Sunday’s exhibition game against Ottawa revealed plenty of truths about Penn State’s 2019-20 campaign.
Some should be expected — the Nittany Lions defense being exposed on a few occasions, including a 2-on-0 that was saved by the Gee-Gees missing the net — others could come as a surprise — being able to shut out an opponent, something the Nittany Lions haven’t done since Dec. 2, 2017.
One that may classify as both is that Penn State’s defense will be more aggressive. No, not offensively, though that trend will certainly continue. Rather, the Nittany Lions intend on being more aggressive without the puck.
“We’ve addressed the areas that we have to improve on, which as I’m sure you know, are on the defensive side of the puck,” Gadowsky said. “Without talking about your secret sauce, I think for us is to match our defensive identity with our offensive identity.”
Penn State’s offense has been, without question, the most aggressive in the country year in and year out. The unfortunate result of that is that its defense has suffered. Everyone from the coaching staff down understands the need to right that ship this season.
“Personally, I don’t think we have to tweak our game too much,” defenseman Cole Hults. I think it’s just we got to take a step back and read the play more.”
Both Hults and defensive partner Paul DeNaples emphasized gap control against the opposition. The concept is simple enough — defenders limit the attacking player’s time and space as they carry the puck into the attacking zone. Failure to manage that gap can prove costly to the defending team.
“Everybody’s goal is shut down a play before it enters the offensive zone. If you let a play enter the offensive zone, now you’re giving an opportunity to make a play and get a shot on net. It turns out, in this league, guys can make plays,” DeNaples said. “The biggest thing is trying to get up early and try to shut that down quick before they have the opportunity to make a play.”
The Freshman Fourth
It may be early in the season — like, really early — but injury concerns are already rearing their ugly head for Penn State. Kris Myllari and Nikita Pavlychev were both scratched for Sunday’s exhibition game against Ottawa for precautionary reasons.
Myllari will likely be good to go when the Nittany Lions open the season against Sacred Heart on Friday. Pavlychev may be a different story.
While both are considered day-to-day, coach Guy Gadowsky has found himself in need of a plan in the event Pavlychev can’t go this weekend.
Connor MacEachern will center a line between Tyler Gratton and Connor McMenamin should Penn State’s hulking center be unavailable. The trio played together on Sunday, chipping in a goal as Gratton set up Evan Bell for the opening goal.
While all three bring their own elements to the game, Gratton seems like a natural replacement for Pavlychev. Though Gratton doesn’t have the same measurables — 6-foot-2 to Pavlychev’s 6-foot-7 — the two play a similar brand of hockey.
“Gratton’s a little bit like Pav in the sense that he’s going to do a lot of things that you need to win that don’t necessarily show up on the scoresheet,” Gadowsky said following Sunday’s contest. “That really nice goal by Evan Bell on the offensive zone faceoff, that was set up by Gratton on the shift before. He’s got such jump in his legs.”
Though Pavlychev and the fourth line as a whole aren’t expected to be on the scoresheet, Pavlychev was Penn State’s leading scorer at one point last season. That “jump in his legs” is more important as the fourth line is more expected to shut down the opposing team’s top unit.
That Gadowsky may entrust that duty to a trio of freshmen speaks wonders to their abilities on the ice. Gratton isn’t too concerned with an all-rookie line.
“After the way we played this past weekend, I think it would be very nice to play with MacEachern and McMenamin again,” he said. “I think we have some good chemistry and we can build off last weekend.”