Like many collegiate teams, Penn State has had its go-to offensive dynamos the past few seasons. The Nittany Lions seamlessly transitioned from the Casey Bailey era with the arrival of Andrew Sturtz and have added to their firepower with the addition of Denis Smirnov.
Though the latter is currently out of the lineup with an illness, a fellow countryman has emerged this season as a surprising contributor.
After netting just six goals in 36 games last season, Nikita Pavlychev has already racked up five goals in 12 appearances this year, tying for second on the team with Smirnov and just two behind team leader Andrew Sturtz.
While the scoring outburst may be a surprise to many, head coach Guy Gadowsky has seen some clear improvement in the Russian forward’s game that has directly led to his increased production.
“He actually had a lot of opportunities last year but he struggled in hitting the net,” Gadowsky said Monday. “That’s something I know that he really focused on during the summer, and it looks like it’s starting to pay off.”
Gadowsky noted that Pavlychev’s goal against Notre Dame over the weekend was a perfect example of the progress he has made in hitting the net with more regularity. Carrying the puck into the attacking zone on his off wing, Pavlychev made a slick move to the middle, chanigng the angle on his shot before rifling the puck past Irish goalie Cale Morris’s blocker.
Here's the goal by Pavlychev to give the Lions a much-needed 2-1 lead heading into the first intermission at Notre Dame. pic.twitter.com/PlO3eErgqz— Black Shoe Diaries (@BSDtweet) November 11, 2017
Typically slotted as the third line center, Pavlychev’s primary duties are to win defensive zone faceoffs on the penalty kill and screen the goaltender on the power play. It’s in the latter position that the sophomore forward has done much of the damage offensively as five of his 11 career goals have come with the man advantage.
While he knows to get to the front of the net to score, his head coach has been pleased to see him netting some prettier goals this season.
“He’s got a great shot, as long as he hits the net,” Gadowsky said.
Peyton Jones Back on Track
The early-season struggles of Peyton Jones have been well-documented here. Heading into the weekend against Notre Dame, Jones was allowing just over four goals per game with a save percentage well under .900.
Despite the struggles, Gadowsky and volunteer assistant coach Kyle MacDonald have agreed that it might take just one game for Jones to return to the form of his sensational freshman season.
“We know what Peyton can do and we have a ton of faith in him,” Gadowsky said. “Everybody goes through peaks and valleys, and as Kyle said, sometimes its just one game to turn them and that’s what we hope that Saturday night in Notre Dame was.”
The “Saturday night in Notre Dame” Gadowsky referred to provided one of Jones’ best performances of the season, as the sophomore netminder turned aside 26 out of 27 shots in a 1-0 loss to the Fighting Irish.
At times this season, Jones has appeared shaken by a soft goal or has been caught far out of position. Though he surrendered a soft goal on Friday night, he bounced right back with the tremendous performance Saturday, and Gadowsky took notice.
“Even though we lost, he played a great game. He looked really good. He looked composed and in control,” he said. “If that’s what we’re going to get from now on, we’re a lot better for it.”
The Nittany Lions have been without last season’s leading scorer Denis Smirnov for four games with an illness while top-four defenseman Kevin Kerr hasn’t played since the first weekend of the season due to an undisclosed injury.
Rather than focus on the negatives of losing two of the team’s most valuable players, Gadowsky is finding the positives.
“We’re looking at [the injuries] as an opportunity for a lot of new people to play in roles they normally wouldn’t,” he said. “That’s how we’re looking at it and hoping it pays dividends down the road.”
Neither player is expected to return this weekend against Arizona State, though Gadowsky noted that there has been “some improvement” in Kerr’s status.