Watching from the sidelines can be a difficult task for any athlete. The desire to be back in the lineup helping the team to victory can be overwhelming on the road to recovering from an injury. For the second time in as many seasons, Kevin Kerr has faced that challenge head on.
The junior defenseman, who missed the final 14 games of last season, had been out of the lineup for the past 12 this year. In his return, Kerr made an immediate impact for Penn State, notching a pair of assists to help propel the Nittany Lions to a 7-2 win over Michigan State Friday night.
“In the beginning, it took me a little bit to get comfortable,” he said following the win. “The team made it pretty easy on me, scoring early. I just got more and more comfortable with my game as time went on.”
Kerr made his return at the most opportune time for the Lions, who will be without top-pairing defenseman Erik Autio for the weekend due to an injury. Lined up alongside Derian Hamilton for much of the game, Kerr was his usual smooth-skating self, moving the puck out of the zone with ease and helping set up scoring chances in the offensive zone.
“I thought he looked fine, maybe a touch rusty,” head coach Guy Gadowsky said. “When you add that hockey IQ, it definitely helps. For his first game back, especially playing against Michigan State, I thought he did very well.”
Kris Myllari opened the scoring for the Lions exactly one minute into the contest. After cycling the puck in the attacking zone, Myllari gathered the puck at the point and sent a wrist shot through a crowd that eluded John Lethemon.
Just 1:13 later, Evan Barratt doubled the Lions’ lead with a power play tally, finishing off a tic-tac-toe play after a great passing play by Chase Berger and Andrew Sturtz.
Less than a minute after Taro Hirose cut the Lions’ lead in half, Liam Folkes put the Lions back on top by two. After a scramble in the corner, Alex Limoges chipped the puck out to Folkes, who snuck to the bottom of the circle and fired a sharp-angle shot over Lethemon’s glove.
The goal spelled the end of the night for the Spartans’ sophomore netminder. Head coach Danton Cole yanked Lethemon in favor of senior Ed Minney.
The goaltending change seemed to shift the momentum to Michigan State, as the Spartans almost capitalized on a number of odd man rushes. Peyton Jones helped preserve the two-goal lead, highlighted by a pair of breakaway saves on Brennan Sanford and Jake Smith.
As the first period was winding down, Sam Sternschein extended the Lions’ lead to three. After Kerr played the puck to his defense partner Trevor Hamilton, the senior defenseman sprung Sternschein on a breakaway with a long stretch pass. The freshman forward fired a quick shot through the legs of Minney, giving the Lions a 4-1 lead.
Sternschein added another tally early in the second period, finishing off a two-on-one with Brandon Biro. After Biro slipped past a defender, he slid a pass across the front of the net to Sternschein, who knocked in his second of the game.
Midway through the second period, Sanford made the most of his second breakaway against Jones, rifling a shot through the sophomore goalie’s legs to bring the Spartans within three.
Just two minutes later, however, Folkes put the Lions back in front by four. Breaking down the right wing, Folkes fired another sharp-angle wrist shot past Minney for his second goal of the game.
Early in the final frame, the Spartans were granted an opportunity to get back in the game. A roughing penalty against James Robinson and a high sticking penalty against Nikita Pavlychev gave the Spartans 1:39-worth of a 5-on-3 power play.
While they couldn’t muster much early in the two man advantage, a scramble in front of Jones almost found its way into the net, but a diving effort by Myllari and some desperate goaltending by Jones kept the puck out and helped the Lions survive the two-man disadvantage.
With under seven minutes to play, Andrew Sturtz added an insurance marker, tapping in a pass from Chase Berger.
The win moved the Nittany Lions to 8-7-0 overall and 3-4-0-0 in Big Ten play, and gives Gadowsky’s squad an opportunity to improve back to .500 in conference play when the two teams square off again Saturday night at 8 p.m.