When Penn State announced it was adding hockey and thusly the Big Ten could sponsor the sport for the first time, many were critical of the move for schools like Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. After all, they were leaving two of the best conferences in college hockey to join forces with three programs without the tradition and depth of the leagues they were leaving.
The chief concern was adding a fledgling program in Penn State. How in the world would they help add value for the top-tier programs and how could they bring value to the league for the foreseeable future?
However, three years after moving from a club program to the Division I level, Penn State stand amongst the top of the Big Ten in 2014-15. This, one season after taking on Wisconsin in the Big Ten hockey tournament championship before losing.
Many considered that appearance a fluke, after all the Nittany Lions finished dead last in the conference during the regular season at 3-16-1 and on 10 points. It also led to low expectations entering the 2014-15 season, despite a young team become veteran nearly overnight.
Still, Penn State was who they were last season and it was hard not to knock that team as anything but a fluke.
But the new season saw nearly all of the big players on the roster back and were two years wiser coming in to the new season. In total 17 upperclassmen dot the roster this season, meaning they had an advantage many other Big Ten teams didn’t coming in to this season — experience.
It’s a ratio that has helped them to win games against teams with arguably superior pedigree and youthful talent. Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin are all very young hockey teams and have found themselves struggling at times because of it.
Wisconsin is sitting dead last in the league, winless in Big Ten play and have just two wins on the season as a whole.
On the other hand, Penn State find themselves in the middle of the Big Ten race with both Michigan and Minnesota, standing two points off the points lead of Michigan and four points clear of Minnesota behind them.
While the blue bloods of college hockey being good is great for the Big Ten, so is the fact that in year two we’re seeing it won’t be the three big names being the only ones drawing attention.
Many wondered if the Big Ten cold sustain the level of competition needed to make resumes count come the end of the season. Penn State climbing up the rankings and having success throughout the season so far has certainly helped that happen.
However, that success has come in spurts, as PSU has some bad losses and ties on its schedule (mainly loses to UConn, Robert Morris and Alaska come to mind). It also just got done with a weekend sweep of Wisconsin, completing the full four-game season sweep of a Big Ten opponent for the first time in program history.
Just how far has Penn State hockey come? PSU has a Hobey Baker Award (given to the best college hockey player) candidate in Casey Bailey. The junior has put up 19 goals and 14 assists in 26 games this season to get his name among the best in collegiate hockey.
The next step in Penn State’s progression is to make this more than a one-season deal for the Nittany Lions and be a consistent contender.
If it can build off this current success, Penn State could be a legitimate Big Ten contender for years to come, which would be something few saw coming this soon.
It would also prove those that hated on the Big Ten as a bad thing for college hockey wrong, and few saw that coming just a few years ago either.