When it needed it most, Penn State hockey snapped its five-game winless streak in emphatic fashion last weekend.
The Nittany Lions picked up a pair of victories on the road over No. 17 Wisconsin, outscoring the then red-hot Badgers, 11-5, in the series. In doing so, Penn State jumped from No. 10 to No. 9 in the latest USCHO poll, and, more importantly, rose to No. 7 in the Pairwise rankings, putting the Nittany Lions in line for a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
With No. 5 Minnesota visiting State College this Friday and Saturday, head coach Guy Gadowsky discussed his takeaways from last weekend, as well as his expectations for the upcoming series during his weekly conference with members of the media on Monday.
Here are some of the news and notes.
1. ) Penn State’s spark plug gets back on track
Freshman Denis Smirnov, the team’s leader in points, had been held in check for the duration of Penn State’s recent skid, failing to register a single point over that span.
He broke out in a big way against Wisconsin, netting his first goal since January 13th on Friday. Smirnov followed that up on Saturday, scoring two more goals to go along with a pair of assists.
Gadowsky noted that Smirnov had been dealing with some minor injuries and is just now getting healthy again. Having Smirnov back in form, he added, is important for the confidence of the team, especially in a close game.
“I think maybe it gives you a little more belief that if you’re close, you can pull it out because he just has that ability to make a great play and finish,” Gadowsky said. “Any time you get a player that talented that finishes it just gives you that confidence.”
Smirnov said that while he was injured, he focused on doing little things that would help the team win, adding how the rigors of Big Ten play are a step up from what he experienced in the non-conference schedule.
“I think it’s just all in your head,” Smirnov said. “Obviously we play teams who saw video of us playing; they know what we do. So, it’s a little harder to play in the Big Ten than in the non-conference, but we’ve just got to battle through it.”
2.) Defensive shakeup
The Nittany Lions will be without one of their key defensemen for at least this weekend after Kevin Kerr went down with an injury in last Friday’s game.
Kerr, a sophomore, is tied for second among the team’s defensemen in assists, and ranks third among the defenders in points. He also plays a key role for the Nittany Lions on special teams.
His absence will force Penn State to make some adjustments when it comes to defensive pairings.
“We did have three pairings, but obviously we had a little more ice time given to [Vince] Pedrie and [Erik] Autio, and then we moved Kris Myllari in place of Kevin Kerr to play with Trevor Hamilton,” Gadowsky said. “They did get the bulk of the ice time but we do plan on playing a third pairing.”
With a depleted core, the defensemen are employing various tactics to help conserve their energy.
“This weekend I was trying to play shorter shifts, I mean I was limiting my shifts to 30 seconds,” Hamilton said. “But, I mean obviously you’re going pretty hard for those 30 seconds, so a lot of shift management and making sure you’re hydrated, and coming to the game prepared and knowing that you’re going to play a lot.”
3.) Solving the Gophers
Minnesota comes to town this weekend for a series at Pegula Ice Arena.
The Big Ten-leading Gophers are the fifth-ranked team in the country and have given the Nittany Lions fits since the inception of their program,
Penn State is 3-11 all time against Minnesota and was swept less than two weeks ago at Mariucci Arena. Currently sitting third in the Big Ten standings, the Nittany Lions have the opportunity to pass the Gophers with a pair of regulation wins this weekend.
Captain David Goodwin said that playing a team that swept his such a short time ago gives him a little bit of extra drive, noting that he can still envision the Minnesota student section celebrating as the Gophers scored goal after goal against the Lions.
“In a lot of ways it’s motivation,” Goodwin said. “They swept us on their ice. That’s still very fresh in my mind, so I think, for me, it’s a little bit of motivation knowing that I can still remember a lot of the plays and a lot of the specifics of that game.”
Goodwin and the rest of the Nittany Lions will begin their quest for revenge when the puck drops Friday at 6:30.
Both of this weekend’s games will be aired on the Big Ten Network.