In the past three seasons, Penn State has been forced to deal with significant long-term injuries. Two seasons ago, now-captain James Robinson missed the entire season after being injured in his first shift of the team’s first game of the season.
Last season, defenseman Kevin Kerr missed the final 14 games of the season due to an injury suffered in the midst of conference play.
This year has brought perhaps the most significant blows to the Nittany Lions lineup. Prior to last weekend’s series at Ohio State, Denis Smirnov was out of the lineup for just over a month due to an illness.
The sophomore forward made his return over the weekend against the Buckeyes, and although he netted a power play goal in Saturday’s 4-0 win, head coach Guy Gadowsky thought it took time for Smirnov to get back into the swing of things.
“I thought he showed a little bit of rust the first game, which could be expected,” Gadowsky said. “Once he did score that goal, I thought he had a little bit of his attitude back.”
Slotted with his usual linemates in Nate Sucese and Brandon Biro, Smirnov helped the line post five points over the weekend. In addition to Smirnov’s goal, Biro netted a goal and two helpers while Sucese picked up an assist on Friday night. After playing all 39 games last season, Smirnov was happy to get back into the lineup.
“It was great. I’m not in the best shape, but [I’m] almost there,” he said. “Hopefully after this weekend it will be much better.”
When asked how close he was to 100 percent, Smirnov exuded a bit more confidence in his status as he answered: “99.9.”
Starting in the 2015-16 season, the National Hockey League adopted a new overtime format that would see the two teams tied after regulation play 3-on-3 for five minutes. The switch was approved in an effort to cut down on the number of games decided in a shootout while also creating a more dramatic atmosphere in the extra period.
While college hockey also plays a five-minute extra frame, the two squads face off at 5-on-5 during overtime. An overtime win in conference play also earns the victors three points in conference standings, while a shootout victory earns the winners two while the losers receive one point.
In the past two weekends, Penn State has twice netted a buzzer beater in the final minute of play to force overtime against a conference opponent.
The Nittany Lions earned three of a possible six points in those two contests, dropping a shootout to Michigan State two weekends ago and topping Ohio State in one this past weekend. Despite the mixed success in overtime and the shootout this season, head coach Guy Gadowsky isn’t quite on board with any change to the format.
“It’s a bit of a long conversation. I think the big issue that everyone has with it is the implications nationally and that it has to stick the same [in all conferences],” he said Monday. “I do like 3-on-3 watching it in the NHL. I think it’s a lot of fun. There’s also nothing more exciting to me than [5-on-5 in the playoffs]. To me, that’s the most exciting hockey there is.”
The team’s leading scorer had a different opinion on the matter.
“I think it would be amazing,” Andrew Sturtz said. “Games that are decided by shootouts are... I don’t want to say unfair, but I’m not a big fan of it. I wish they at least gave a better shot in the five minutes to end the game.”
While Sturtz isn’t a fan of the shootout, he has been the only Nittany Lion to be successful in the breakaway contest this season, scoring on both his opportunities of the season.
Over the past few weekends, Sturtz has been slotted in the lineup on the top line with Chase Berger and James Robinson. They may not be his preferred partners in a 3-on-3 scenario, however.
“You got to think Denis Smirnov, Brandon Biro, those kind of guys. Kevin Kerr and Erik Autio; they move the puck well. I think the style me, Chase Berger and [James] Robinson play plays more into a 5-on-5 situation.”
Thinking through a lineup filled with playmakers, Gadowsky admitted that 3-on-3 overtime might benefit his team.
“Well, there’s a lot of really good players in this league,” he said. “But I think we might be alright.”
As though is starting to become a trend, Penn State welcomed a key performer back to the lineup the same weekend they lost one to an injury.
Denis Smirnov appeared in his first action after an illness kept him out of the lineup for eight games. The Russian forward scored his sixth goal of the season in his second game back on Saturday afternoon. During that same game, Kevin Kerr suffered a broken wrist after blocking a shot.
The junior defenseman finished the rest of the contest with the ailment, but Gadowsky announced on Monday that he will be out for the foreseeable future. With no update on Erik Autio’s status, the Nittany Lions may be without two of their top four defensemen for at least their final weekend series of 2017.
If there is any positive for the Lions in this scenario, it’s that after this weekend’s series against Robert Morris, they don’t play again until Jan. 5, providing plenty of time for either or both defensemen to recover.