Penn State made it a point over the offseason to redefine its defensive identity. In years prior, the Nittany Lions were rather conservative in their approach, keeping a safe distance between themselves and the opposing puck carrier.
That style led to many busy nights for Peyton Jones and a disappointing level of success compared to where the Nittany Lions could have been.
This season, Guy Gadowsky implored his players to be aggressive on the puck carrier. “Gap control” — that space between the defender and the puck carrier — was a key term in defining that defensive identity.
Though it has been hit or miss whether that system would be successfully executed, there has been a drastic difference when the Nittany Lions are committed to it. That difference is most apparent in the workload Jones is facing.
“Compared to years past, we used to be on the defensive side of the puck a lot but we would back in way too far and we were giving up a lot of shots on goal that actually were worse because they had to go through a defender, meaning our goaltenders were screened. Whereas now, if they’re going to shoot, they’re going to shoot from way out or get around us,” Gadowsky explained.
Wisconsin coach Tony Granato echoed Gadowsky’s sentiments, praising the Nittany Lions for keeping Jones’ line of vision clear. The Badgers were averaging four and a half goals per game entering the weekend; the Nittany Lions held them to just three over two games.
This aggressive style of defense may stem from the Nittany Lions’ first NCAA Tournament appearance three seasons ago.
In the Midwest Regional Final, the Nittany Lions fell to eventual national champion Denver. Gadowsky was impressed with how aggressively the Pioneers forechecked in their attempt to force turnovers and create quality chances and has sought to implement that into the Nittany Lions style.
Asking his players to play that way is one piece of the equation. It takes the right type of players to make that wish a reality. The most successful player to adapt to this style is the one Penn State picked up not even a month before the season started — defenseman Clayton Phillips.
The Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick may be the best skater on the roster, let alone among defensemen. Gadowsky has certainly taken notice.
“It’s amazing watching him move. It’s incredible. He is a very, very gifted skater. I’ve been really impressed with his defensive play because of it,” he said. “I think he’s really hard to play against. When he’s moving his feet, he’s just impossible to get around.”
Gadowsky understands that even the best skaters can be caught out of position. That hasn’t been the case with Phillips.
“Like so many things in hockey, I think the biggest component to whether you’re successful or not is how you read the game,” Gadowsky said. “Foot speed certainly helps and agility helps, but it’s how you read the game and how much of a head start you get compared to other defenders.”
The first few games of Penn State’s season was once again plagued by inconsistency. In their first two weekends of the year, the Nittany Lions dominated the first game of the series, winning by a combined score of 15-2.
The second game of those series against Sacred Heart and Alaska-Fairbanks were another story. The Nittany Lions survived a comeback against the Pioneers for a 5-4 win and were shut down by the Nanooks for a 4-0 loss.
Even in their 2-1 win over Robert Morris, the Nittany Lions weren’t playing up to the standard Gadowsky demands. The one performance that has stayed consistent in the early portion of the season has come between the pipes.
Through six starts, Peyton Jones has had the biggest of bounce back seasons, ranking in the top ten in goals-against average and top five in save percentage.
Jones regularly brushes off talk of his statistics with the media. It turns out, the same is true with Gadowsky.
“Peyton doesn’t talk about his numbers to me, he doesn’t talk about his performances,” Gadowsky said. “He doesn’t look any different when he’s winning or losing. He’s just so even keeled. It’s really hard to get much out of him.”
Gadowsky is openly not well-versed in the goaltending world, so those brief conversations may be fine with him. Gadowsky is results-oriented in his coaching, though, and Jones has given him the results he wants, sometimes in spite of those in front of him.
The numbers and performances Jones prefers not to talk about can’t be ignored when they’re a major reason the Nittany Lions are 6-1-0 on the season. Jones has been in goal for all six wins and has been giving his teammates the freedom to take more chances and play their brand of hockey.
“I think it’s the confidence of how he is. I don’t think it’s necessarily the numbers he’s putting up right now,” Gadowsky said. “When you’re very even keeled and you don’t get rattled, I think that’s what really gives the team confidence.”
Smirnov Off Ice
Denis Smirnov’s status for this weekend’s series against Michigan State remains uncertain. Smirnov was shaken up following a brutal hit from Wisconsin’s Roman Ahcan on Thursday and missed Friday’s matchup with the Badgers.
Roman Ahcan absolutely plasters Denis Smirnov. #NCAA pic.twitter.com/grCj7NXvOP— Here's Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) November 1, 2019
Smirnov, who has missed parts of the previous two seasons with injuries and illness, had been enjoying a resurgence this year with six points in six games. That resurgence will be put on hold (hopefully) temporarily.