Throughout his tenure at Penn State, one of Guy Gadowsky’s recurring themes has been the pursuit of synergy in his lineup. Occasionally substituting the word with chemistry, Gadowsky shifts his lineup to find the most productive combinations.
This has been a much easier task for Gadowsky’s defense corps. Gadowsky has had the fortune of replacing Vince Pedrie with Cole Hults, two defensemen with a similar playing style, with the steady Erik Autio.
When Kevin Kerr has been out of the lineup with an injury, Gadowsky has simply moved Kris Myllari to Kerr’s usual spot next to Trevor Hamilton and experienced no shortage of success.
That task takes on a new challenge in the forward group. Finding a trio of players with the optimal chemistry takes more time and more experimenting than finding a pair of defensmen who play well together. But Gadowsky has always tried to keep it simple, and use the same concept from his defense corps up front.
When constructing his forward lines, Gadowsky will often pair players together and fill the remaining spot to the best of his ability. It’s this idea that has kept the likes of Chase Berger and Andrew Sturtz together with a rotating group of players on that line’s left wing. It is also why Nate Sucese and Brandon Biro remained together when Denis Smirnov was out of the lineup for the past four series.
“In terms of bench management, when you can keep a pair with synergy together, specifically with penalty killing, that’s a lot easier for bench management,” Gadowsky explained Monday. “Sturtz and Berger also kill [penalties] together. When they’re on different lines, you end up having someone tired who has to kill and you never want that.”
Beyond the statistical success, spending so much time together on the ice has allowed those duos to form a strong bond.
“There’s definitely no guy on this team I’m more comfortable with than Nate,” Biro said. “We’re more than comfortable to tell each other, ‘Maybe try this next time.’ I think we work well together.”
Biro’s stat line has certainly benefited since being lined up with Sucese. After posting 20 points last season — spending most of his time with Nikita Pavlychev and Liam Folkes — the sophomore forward already has 12 points in 15 games this year.
Sucese’s production has taken a dip this season, as he has 10 points in 14 games after posting 36 points last year. This can easily be chalked up to the extra responsibility Sucese has taken this year in his shift from the wing to center. The sophomore is now in charge of faceoff duties and must be more reliable defensively than he was last season.
Defense Getting Back on Track
Penn State’s defensive struggles have become a weekly topic. After surrendering fewer than three goals per game last season, the Nittany Lions defense has become much more porous, yielding 3.19 goals per game this season. But if the past few weekends are any indication, the Lions are starting to get back on track.
The Lions have allowed 12 goals over the past six games. Nearly half of those came in a 5-3 loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 10. Since then, the Lions have allowed no more than two goals in five games, including a Chris Funkey shutout in a 7-0 win over Arizona State.
While the goaltenders are the last line of defense, Gadowsky wasn’t pinning the blame on Funkey and starter Peyton Jones for the team’s early struggles keeping the puck out of the net. Instead, Gadowsky said the team as a whole would have to improve defensively, starting with limiting the opposition’s odd-man rushes.
“I’d like us to be a bit more consistent in certain areas,” Gadowsky said. “One very inconsistent area for us has been with our third man high. We’re much better than we were at the start of the year.”
The third man high dilemma has directly led to the frequency of odd-man rushes for the opposition. When in the attacking zone, the Lions tended to keep their three forwards down low. When the opposition transitioned from offense to defense, the Lions forwards would be trapped too deep in the offensive zone, leaving the defense outnumbered going the other way.
Over the past four weekends, Penn State has averaged 4.25 goals per game, all without the team’s best offensive threat, Denis Smirnov. This weekend, the Nittany Lions’ offense may be even more dangerous.
Gadowsky announced Monday that Denis Smirnov will return to the lineup this weekend against Ohio State. The sophomore forward has missed the past eight games with an illness. Prior to the illness, Smirnov was leading the team with 11 points in eight games and had scored the game-winning goal in three of the team’s four wins with him in the lineup.
Gadowsky plans on slotting Smirnov with his usual linemates Brandon Biro and Nate Sucese, who have eight and five points since Smirnov’s illness, respectively.
The Lions may still be without top-pairing defenseman Erik Autio against the Buckeyes, however. The senior was injured in the Lions’ 4-2 against Arizona State and missed the team’s weekend series against Michigan State. Gadowsky said he will receive an update on Wednesday about Autio’s status and his likelihood to play against the Buckeyes.