Three Takeaways From No. 3 Penn State Hockey’s Season So Far
Penn State hockey is headed into a hard-earned holiday break. Through non-conference play and its Big Ten opener against Michigan, the team has clawed its way up from unranked to a program-high No. 3 (!) in the nation. It’s been an eventful two months, and I have some thoughts on the struggles and successes of the season’s start. Let’s begin with something I need to get off my chest…
It’s okay to be excited. Really.
There’ve been a lot of “buts” surrounding this team at every stop.
“Penn State won its series against Notre Dame..but it’s just one win. It’s a fluke.”
“Penn State has the longest win-streak in the nation…but its non-conference schedule is weak.”
“Penn State won’t prove anything until it plays a Big Ten opponent. Okay Penn State swept Michigan…but Michigan sucks this year. And the Big Ten isn’t even good either.”
“Penn State is No. 3 in the nation but rankings don’t matter and Penn State literally ruined college hockey and it is everything bad with this entire planet.”
So the last one is a bit of a stretch, but come on. Sure, maybe playoff talk is unreasonable this early in the season. Yes, rankings don’t tangibly mean anything. Indeed, Penn State’s non-conference slate wasn’t generally impressive. But forget Alaska Anchorage and Canisius. Look at the games against Penn State’s hardest opponents and you’ll see it’s a contender. Aren’t fans allowed to have a little fun with that?
I’ve seen too many national and regional reporters (and Twitter eggs) acting like Penn State hockey fans are delusional for not ending every bit of excitement with a “but.” No one’s saying Penn State is the unequivocal best team in the nation, no one’s saying the USCHO rankings are the holy grail of everything that matters. The first thing Coach Guy Gadowsky said after the sweep of Michigan was “we haven’t accomplished anything yet.” But being No. 3 in the country is fun, God Dammit, and you’re allowed to enjoy it. You’re allowed to be excited that Penn State mopped the floor with a heated rival two nights in a row. Please remember this, no matter how many grains of salt everyone is telling you to take it with.
Defense is the difference
Penn State hockey is known for its high-scoring, shoot-first-ask-later offense, but the difference this season has been defense. The Nittany Lions finished out last season with a 3.21 goals allowed average and the No. 42-ranked defense in the nation. It’s tough to compare end of the season and mid-season stats, but right now Penn State is good for No. 3 with a 1.87 goals against average. Penn State’s non-con schedule showcased some weak offense, and Michigan losing its top line (the one that scored 25 points on them last season) to the NHL certainly doesn’t hurt the Lions.
But you have to give them some credit. Freshman goalie Peyton Jones has exceeded already high expectations in net, and his height/mobility combo is rare. He credits it to a huge growth spurt senior year of high school — he was able to learn the ins and outs of being a smaller goalie, then he grew and gets to enjoy the perks of being a #biggoalie. Penn State stole Michigan’s No. 1 spot on the penalty kill last weekend, with 62-of-67 penalties killed. I’d argue BU’s is more impressive (82-of-90), but this means the Terriers are taking more penalties. Gadowsky’s foused on getting less penalties all season, and it seems the Nittany Lions are giving opponents less power play opportunities and less power play goals than ever before. The pk unit is one of the best ways to determine if a team that’s faced weak opponents is actually solid — if your defense can stop 92% of 67 goals a man down, there’s no way it’s horrible.
Of course, more conference play will be the “true test” (as folks keep saying) of this defense, but the Nittany Lions have held their opponents to two or less goals in 11 games this season. The only real standouts are a 6-3 loss to St. Lawrence and a 7-4 win over Arizona State. It’s also fun to watch Trevor Hamilton make a name for himself as a new Nittany Lion with huge, typically clean hits.
Teamwork makes the dream work
I cringed writing that corny subheading, but it’s true for this team. While freshman Denis Smirnov puts on a clinic every week and is third in the nation in points to show for it, recent success (and some failures) have been a collective effort. Only three Nittany Lions have yet to tally a point — one’s a goalie, one’s a defenseman, and one has only played in one game so far. Smirnov leads the team with 27 points, then there’s a four-way tie for second: Andrew Sturtz, Dylan Richard, Trevor Hamilton, and David Goodwin have 15 points apiece. Nate Sucese is next with 14, Chase Berger and Vince Pedrie tie with 13, and Kevin Kerr has 11. With nine Nittany Lions over the 10-point mark, talent is spread out pretty much every shift and depth runs through every position. Penn State’s nation-topping freshman class got used to college hockey quick, too.
I remember asking Gadowsky if he was worried about the future when Casey Bailey left (he wasn’t), who would replace Casey Bailey, Casey Bailey, Casey Bailey, Casey Bailey. If I was still into asking stupid questions, I wouldn’t be able to ask those ones this season. Smirnov goes off, but there’s not one specific star I could point to and say “Penn State hockey is over once this person leaves.” Certain players play certain roles now. Smirnov makes things happen, point-blank, and sees the ice for sneaky assists. Sturtz has the beauties — the skilled goals that almost constantly land him on the NCAA Top Plays of the week. Pedrie comes up huge from the blue line when it counts, Hamilton embodies a tougher brand of defense, and Kerr’s defensive IQ often gets the Lions out of trouble. Nikita Pavlychev is 6’7″, and really annoys goalies.
Do you think Penn State hockey deserves national respect or do you think a few more conference games will make a statement? Fight me in the comments.