I'm able to provide in a single post, including plenty of discussion on this weekend's series from the opposing perspective, check out the latest edition of Hell Frozen Over, a weekly show on Sun Devils hockey.
While the Nittany Lion men will hunted by a motivated ACHA program, the women will take the opposite position for a two-game set in Erie, against No. 4 Mercyhurst.
It's tough to know where to begin in describing this series, which will be played Friday night at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday afternoon at 2:00 p.m. Maybe that's because it's unlike anything Penn State will face all season, or perhaps - given PSU's status as a first-year NCAA program with 17 freshmen - ever.
Where Robert Morris, probably the Lions' toughest challenge so far, is a great College Hockey America program, Mercyhurst is a great national program. Other than the Colonials' upset win over MU in last year's CHA tournament final, the Lakers have won every single regular season and tournament championship in league history, dating back to the 2002-2003 season, and have appeared in the last eight NCAA tournaments. Mercyhurst was a Frozen Four team in 2009 and 2010, including a national championship game appearance in 2009 (a loss to Wisconsin). In the past, the program has boasted a Patty Kazmaier Award winner in Vicki Bendus (2010), a two-time Olympic gold medalist in Meghan Agosta (Team Canada, 2006 and 2010), and numerous other superstars of the women's game like Bailey Bram and Hillary Pattenden. Mike Sisti, the only coach in Lakers history, has a career record of 346-93-30 (.770).
|Mercyhurst's Christine Bestland is third in the nation in scoring.|
This is hardly a program resting on its laurels, either.
The Lakers have a seven-game winning streak and have shutout their opponents three times in the last four games, outshooting them 204 to 69. Nine different Lakers scored a point in a two-game sweep at Yale November 16 and 17. Junior Christine Bestland, sophomore Vaila Higson and freshman Emily Janiga all scored three points in the twin 4-0 victories.Mercyhurst shares two opponents with Penn State so far, and the Lakers made short work of both RIT and Lindenwood by a combined 25-3 score over four games. The Nittany Lions lost to and tied RIT at home on October 25th and 26th, while earning a road split with Lindenwood on November 16th and 17th.
Mercyhurst is 12-1-1 so far [4-0-0 in CHA]. Bestland and Janiga lead the Lakers in points with 34 and 22 respectively.
Goaltenders Stephanie Ciampa and Amanda Makela have shared time this season. Ciampa, 8-0-0, has played in over 478 minutes and sports a 1.00 goals against average. She is fourth in the nation with a .951 save percentage. Makela is 4-1-1, has played in over 364 minutes, has posted a .906 save percentage and a 2.14 goals against average.
The brutally honest truth is that at this point, simply avoiding a fate quite as decisive as those suffered by the Tigers and Lions would be a massive show of progress from Josh Brandwene's young program, and expectations should be set accordingly. The coach, for his part, seems to have things in the proper context, in that the most important thing to be gained this weekend is the continued development of process and a culture, regardless of what the scoreboard ultimately says.
"The game is the game, and (Mercyhurst) is a terrific team," said Brandwene. "I have a lot of respect for Mike Sisti and the job he has done for that program. Our job is to do what we do well and do it to the best of our ability. (We have to) go out and play our game."