Guy Gadowsky preaches defense by committee. Given Penn State’s struggles in keeping pucks out of its net, committing all five skaters to the task makes sense.
One line is head and shoulders better at the task, however, and is led by a player who is literally head and shoulders above anyone else on the ice.
While Gadowsky relies on each line to be defensively reliable, he looks to the trio of Nikita Pavlychev, Sam Sternschein and Blake Gober when matching up against an opposing team’s top line.
It’s been hard to argue with the results.
When the Nittany Lions faced this weekend’s opponent, Michigan State, a month ago, the Spartans KHL Line — comprised of Patrick Khodorenko, Mitchell Lewandowski and the nation’s leading scorer Taro Hirose — netted four goals in a weekend split. Little of that had to do with Pavlychev’s line, though.
“Obviously at home we had that match, so we were able to match Pav against them. But Pav was not on the ice at any time when they scored,” Gadowsky explained. “The problem with that is that Pav was on the ice 90 percent of the time they were on the ice.”
With home-ice advantage in January, the Nittany Lions were afforded the last change during stoppages in play. When they head to East Lansing this weekend, they won’t be so fortunate, meaning Gadowsky will need to rely on other lines to have the same impact as Pavlychev’s.
“I think our whole entire team has smart guys and they’re smart enough to realize there’s a lot of responsibility when it comes to playing against lines like that,” Pavlychev said.
The 6-foot-8 Russian added he and his linemates will communicate with the other lines as much as possible to aid them in shutting down the KHL Line. When the time comes that Pavlychev’s line is matched up against the Spartans’ dynamic trio, they’ll be ready.
“We always embrace it,” he said. “We know those guys can’t score on us from their defensive zone. We just shut them down, take it to the offensive zone, and try to create offense ourselves.
“Those guys are so used to playing offense that they don’t know how to defend, so we try to take advantage of that.”
Smirnov’s Scoring Slump
Two seasons ago, Denis Smirnov burst onto the scene as a freshman when he scored a program-record 47 points. The diminutive Russian quickly became one of the most electrifying players to don the blue and white.
His sophomore campaign started on a high note as he posted 11 points in the first seven games of the season before an injury shut him down for over a month. Still, he finished the season just below a point-per-game with 27 points in 30 games.
Smirnov’s third season with the Nittany Lions has been a much different story.
After missing the first two games of the season, Smirnov has just 15 points in 26 games. Though he did post a seven-game point streak early in the season, his offensive contributing has come intermittently.
Gadowsky doesn’t have an explanation for Smirnov’s slump.
“The honest answer is when anybody’s in a scoring slump who’s used to putting the puck in the net, they usually get out of it by working their way out of it,” Gadowsky said. “I expect that’s what’s going to happen with Denis.”
Not only are Smirnov’s numbers down, his ability to take over a game has been almost nonexistent this season. Smirnov posted 13 multi-point games a freshman and nine more as a sophomore, but has zero this season.
This year, however, Smirnov is producing just two and half shots per game, and his shooting percentage has taken a major hit.
“I’m very surprised. I think we all are. We all know how good he is,” Gadowsky said. “I’m perplexed, I guess I’m just being honest. I do believe it’s going to happen. I believe in him. I want to help, I just don’t know how.”
Smirnov himself has been trying to figure out why he hasn’t been putting up points.
“If I knew the reason, it’d be a different outcome,” he said. “If I’m not scoring points, hopefully I’m doing something to help the team.”
Until Smirnov gets the monkey-that’s-quickly-becoming-a-gorilla off his back, Gadowsky is pleased to see Smirnov still doing the little things right.
“If you’re a scorer and you play high quality hockey, I think the puck goes in. If you just think about scoring, I’m not sure of that,” he said. “Regardless of is he scoring or now, you can do everything else that makes you a great teammate and high quality player.”
Both Gadowsky and Smirnov are firm believers that by doing those little things, results on the other side of the puck will follow. Smirnov spoke of how his offseason trainer provided his pupils with t-shirts reading “The Hockey Gods See Everything.”
Smirnov may be in need of those Hockey Gods now more than ever.
“Maybe it’s not as much about scoring as it is playing the best hockey game you can,” Gadowsky said. “I always believe that when that happens, the Hockey Gods seem to somehow figure out a way to reward you.”