Penn State has had a roller coaster start to its season. After falling below .500 earlier this season, an eight-game unbeaten streak has vaulted the Nittany Lions back onto the national scene. The Lions are currently ranked No. 14 in the USCHO poll and, at No. 12 in the PairWise rankings, are in a strong position for another run at the NCAA Tournament.
With 14 regular season games — all against Big Ten competition — left on the schedule and home ice advantage in the Big Ten Tournament well within reach, it’s time for us to grade the Lions’ performance through the first half of the season.
Chris Taylor: A- — Seven players have contributed five or more goals already for the Lions. Denis Smirnov missed eight games and still was able to score 17 points. The biggest improvement over past years is that the team is getting production from a great number of players. Nikita Pavlychev has seven goals already and is coming into his own in front of the net, along with playing menacing defense with his ridiculously long poke-check.
Freshman Sam Sternshein scored seven points through his first 11 collegiate games and has shown a very promising upside. Evan Barratt is learning how to play at this level and his progress has been up and down, but mostly up, with eight points through 14 games. Brett Murray, while still not performing to the level anticipated when he came to the team last season, has found a role and is beginning to look similar to how Pavlychev did last season: just a step out of position and not quite up to the speed of the game yet. Brandon Biro has become a player that other teams have to account for and the 19-year-old sophomore seems ready to become an impact player in the Big Ten conference.
Andrew Sturtz and Chase Berger have continued scoring at their previous career pace, netting a combined 43 points as the team’s more reliable forwards over the past few seasons.
Colin Piatt: A — There’s been little reason to complain about the play of the Nittany Lions’ group of forwards. The Lions are scoring at the same clip as last season, and while the team’s defensemen have done a fantastic job of breaking the puck out of the defensive zone and helping create offense in the attacking zone, the forwards have done the heavy lifting in the scoring department.
The usual suspects are leading the way, as Andrew Sturtz is sitting atop the scoring chart for the Lions with 26 points in 19 games. What has been surprising about Sturtz’s campaign is how he’s racking up those points. Over his first two seasons, Sturtz tallied just 24 assists to go along with his 40 goals. With half a season left to play, the junior has already set a career high with 16 helpers. He’s still finding the back of the net at his usual pace with 10 goals, but he can become even more dangerous now that he’s helping set up his linemates.
After missing eight games earlier in the season, Denis Smirnov is also back to being his usual self. After leading the team with 47 points as a freshman, Smirnov has piled up 17 in 12 games this year, putting him on pace for 38 points if he stays healthy the rest of the season. His line with Nate Sucese and Brandon Biro has become the go-to unit for an offensive push by the Lions.
Chris Taylor: B- — There has been some disappointing play at times from the blue line. On the other hand, Cole Hults has stepped in and assumed the role filled by Vince Pedrie last season, which was exactly what the team needed. Injuries to Kevin Kerr and Erik Autio have led to the Lions playing without two of their best four defenders at times. Alex Stevens missed all but the final seven games of the first-half but made progress to the point where it appears that he will be able to contribute meaningful production moving forward.
A great deal of the Lions’ struggles to keep opposing teams off the scoreboard can be attributed to uneven play by the defense. Some mistakes were part of younger players’ learning curves but other times the team needs to be more disciplined to avoid odd-man rushes. Turnovers in the defensive zone have also come back to bite PSU in the behind a couple of times, and that is something that can be cleaned up as well.
Colin Piatt: C+ — Penn State’s defense corps may be too focused on offense. While the group has combined for 15 goals in 20 games this season, their offensive contributions have often come at the expense of defensive reliability.
Coach Guy Gadowsky spoke at length earlier this season about the Nittany Lions’ trouble with their “third man high” play, in which a forward will remain closer to the point in the offensive zone to cover for a pinching defenseman. Whether it be a lack of communication or either player misreading the intentions of the other, but the Lions have been caught far too often with a defenseman pinching into the offensive zone and no one to cover for him, gifting the opposition an odd-man rush going the other way. That will need to be cleaned up if the Lions are to have any success in the Big Ten Tournament and a possible NCAA Tournament bid.
Chris Taylor: C+ — Peyton Jones was asked about defending multiple odd-man breaks earlier in the season, and how the frequency with which he’s had to do so has led to an above-average number of goals let in. Jones replied that those are the plays which the goalie is meant to bail out his teammates, and that he feels that he should stop every one. Jones let in a few quick goals earlier in the season and combined with the odd-man rushes that got past him, it clearly contributed to his losing confidence. There were a number of games which Jones appeared so uncomfortable in the net that even the most routine stops were scary to watch.
Jones slowly got his confidence back and now appears poised to have a strong second half. There’s no reason to believe that he, and when needed Chris Funkey, won’t be able to score an A for the second half. In the syllabus it clearly states that the first half of the season only accounts for 20 percent of the goalie’s overall grade, so the pair can still finish on the Dean’s list.
Colin Piatt: B — Earlier this season, Peyton Jones and Chris Funkey would likely be praying for a generous curve for a passing grade. The first ten games of the season were absolutely brutal for the Lions’ goaltenders. While the entire team struggled with defensive troubles, the two netminders were seldom able to bail out their teammates.
The tide began to turn when the Lions traveled to South Bend for a series against Notre Dame. While the Lions were swept in the weekend series, Jones put forth his best performance of the season, highlighted by a 26-save showing in a 1-0 loss to the Fighting Irish. Beginning with that series, the netminders have turned it around completely. In the eight games following that trip to South Bend, both goalies have posted save percentages over .920, with Jones’s .932 mark tying him for 12th in the nation in that span. Both goalies have also recorded a shutout in the past eight games.