Looking to build on its most successful season, Penn State has gotten off to a bumpy start. The Nittany Lions were plagued by an inconsistent defense and injuries early this season, limping to a record often hovering around .500.
The Nittany Lions entered their annual month-long hiatus with a respectable 11-7-2 record, including an unbeaten stretch in their past eight games (6-0-2). Still, there are a number of gifts Guy Gadowsky will be hoping for this holiday season before his Lions return to the ice January 5 against Wisconsin.
A Healthy Defense
For as long as Penn State has had its Division-I program, it has seemingly had a constant struggle with icing a full and healthy defense. Dating back to the days when forward Kenny Brooks would have to shift back to the blue line, the Nittany Lions have often been without one of their top defensemen.
This season has been no different.
After entering the lineup for the first time since February 10, Kevin Kerr was sidelined after just two games, missing 12 games due to the same injury that caused him to miss the final 14 games of 2016-17. Just four games into his second comeback, he broke his wrist blocking a shot, and will miss the foreseeable future as he recovers.
Coinciding with Kerr’s return was the loss of Erik Autio to a lower-body injury. The alternate captain has been on the top pairing for the Lions the past three seasons, but has missed the past six games, forcing Gadowsky to shuffle his defense corps.
Three players have filled Autio’s spot alongside Cole Hults, with Alex Stevens, James Gobetz and Derian Hamilton each having a turn with Hults. The freshman’s production has taken a hit since Autio’s injury, as Hults has just three points (all assists) in those six games after posting 11 in 14 games with Autio by his side.
There is a glimmer of optimism for the Lions, however. While Kerr is out indefinitely, Gadowsky expects to have Autio back for the team’s first series of the new year against Wisconsin.
Stronger Faceoff Numbers
Penn State’s identity relies largely on being strong in the faceoff circle. A team built for possessing the puck and firing an unearthly number of shots on opposing goalies needs to take advantage of every opportunity to gain control of that puck.
This starts with winning faceoffs, something that has — perhaps inexplicably — been a problem for the Nittany Lions this season.
Each of the past three seasons, the Lions have finished at 50 percent or better on faceoffs. Last season, the Lions tied for the best faceoff percentage in the nation at 54.9 percent, helping them outshoot their opponents by an average of 16 shots per game.
While the Lions did not have a huge roster turnover from last season, some of their key losses came down the middle of the ice. Both Dylan Richard and Ricky DeRosa finished over 55 percent on faceoffs last season, with Richard often performing dual duty in the faceoff circle on the power play and the penalty kill.
After playing the wing for much of last season, Nate Sucese was moved to the middle this year to fill Richard’s role, while freshmen Evan Barratt and Alex Limoges have split the faceoff duties on the third line. The results have been disappointing.
After the first-place finish last season, the Lions are now 42nd in faceoff percentage at 48.8 percent, with just two regular centers eclipsing the 50 percent mark. While the Lions are still outshooting teams by double digits, their poor showing in the faceoff circle has resulted in tighter games the Lions would otherwise win in blowouts.
A Reliable Third Pairing
This might be cheating as it almost directly relates to a healthier defense, but the Nittany Lions will certainly need more stability and better value out of their third defense pairing.
Through the first half of the season, the Lions’ third pairing has been a revolving door. Virtually every defenseman on the roster — save for Hults, Autio and Trevor Hamilton — have slotted in on the bottom pairing. The near-constant rotation hasn’t fostered much chemistry for the third-pairing defensemen.
With their full complement of defensemen, Kris Myllari and James Gobetz forms the typical combination on the third pairing. Myllari was a breakout star last season after Kerr’s injury, while Gobetz has improved from his first collegiate season.
Despite their individual attributes and familiarity playing alongside one another, the duo has been a defensive liability for much of their time spent together. Both players have a minus rating this season and are a combined minus-10 when lined up together. Often referred to as the team’s shutdown pair, the bottom duo will have to live up to its name for the Lions to build on their success this season.