Know Your Enemy: Penn State Men’s Hockey vs. St. Lawrence
The hockey season is notorious for its length. With 34 games slated for Penn State hockey’s 2016-17 schedule, tomorrow’s opener against St. Lawrence might not seem important. It’s certainly not do-or-die, it won’t indicate much about Big Ten play, and you’ll probably take a line out of Drake’s book and not think about it too much.
But Coach Guy Gadowsky knows, for a young batch of Nittany Lions, a season opener against one of the toughest defenses in the NCAA will provide a test.
“[Playing St. Lawrence] will be good and scary. From top to bottom, you could make an argument that they are the deepest d[efensive] core in the NCAA. This is going to be a tremendous measuring stick to see if our quickness can get on their D core,” he said.
The Saints skate into this season No. 16 in the nation — and for good reason. Although they finished with an only pretty good overall 19-14-4 record last year, schedule strength was key. St. Lawrence held its own in the ECAC up against tourney-caliber teams for the most part. Most impressively, it remained unbeaten against National Championship contender and No. 2 ranked Quinnipiac, with two wins and two ties. While this is undeniably discouraging for the Nittany Lions, St. Lawrence also posted a 0-5 record against Harvard and Yale, two other ECAC teams that made it to the tourney. Other broad season highlights include a 5-0 win over NCAA tournament contender RIT and a win over Penn State (more on that later).
St. Lawrence sits at two-of-12 in both the ECAC Coaches Poll and ECAC Media Poll this year — second only to powerhouse Quinnipiac. Perhaps even more intimidating is four coaches and eight media members picked the Saints over the Bobcats. St. Lawrence is pretty unanimously expected to have a huge year.
Huge years just don’t happen without impact players. St. Lawrence’s clear strength is defense. Enter Gavin Bayreuther, a 6’1, 195 lbs junior Gadowsky touts as arguably the best defenseman in the NCAA. With 29 points through 37 games (12 goals, 17 assists), Bayreuther became the first defender in St. Lawrence history to lead the team in scoring. Yes, re-read that as many times as I did please. He is a defenseman and he led the team in scoring. Naturally, he garnered 2015-16 All-America honors.
Bayreuther leads one of the strongest defenses in college hockey. Goaltender Kyle Hayton finished out the season 16th overall with the fourth-highest save percentage in the nation (.935) — and he might have it out for the Nittany Lions specifically. He didn’t play in game one of St. Lawrence’s match up with Penn State, then he came back for game two with 38 saves, a season-high. The defense as a unit finished 12th in the nation, compared to a No. 46 Penn State. (No need to panic too hard over stats, though — Penn State’s offense was sixth in the country compared to St. Lawrence’s No. 23 spot.)
Penn State tied then lost to St. Lawrence in last year’s series. I described the tie as a “frustrating, thrilling, powerplay-ridden game” in the recap, so at least you know tomorrow’s game will be fun. The five wasted powerplay opportunities of the game weren’t fun, but Penn State was a noticeably quicker team in its 8-0 thrashing of Queen’s in the international exhibition last Sunday. This could be the difference.
St. Lawrence’s starting goalie Hayton wasn’t in the net for the tie, but he sure was in the 4-2 loss in which the Nittany Lions tired out in the third period and handed the Saints two goals.
It’s worth noting, after the game Gadowsky admitted to something out of character: “We didn’t have a really good week of practice,” Gadowsky said after the game. “That one is on me. We weren’t prepared to play a battle-tested team. They were ready to play… We were outbattled, and that’s unacceptable.”
Judging by yesterday’s media availability, Penn State has been having a good week of practice. At least there’s that. Oh, and Kevin Kerr is all clear and ready to play.
Let’s make a pact, okay? I’ll do predictions for every game this season as long as you don’t make fun of me when they’re horribly wrong. You should tell me your predictions too, so we can be horribly wrong together. Penn State looked elite last Sunday, but Queen’s is a considerably worse team. I say Penn State and St. Lawrence split the series, but you can’t make me guess the score.
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