With the Stanley Cup Playoffs reaching its peak (#GoKnightsGo), postseason hockey is at or near the forefront of everyone’s mind. It’s never too early to make predictions on how a season will play out. After a second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, Penn State will look to make it three straight in 2018-19, but there are some hurdles to overcome on the path to the three-peat.
The key to a championship squad starts with strong goaltending. After a strong freshman campaign, Peyton Jones had a bit of a regression during his sophomore season. While Jones did have a higher save percentage in 2017-18, his goals-against average also rose by nearly half a goal per game.
When the team needed him most, however, Jones answered the bell. The Langhorne, Pa native was at his best as the Nittany Lions swept Minnesota in the final regular season weekend and the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, then nearly outdueled Mike Richter Award winner Cale Morris as Notre Dame beat Penn State 3-2 in the tournament semifinals.
The Nittany Lions will need that version of Jones — the one that was named the 2017 Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player — to show up on a nightly basis for the Nittany Lions to make their third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Jones won’t have to put up Cale Morris-like numbers, however.
Although Penn State’s offense took a dip in production in 2017-18, the Nittany Lions still ranked third in the nation in goals per game. Even with the loss of Andrew Sturtz, the team should have enough weapons to remain at or near the top of the charts.
One player who could lead that charge is rising sophomore Evan Barratt. After missing five straight games after being injured in the season opener, Barratt appeared timid in his first bit of collegiate action.
As the season progressed and Barratt began understanding how to use his skill set in college hockey, he reached another level, showing how dominant he can be in the Nittany Lions back-to-back sweeps of the Golden Gophers. Barratt had four goals and five points in the four game stretch and did everything he could to get under the Gophers’ skin.
Here it is folks: Evan Barratt making the crybaby face at Ryan Lindgren during last night's game. pic.twitter.com/tUqrhcmxCI— Patrick Burns (@PatrickBurns_) February 25, 2018
Evan Barratt's hit on Ryan Lindgren from last night that came not even five seconds after the pair skated out of the penalty box. pic.twitter.com/aZ7r5VmPbg— Patrick Burns (@PatrickBurns_) February 24, 2018
Later on that same shift, Barratt went bar down. It took some time, but the Blackhawks third round pick is turning into a real difference maker at the college level. pic.twitter.com/RVpVMH1C4m— Patrick Burns (@PatrickBurns_) February 24, 2018
Barratt should also benefit from the return of both of his linemates — fellow sophomore Alex Limoges and rising junior Liam Folkes. In the team’s final eight games of the season, the trio accounted for 11 of the team’s 29 goals — a 38 percent clip.
Barratt’s breakthrough may force some line shuffling, however. For the past two seasons, Chase Berger has slotted as the team’s No. 1 center, a position that Barratt may fill by the team’s season opener. With Nate Sucese firmly planted as the Nittany Lions’ No. 2 center, Berger may slide down to the third unit and perform dual duty as a shutdown center with some offensive upside.
While Penn State is still loading up front, the Nittany Lions may face trouble in trying to replace Andrew Sturtz. The program’s all-time leading goal scorer was more to the team than just his trademarked toe drag and wicked wrist shot.
Sturtz was also a tenacious forechecker and one of the team’s top penalty killers, often deployed with regular linemate Chase Berger. Sturtz did so much at such a high quality for the Nittany Lions that his departure to the professional ranks may be too monumental for the Nittany Lions to overcome.
Aarne Talvitie brings a scoring touch from Finland’s Jr. A SM-liiga, where he led the league with 34 goals and finished third in points last season. Talvitie may be expected to produce right away as a freshman this season. Sam Sternschein also displayed the tenacity that defined Sturtz’s style of play, picking up five goals in 25 games.
Whoever eventually fills Sturtz’s shoes may have to get comfortable in their role quickly, as the Nittany Lions may find themselves in their fair share of high-scoring games due to a relative lack of depth on defense.
Two of the team’s top four defensemen — Erik Autio and Trevor Hamilton — are gone while Kevin Kerr missed half of last season due to lingering effects of an injury sustained during 2016-17.
Those holes will have to be filled by defensemen who have limited experience in the lineup, let alone a top-four role.
Kris Myllari is almost a lock to move up the lineup. The rising junior replaced Kerr alongside Hamilton during 2016-17 and was Guy Gadowsky’s go-to promotion last season when both Kerr and Autio missed time. Myllari may also remain on the team’s shutdown pairing with James Gobetz. The duo combined for 109 blocked shots last season, with Myllari posting his second-straight season with 82 blocks.
Rising senior Derian Hamilton has filled in admirably when called upon during his first three seasons. With 59 games under his belt, he may find a more permanent home in the Nittany Lions’ lineup this season. Alex Stevens also looked promising in limited action. With a strong summer, Stevens could challenge for one of those top-four roles.
Will Penn State Make the 2019 NCAA Tournament?
The Big Ten sent four teams to the 2018 NCAA Tournament — and could have sent five if not for a series of unfortunate events. Three of those teams made it to the Frozen Four.
Although the Nittany Lions were just four games over .500 heading into last year’s tournament, the strength of the conference significantly boosted the team’s PairWise rankings. Even in what was widely considered a down season, Penn State found a way to reach the NCAA Tournament. The Nittany Lions may need to rely on that strength this season but may not get so lucky once again.
Notre Dame will likely be the top dog in the Big Ten after running away with the regular season and tournament title last season. Ohio State will remain a strong force in the conference and a young Michigan squad will continue to get better.
The Nittany Lions will have as good a shot as any of those teams to reach the national tournament, but I wouldn’t get my hopes too high. The Nittany Lions won’t be lacking in firepower, but an inexperienced defense corps and the likelihood of inconsistent goaltending from Peyton Jones may doom Gadowsky’s squad come Selection Sunday.