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How High Is Penn State’s Ceiling For 2019-20?

The Nittany Lions are no longer satisfied with making a name for themselves in college hockey. Now, anything less than a Frozen Four berth will be a letdown.

Photo by Heather Weikel

Expectations were appropriately high for Penn State heading into the 2018-19 season.

The Nittany Lions were able to roll three scoring lines and received a surprising amount of production from their so-called shutdown fourth line. The defense corps was fairly balanced, and though Peyton Jones suffered through some inconsistency, they knew he could be relied on when it mattered most.

After consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament ended at the hands of the Denver Pioneers, the Nittany Lions fell just short of making a third-straight trip, something only a handful of teams can say they’ve accomplished.

Though the Nittany Lions fell short of expectations last season, by no means will those expectations be lowered for 2019-20. Quite the contrary, in fact. With relatively little roster turnover

Gadowsky’s squad has figured out how to get hot at the right time. The issue arises when that squad can go cold at the most inopportune moments.

Penn State has made a nasty habit of falling to opponents that, on paper, the Nittany Lions should defeat handily. In a number of instances, the Nittany Lions allowed leads to slip away, forcing them into another desperate push for the NCAA Tournament at the end of the season.

Taking any of those results and turning them into victories would have vaulted the Nittany Lions into the NCAA Tournament before any of the conference championship games.

The Nittany Lions will need to quit cold turkey with a rather easy non-conference schedule in 2019-20.

Gadowsky has repeatedly said it’s difficult to determine the quality of an opponent when the schedule is sorted out more than a couple years prior, but based on last season’s results, Penn State once again can not afford any slip ups early in the season.

Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, nearly all of their top performers from last season will be back, returning 82 percent of their goal scoring from 2018-19. The three-headed monster that is Alex Limoges, Evan Barratt and Liam Folkes will be back looking to break even more records.

Cole Hults will look to impress the Los Angeles Kings as he further anchors himself as Penn State’s top defenseman.

Denis Smirnov will look to bounce back from a disappointing season by his production standards.

Aarne Talvitie will be motivated to maintain his production as he returns from a knee injury suffered during the gold medal game of the World Junior Championships, while his regular linemate Nikita Pavlychev will look to prove his early-season production wasn’t a fluke or a result of playing alongside Talvitie.

Peyton Jones will try to find more consistency in his game with Oskar Autio pushing him for starting time.

Brandon Biro will look to take his game to another level as he follows in the footsteps of Chase Berger as team captain. More reserved than his predecessor, Biro is already one of the team’s hardest workers on the ice and will serve the leadership role well.

On top of the returning talent, Gadowsky will have a strong group of incoming freshmen at his disposal to fill the roles left by his most recent senior class.

Highlighted by the likes of forwards Kevin Wall and Connor McMenamin and defenseman Mason Snell, Gadowsky’s most recent recruiting class will surely fit in with the high-octane offense that has become associated with Penn State Hockey.

How Will the Nittany Lions Fare?

As long as Cale Morris minds the net for Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish should be expected to be at or near the top of the Big Ten.

Last year’s regular season champion Ohio State will need to retool after the loss of several impact players, including Tanner Laczynski and Dakota Joshua.

Wisconsin could take a big step forward as likely top-5 pick Cole Caufield prepares to take the NCAA by storm.

With the Big Ten being arguably the strongest conference top to bottom, there is plenty of room for fluctuation in the standings. The Buckeyes claimed the regular season title last year by nine points, but the remaining six teams were separated by just seven points as all seven teams reached 30 points for the first time in conference history.

There are few, if any, glaring holes in the Nittany Lions prospective lineup next season. They will, once again, have no trouble scoring, and it’s hard to imagine the Nittany Lions can allow more goals than they did last season’s fifth-worst mark in the nation and worst in the Big Ten. Then again, the same was said prior to last season, and the Nittany Lions proceeded to allow almost half a goal more per game than 2017-18.

Gadowsky should by no means sacrifice his potent offense, but a much greater emphasis will need to be placed on the defensive zone this season.

Should the Nittany Lions finally find the right balance between pushing the tempo to fit their offensive style and being responsible defensively — and do so on a consistent basis — no opponent will look forward to facing the blue and white this season.

Penn State more than likely won’t be the favorites to claim the Big Ten regular season crown or to win the Big Ten Tournament, but the Nittany Lions should find themselves with home ice advantage at least in the opening round of the conference tournament and should find themselves back in Allentown in late March for the NCAA Tournament. With the backyard advantage, a run to Detroit for the Frozen Four is surely within the realm of possibility.