UNIVERSITY PARK — Everyone knows the arena is worthy of the Big Ten Conference. And less than a minute into a recent game against Michigan State, Terry Pegula's $102 million building got even better.
Penn State had just scored on a Patrick Koudys' goal. The Nittany Lions led, 1-0, early in the first period. The "We Are" chant started with music in the background, and, most everyone, not just the students, was standing.
This was the hockey atmosphere Penn State has sought for a long time. But despite the electricity that has come with capacity crowds nearly every game, most of Penn State's conference games have ended in losses.
Life in the Big Ten, while a major step up for the program, hasn't been without its tough lessons.
That game against Michigan State ended in a 2-1 loss, even though Penn State outshot the Spartan, 29-13. The Nittany Lions are last in the Big Ten (2-13-1, seven points) and trail the second-to-last Spartans by 12 points.
No one expected Penn State to compete for a league championship in its first season, and coach Guy Gadowsky has seen general improvements from his team. But he realizes one of the biggest problems is what kept Penn State from winning what seemed like a winnable game against Michigan State — scoring.
"We've got to do a better job of scoring goals at this level of the Big Ten," Gadowsky said.
Penn State ranks fifth out of six teams in goals per game in Big Ten play (Michigan State ranks last). The Nittany Lions have averaged two goals per game. The four teams above them average at least 2.75. Essentially, Penn State is scoring one fewer goal per game than its competition.
The problem isn't shots on goal, either. Just like in that Michigan State game, Penn State has little trouble getting shots, ranking third with 532 in Big Ten games. It has 28 more shots on goal than the fourth-place team.
"You score goals in a lot of different ways," Gadowsky said. "We've got to get better manufacturing or do a better job of taking advantages of the chances we get."
Forward Curtis Loik looks back at the beginning of this conference season and remembers the team setting a goal of maintaining a few fundamentals in every game. These included typical facets of hockey such as checking well, taking advantage of power plays and recovering properly when the puck gets behind the defense. He still believes doing right in those areas can help Penn State be successful and beat any team.
The Nittany Lions have proven they can hang with top teams. Their two Big Ten victories have come against Michigan, which was ranked in the top 10 the first time Penn State played the Wolverines.
Penn State scored a total of nine goals those two games, nearly one-third of its Big Ten total. Positive results are attainable when, as Loik said, the correct adjustments are made. It's just about doing such things against the consistent competition of the Big Ten.
"Every Big Ten team, they're very well-established teams," Loik said. "They've been around the league for a while. We've had to drop a few steps to battle against those big teams. It's been a process, but I think we're almost there."