Earlier this week, Guy Gadowsky discussed at length how he planned to experiment with his lineup to find the best possible combinations to start the season.
When Penn State’s initial lineup chart was produced for its exhibition matchup against Brock, some combinations remained intact — how could he break up the Limoges-Barratt-Folkes trio after their spectacular finish to last season?
The lineup chart had its share of alterations, however, as graduate transfer Ludvig Larsson started as the team’s top line center, pushing Nate Sucese to the right wing on his line with Brandon Biro on the opposite side in what should be a lethal combination.
Perhaps the most dangerous trio, however, could be found on the third line, where Chase Berger lined up between Denis Smirnov and freshman Aarne Talvitie.
In theory, the line has it all. Smirnov has his creativity, Berger has the grit, and Talvitie has a deadly shot. In practice, that theory looked more like law, as the line created a number of opportunities early in its time together.
That time may be severely limited now after the line suffered a potentially devastating blow early in Saturday’s exhibition game.
Shortly before Nikita Pavlychev scored the Nittany Lions’ second goal in their eventual 3-2 win over Brock, Smirnov was struck by a blindside hit that sent the junior forward helicoptering to the ice.
Smirnov landed awkwardly and remained on all fours while the other four Nittany Lions celebrated Pavlychev’s goal. After being examined by athletic trainer Justin Rogers, Smirnov departed the Penn State bench for the locker room, ending his night early.
Should Smirnov’s injury be significant, it will create a difficult situation in which Gadowsky will have to replace his most offensively gifted player. He should be rather familiar with this, however, as Smirnov missed eight games early last season. The Nittany Lions went 4-3-1 in those eight games.
Despite the valuable role Smirnov plays, Gadowsky doesn’t want to rush him back to the lineup.
“We’re being precautionary,” he said following the game.
Before shuffling the lines further midway through the game, freshman Max Sauve played the bulk of the minutes alongside Berger and Talvitie, and displayed the speed that Gadowsky praised earlier in the week.
“He seemed pretty comfortable not just with his speed but he made a couple plays with poise,” Gadowsky said. “I thought he played pretty well.”
After plenty of chances at both ends of the ice, the Nittany Lions finally broke through shortly after their second power play of the game ended. While a Denis Smirnov wrist shot from the slot was blocked, Chase Berger gathered the rebound and sent a pass to the front of the net. The puck ricocheted into the net off Nikita Pavlychev’s skate.
Just 30 seconds into the second period, Penn State doubled its lead. After some dogged work down low, Nate Sucese carried the puck around the Badgers net and sent the puck to Brandon Biro in the slot. The alternate captain rifled a shot into the top corner.
The Badgers mounted a comeback early in the third period, however. Just two minutes into the final frame, Justin Brack slid a backhand shot through Autio’s legs to cut the Nittany Lions’ lead in half. Just over four minutes later, Tyler Rollo finished off a 2-on-1 opportunity by firing a shot past Autio’s blocker to even the game at two.
With time winding down in regulation, Penn State found itself in its third power play of the night after Liam Folkes was high sticked by Tyler MacArthur. After going cold on their first two chances, Sucese rifled a pass across the ice to Biro, who wristed a shot past a desperate Logan Thompson.
With just under a minute to play, Kris Myllari was called for interference, giving the Badgers one last chance to even the contest. With a few huge stops by Autio, the Nittany Lions held on for the 3-2 victory.