The Nittany Lions were ranked No. 10 to open the season by the USCHO.com poll. With a 5-7-0 record, Guy Gadowsky’s team is currently No. 27. The USCHO.com poll is not official but it does give fans a best-guess of where the teams currently stack up. So what’s wrong with Penn State? The truth is there have been a few setbacks that have led to the current record lagging behind what was expected at this point. At the start of the season, a team ranked No. 10 with Penn State’s schedule should have a record more like 8-4 or at worst 7-5.
Part of the concern began with a pair of losses that were perceived as must-win games at the time the games were played.
American International was 0-5-1 when it beat Penn State and it looked as though the loss was going to be a massive drag on the Lions’ PairWise Ranking. That no longer appears to be the case, as AIC has a 4-1-1 record since opening without a win through six games.
Two weeks later when the Lions took on Mercyhurst at home, it was again thought that they should be able to sweep the series. Instead it was a 1-1 split with a team that is now 4-4-2. It was a missed opportunity for PSU, but not the type of loss that the team will have to drag along like a weight on the ankle of its PairWise Rankings all season.
This week Penn State travels to Arizona State for a pair of games that will be streamed via the Pac 12 network. While it is dangerous to look for a sweep on the road, this is possibly the last chance the Lions will have to be favored to take two away from home. ASU is currently seven spots from the bottom of the PairWise Rankings, which isn’t saying much this early in the year, but it is a small indicator that maybe the Sun Devils aren’t quite as hopeless as it looked when the games were scheduled a year ago.
While it will be disappointing if the Lions are unable to return to State College with a pair of wins, it may not be cause for concern. Should ASU, AIC, and Mercyhurst remain out of the cellar of the PairWise Rankings this season, it will make the earlier losses that much less painful. By virtue of the bad teams on the schedule not being so bad, the Lions’ PairWise prospects look much brighter. Even with the slow start, the team is in the middle of the pack with a strong conference schedule looming in the second half of the season.
Should the Lions win 3 out of 4 or better versus ASU and Robert Morris, the two teams on the remaining schedule with the lowest PairWise Rankings and expectations, it may set them back up to where they need to be, record-wise. Unless a team wins its conference tournament, it must have a .500 or better record to get an NCAA tournament invitation. Last season St. Cloud State tempted that feat until the last game it played, nearly remaining in the top-16 while having a losing record. This year, should Penn State finish 3 or 4 games over .500, it could be enough to get a return trip to the big ice dance.
Penn State has already taken its two most difficult trips in Big Ten play, having completed four games combined at Notre Dame and Minnesota, going 1-3 during the stretch. While heading to Michigan and Wisconsin is no picnic, those games and venues are less frightful.
There’s a lot of hockey to be played, a win streak or hot month could change things for the better very quickly. Don’t panic if the team has a .500 record into February, that is not the death knell for the hopes of making a run at the post-season. The strength of the Big Ten could be the ace in the hole for Guy Gadowsky.
Defense and Goaltending
Peyton Jones has had a very difficult start to this season. After making what may be the highlight-reel save of the season during a massive win on the road versus Minnesota, the sophomore goalie ran into what appears to be a sophomore slump.
He gave up four or more goals for a half-dozen games, and in the process seemed to have lost his confidence. During the stretch Jones let in many uncharacteristic, soft goals. Not only was the result on the stat sheet disappointing, his body language was indicative that he was not comfortable. It looked worse in person than it did on paper, which is hard to believe.
Last weekend Jones played solid on Friday night in a hostile environment versus a top-ranked team. On Saturday, he was the Jones we know and love, giving up just one goal in a 1-0 loss. If he can continue to get back on track, the improvement could carry the team.
The defense has had its issues as well. There have been times when individual players have not played well, and even when the whole unit, forwards and defense, left Peyton Jones hung out to dry. In recent weeks the team has shown that it is making improvements, addressing some of the issues that have caused the difficulty.
One major boost to the defense would be the return of Kevin Kerr, one of the Lions’ best defenders, who has missed all but the first two games of the season. It was mentioned earlier in the week during coach Gadowsky’s presser that Kerr’s status has changed for the better, though it remains uncertain exactly when he will return.
Denis Smirnov has missed the last couple of weeks with an illness. The sophomore scoring phenom’s absence has been felt during the power-play most of all but also during even-strength. Other than Smirnov, only Andrew Sturtz has averaged more than one point per game. Even while missing 1/3 of the team’s games this season, Smirnov remains the second-leading scorer.
With both Kerr and Smirnov out with injury, the team has been skating without its best forward and possibly its best defenseman. Add to that the slump that will hopefully be proven to be temporary for Peyton Jones in net, and there is reason to believe that the team will play better soon.
In fact, if the team plays well this weekend and in the near future, we may look back at the two losses in South Bend as the point where the team turned the corner. So Penn State hockey may already be back on track, we may just need a little patience for it to become easier to perceive.