‘The Guys Who Came In And Took The ‘Eventually’ Away:’ Penn State Hockey Celebrates Landmark Senior Class
There are few senior classes in the history of Penn State sports that have been as impactful as the one Penn State hockey is preparing to say goodbye to this weekend.
The Nittany Lions will celebrate their current crop of 10 seniors during their final home series of the regular season this weekend. Names like Liam Folkes, Nate Sucese, Brandon Biro, Denis Smirnov, Kris Myllari, and Peyton Jones will go down in Penn State hockey folklore as program legends. Others — James Gobetz, Nikita Pavlychev, Blake Gober, and Will Holtforster — will be remembered as integral pieces to a well-oiled machine. All 10 departing seniors were, at one point or another, immensely popular in the locker room and/or among the fanbase.
Penn State’s seniors’ accomplishments are obvious. There’s, of course, the 2017 Big Ten title — which was clinched by a Folkes breakaway dagger at Joe Louis Arena — and the first NCAA tournament appearance (and victory) in program history. The spine of that 2017 conference championship was made up of then-freshmen, which brought genuine expectations of winning to Penn State hockey for the first time ever.
Head coach Guy Gadowsky has served as a college-level head coach for 20 seasons now, but does he think this senior class stands out from the rest?
“It’s hard not to when you come in as freshmen and win the Big Ten and really set us on the course of expectations,” Gadowsky said Tuesday. “From the start, everybody said ‘Hey — eventually, eventually, eventually,’ but they’re really the guys who came in and took the ‘eventually’ away. For that, they’ll always be special. This has been an extremely special, gratifying, fun four years with them.”
Any discussion about Penn State’s senior class of 2020 has to start with Liam Folkes. He obviously scored the single biggest goal in program history, but as the Nittany Lions have found out over the past four seasons, he’s so much more than just a big-game player.
After bouncing in and out of the lineup a bit as a promising, but raw freshman, Folkes is now one of the first names penciled into the lineup every night. The right wing from Scarborough, Ontario has blossomed into a top-end player in college hockey and was voted by his teammates as an alternate captain this year.
Being on perhaps the very best line in the country with Evan Barratt and Alex Limoges has definitely helped, but Folkes — the first and, to date, only black player in program history — has improved his overall game and been one of Penn State’s most popular players through it all.
“He’s been loved by the guys from day one,” Gadowsky said. “Because he’s come such a long way on the ice — specifically, his play without the puck and just the quality of his play without the puck — and because of the guy he is, he’s so loved by his teammates. And obviously, he’s Mr. Clutch. He very much deserved that ‘A’ [as an alternate captain].”
Guy Gadowsky had never coached a four-year starting goaltender at the college level before Peyton Jones came along — and he’s never watched a netminder play as well as Jones did during the 2017 Big Ten tournament.
“We didn’t know [Jones would start for four years],” Gadowsky said. “Peyton’s earned everything he’s got — that’s for sure. He proved that he can do it at the most important times, and he really earned his way all four years.”
Jones got the starting nod in all three games of the 2017 conference tournament, and he made 118 saves on 123 shots over more than four games’ worth of ice time in three consecutive days. His numbers may have tailed off a bit from his dazzling freshman year, but he’s back in form as one of college hockey’s best in 2019-20.
The netminder from Langhorne, Pennsylvania always wanted to play hockey at Penn State, and he’ll leave the program with nearly every major statistical record for a goalie in tow. Jones has won more (75), played more (131 appearances), stopped more shots (3,642), and shut out more opponents (four) than any other netminder to ever don the blue and white.
Like Jones’ four-year term as starting goalie, Gadowsky didn’t really expect that Brandon Biro and Nate Sucese would be “joined at the hip” as much as they have been over the last four years.
“I believe they roomed together freshman year,” Gadowsky recalled. “That wasn’t by design — it just happened. When you say ‘joined at the hip from day one,’ they really have been. We don’t know the reason for that, but the one thing that’s the same with both of them is that they’re workhorses on and off the ice.”
Aside from being incredibly close off the ice (and still living together), Biro and Sucese will go down as two of Penn State hockey’s greatest-ever players — Sucese is the program’s all-time leading scorer with 60 goals, 77 assists, and 137 points, and Biro has been just as consistent offensively (40 goals, 113 points in 136 appearances).
Despite hailing from opposite sides of the continent — Biro’s from Sherwood Park, Alberta, and Sucese hails from Fairport, New York — the two players are even similar in terms of style of play. Both have boasted high-end, SportsCenter Top 10-worthy skill during their careers, but they also work incredibly hard and take lots of pride in playing efficiently on defense.
Alternate captain Kris Myllari and steady blueliner James Gobetz aren’t exactly household names, but they’ve been a key pairing on the Nittany Lions’ defense for most of the past four seasons.
That wasn’t all by design, either. Gadowsky recalled throwing the pairing together during the 2017 Big Ten tournament in Detroit. Other injuries in the lineup necessitated that collaboration, but it turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise for Penn State.
“It’s funny — we go back to Joe Louis. They ended up playing together and doing a great job while Kevin Kerr was hurt,” Gadowsky said. “They were sort of thrown together, and from that time, they seemed to develop chemistry. We’ve tried other things, but they’ve developed a chemistry. I don’t know why, but for us to have a lot of success, they have to have a lot of success, too.”
Myllari and Gobetz have spent most of the 2019-20 season on a pairing together, and perhaps their similar styles of play are part of why the duo works so well. Gobetz has just 14 points (two goals, 12 assists) over 103 appearances, but he’s always been incredibly steady and sound fundamentally.
Myllari’s numbers are a bit gaudier (19 goals, 42 assists in 147 games played), but he’s forged a key role as a physical defensive stalwart who’s never been afraid to fill a shooting lane to block a shot — as evidenced by his 317 career shot-blocks.
Denis Smirnov and Nikita Pavlychev haven’t always played together, but they’ll always be linked together for a number of reasons.
The duo visited Penn State together as recruits, and they’ve both forged out productive careers in Hockey Valley. Smirnov is the flashier of the two with 115 points (50 goals, 65 assists), but Pavlychev is just as important on the defensive end of the ice. Plus, at 6’8″, the big center isn’t afraid to mash his opponents.
“They came in and were very much accepted by the group. They really ingratiated themselves into the team,” Gadowsky said. “They’re funny, they’re really easy to really like, and they fit in extremely well. They’re absolutely leaders on the ice and in the room, but I wasn’t always sure about that. They’ve accepted the responsibilities of being culture-drivers, as well, and I’m really going to miss them.”
The Nittany Lions hadn’t been able to boast NHL Draft picks on their roster much prior to the 2016-17 season, but Smirnov and Pavlychev are just a pair of the program’s feathers in its cap in that regard. Both were late-round picks of the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins, respectively, and Smirnov was the first player to be drafted after playing at least a year in Hockey Valley.
Blake Gober has been the consummate energy guy for Penn State hockey, and he managed to earn that status despite not-so-regular ice time.
Gober has made 66 appearances for the Nittany Lions — including four in 2019-20 — mostly featuring on the team’s penalty kill and bottom-six. The Colleyville, Texas native was inspired to get into hockey right when the Dallas Stars captured the Stanley Cup in 1999, and as a Nittany Lion, Gober has been one of the most tenacious, physical defensive forwards that Penn State has.
As Gober’s head coach noted, filling that type of role, which requires tons of energy and positivity, isn’t always easy when you bounce in and out of the lineup.
“To be in that role when you have to be ready, energetic, and positive at the drop of the hat — it doesn’t happen automatically. Often, you’ll be really good at it early and it’ll get harder,” Gadowsky said. “Blake has gotten better and better and better at his role, and I can’t tell you how much I respect that. He’s just a positive guy and a great role model for other guys who may be in that role.”
Like Matt Erlichman before him, Will Holtforster is a club-level call-up who served as Penn State’s third goalie all season. However, Holtforster’s role within the club-level Ice Lions was a bit more unique.
On top of stopping the puck — and doing it well — for the club squad, Holtforster was actually responsible for sorting out the team’s travel accommodations. Dealing with the time commitment and physical rigors of being a goaltender is one thing, but adding on that important of a responsibility always impressed Gadowsky.
Although the varsity side has other people sort out getting to away games, Gadowsky has asked a lot of the third netminder. Holtforster has earned the respect of his head coach and teammates with his selfless, positive attitude.
“He’s done everything we’ve laid out in front of him, and he’s done it with a smile,” Gadowsky said. “He’s a great, great guy. I would really love to be able to see him [play in the regular-season finale].”
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