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Penn State Hockey Is In Position To Make The NCAA Tournament

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The Lions are on the cusp of the first post-season bid in program history.

Photo By Heather Weikel

Penn State has stabilized following a tumultuous start to 2017, currently holding the No. 9 position in the PairWise rankings heading into the final weekend of the regular-season. A split on the road with Michigan, coupled with a first-round win in the Big Ten tournament, will be enough to gain PSU its first NCAA tournament bid in program history. Anything less than that may put those chances in jeopardy depending on the results in other games around the country. College Hockey News’ PairWise Probability Matrix has the Lions with a 98% chance of making the tournament.

The top 10 teams in the PairWise rankings are guaranteed at least an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Depending on the outcome of the conference tournaments, it is likely that the top 13 will gain an invitation. Anything other than a three-game losing streak to end the season should be enough for the Lions to gain a spot in the field.

Let’s take a look at the positional breakdown of the Lions to this point, heading into the final weeks of this historically successful season.

Forwards

Top Scorers

Player Goals Assist Points Shots Plus/Minus
Player Goals Assist Points Shots Plus/Minus
Smirnov 17 26 43 107 (+) 24
Goodwin 10 25 35 86 (+) 14
Sturtz 21 9 30 122 (+) 22
Berger 11 19 30 127 (+) 11
Sucese 14 15 29 87 (+) 15
Richard 8 11 19 46 (+) 17
Biro 5 9 14 65 -6

The scoring prowess of the team has been well documented, as the Lions average 4.22 goals per game, good for first-place in the country. Averaging more than nine shots on goal per game than the second-place team nationally, Penn State plays a unique style of hockey. The design, as per coach Guy Gadowsky, is similar to the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oiler teams of the mid 1980’s; you can’t score if you don’t shoot.

In past seasons the Lions were criticized for taking weak shots that had little chance of scoring or creating a rebound. This year that has changed as PSU has learned to hold the puck just a moment longer before letting the shots go, allowing the rest of the team to get into position for a rebound or deflection. The result is evident and undeniably a success, as the strength of the team is based on its offense.

Denis Smirnov, the 19 year-old freshman scoring phenom from Russia, leads the way for the Lions. Smirnov was initially set to join the team last season, and would have been the youngest player in college hockey had he done so. It was decided to wait a year, and he is still one of the younger, smaller, weaker players in the country. Yet he is also one of the most skilled and successful. That speaks volumes for his future. His game also translates to the NHL more than some other Penn State players, as his scoring is generated without the advantage of an inordinate amount of shot attempts. What we learned about the young forward this season was not only that his scoring numbers would in fact continue to swell as competition became more fierce, but also that he is able to withstand the pounding of the game while playing alongside much larger players. He will continue to grow and fill in, but his durability questions have been answered. Playing in all 32 games, Smirnov weathered a three-week period where he was hobbled with an injury, not missing a game.

Smirnov currently is 14th in the nation with 43 points and is the top freshman scorer overall. He has not been drafted by the NHL, something that will change in a couple of months. The most optimistic projection would be that he would enter the later stages of the first round. The least optimistic would put him somewhere in the 3rd or 4th round of the draft. It is most likely, at this point, that he will be picked higher than Brett Murray was last year. Murray went in the 4th round to Buffalo with the 99th pick. Should Smirnov finish the season with a flurry of goals, it isn’t out of the question for him to be the considered in the first round, if not in the middle of the second.

Photo By Heather Weikel

Andrew Sturtz continues his volume-scoring pace set when he had 18 goals as a freshman. He is currently just one goal shy of Casey Bailey’s single-season record of 22 goals set three years ago. The numbers alone don’t do Sturtz justice, as he typically scores when the team really needs a goal.

Sturtz and Smirnov are what would be considered unique talents, ‘snipers’ in a sense, able to do things with the puck that few players can even imagine. Teams facing the Lions know going into the game that they cannot allow the two players to gain a clear shot or path to the net. The other scorers for Penn State accumulate their numbers with gritty, consistent play.

David Goodwin, Chase Berger, and Nate Sucese have all added important goals and assists to the tally this season. It is not uncommon for the goals scored by these players to come in scrums in front of the net, winning the battle for a rebound among heavy traffic. Sucese has come on as late, nearly doubling his point total this season in the past few weeks.

Brandon Biro’s numbers should be weighed against his age and size. He turns 19 later this week and listed at 5’10” and 160 pounds. He may continue to grow and certainly will become stronger with age and time in the weight room. The key stat for Biro is that he has been able to play in all 32 games this season. Sure he’s contributed offensively, but the question heading into the season, similar to with Smirnov, was whether his lack of size would hamper his productivity. It has not.

There are many other players on the team that have contributed to the Penn State scoring this season, but the bulk of the production has come from underclassmen. That bodes well for the future. Brett Murray joined the team midway through the year. He has now played in 12 games and has only one assist. The 19 year-old, 6’5” 222-pound behemoth is just now becoming comfortable on the ice at this level. It’s understandable that it would take a month or so for Murray to find his groove, as the rest of the team and opponents were playing together for a few months when Murray was thrown out there cold. The decision to play Murray as often as Gadowsky has, which at times hurt team chemistry and production, seems to have paid off as we head into the stretch-run of the season. The Lions remain in contention for an NCAA invitation and Murray is coming into his own.

It should not be over-looked that the Lions have several defensive-minded forwards as well. Ricky DeRosa, Nikita Pavlychev, and Dylan Richard are all productive scorers while playing hard-nosed defense at the same time. The increase in scoring from the blue-line has also helped make Penn State the most feared offense in the country.

Defense

First Pairing- Erik Autio and Vince Pedrie. Second Pairing- Kris Myllari and Trevor Hamilton. Third Team- James Gobetz/David Thompson/Derian Hamilton.

Player Games Goals Assist Shots Blocks Plus/Minus
Player Games Goals Assist Shots Blocks Plus/Minus
Vince Pedrie 32 7 19 149 26 (+) 22
Erik Autio 32 2 13 63 48 (+) 27
Trevor Hamilton 32 6 18 75 86 -3
Kris Myllari 31 6 6 58 61 (+) 11
James Gobetz 14 0 0 9 12 (+) 4
David Thompson 11 3 3 15 11 0
Derian Hamilton 15 0 3 23 11 (+) 9
Kevin Kerr 25 2 13 57 44 -2

The Nittany Lions offense clearly hasn’t been a concern. Even through the struggles the team has faced since the turn of the calendar year, it’s offense remains the best in the nation. The same can’t be said of the Lions’ defense, however.

The Lions’ aggressive offensive system often calls for a defenseman to join the rush as a fourth attacker to overwhelm the opposition. Through the first half of the season, this mindset worked, resulting in blowout wins or shooting galleries for the Lions.

This was against weaker opposition, however. As the Big Ten schedule progressed and the Lions started facing stronger opponents such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio State, the aggressive gameplan started to work against the Lions.

Their conference opponents were better able to exploit the Lions mindset. The Golden Gophers were the most successful in taking advantage of the pinching Lions defenseman, using their transition game to create odd-man rushes in their own favor. Unsurprisingly, the Gophers swept the season series against the Lions, who finally seemed to figure the Gophers out in the fourth and final match-up, a 4-3 overtime win for the Gophers.

The relative success in that fourth game against the Gophers was the result of a more conservative approach to the defensemen joining the rush. This more conservative mindset will benefit the Lions through the Big Ten Tournament and in the NCAA Tournament, should they find themselves in the big dance.

Losing Kevin Kerr, one of the team’s most reliable defensemen, for the remainder of the season was a devastating blow to a defense corps that had already been struggling. Freshman Kris Myllari has performed admirably alongside Trevor Hamilton in Kerr’s absence.

Moving Myllari up to the second pairing has made the third pairing less reliable, however. Myllari had been forming a strong chemistry with David Thompson and Derian Hamilton on the Lions shutdown pair. While James Gobetz is a strong defenseman in his own right, the same dynamic has been lacking from that third pairing.

The top four, consisting of Myllari, Hamilton, the stable Erik Autio and the explosive Vince Pedrie, will have to play more — and potentially tougher — minutes for the Lions to be successful through the remainder of the season.

Chris Taylor

Goaltending

Player Games (Starts) Record Goals Against Average Save %
Player Games (Starts) Record Goals Against Average Save %
Peyton Jones 29 (29) 19-7-2 2.66 0.902
Chris Funkey 4 (3) 2-2 1.79 0.921

While the new year brought little change in scoring goals, it has been a much greater struggle for the Nittany Lions to defend goals.

Through the first 15 games of the season, the Lions allowed well under two goals per game, good for third in the nation. In the 17 games since Jan. 1, the Lions have allowed nearly three and a half goals per game, which ranks 49th out of 60 teams.

Much of that blame falls on the aggressive mindset among the Lions’ defensemen. Joining the rush has allowed opposing teams to create odd-man rushes for themselves. There’s only so much Peyton Jones and Chris Funkey can do to stop regular 2-on-1s or 3-on-2s.

The constant pressure faced by Jones in particular seems to be affected the freshman netminder’s confidence. Through the first half of the season, Jones appeared calm in the net, even when faced with an extended period of pressure. He tracked the puck well and remained square to nearly every shot and even when he wasn’t, he found a way to make a desperation save to keep the puck out of the net.

With the increased speed and skill of the Big Ten, Jones has appeared shakier against the more difficult competition. He hasn’t played with the same poise and focus he displayed during the non-conference schedule and has been getting rattled too quickly and too often against the likes of the Gophers and Buckeyes.

Picking up the 36-save shutout against the Badgers on Senior Night may be the best thing to happen to Jones this season. With a final series against Michigan - which has barely averaged 2.5 goals per game - remaining before the Big Ten Tournament, Jones should be able to build on the confidence he surely gained in that shutout over the Badgers.

A more confident Jones has the talent to take the Lions far in the conference tournament and can lead the team to a respectable showing on the national stage.