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Penn State Hockey Preview

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Since joining the Big Ten in 2013, the Penn State men’s hockey team has improved its record each season.

The first year was a sign that winning in the Big Ten would not be easy; the Nittany Lions went 8-26-2, last in the Big Ten.

The second year, Penn State won 10 more games than in 2013-14, going 18-15-4 and good for a fourth place finish in the conference.

Penn State’s best season thus far was a third place Big Ten finish in 2015-16, when the Nittany Lions went 21-13-4.

Winning the Big Ten is the goal, but it will not be easy. The Big Ten coaches voted that the Nittany Lions would finish fourth in the six-team conference. Penn State also lost nine players from last season’s record-setting team.

The Nittany Lions’ power play will be most affected. They finished seventh in the NCAA by scoring on 32 of 137 man-advantage opportunities. 

“We had a large turnover last season, so we have new players at all specialty team positions,” said head coach Guy Gadowsky. “I don't think we know what it's going to take yet until we see the synergy develop within the different units.”

Penn State’s top losses are forwards Eric Sheid and David Glen. Sheid tied for second on the team in goals, with 13. Glen was team captain and finished second on Penn State in assists with 17. Both scored two power play goals apiece.

Power play aside, the Nittany Lions also lost their starting goaltender, Eamon McAdam. After going 13-8-1 with a 2.98 Goals-Against Average and a .913 save percentage as a junior, McAdam signed an NHL contract with the New York Islanders.

Despite the departures, the Nittany Lions bring in plenty of talent. Ten freshman join the team this year.

Freshman Peyton Jones will start the season in net according to Gadowsky. Jones played 31:32 and shut out Queens (Ontario) in Penn State’s only exhibition game on Oct. 2.

After Jones, there are other interesting names that come up. Penn State has two freshmen from Russia; forwards Dennis Smirnov and Nikita Pavlychev hail from Moscow and Yaroslavl, respectively.

Neither came straight from Russia to the United States. Before Smirnov netted two goals in the exhibition win, he spent two years in the United State Hockey League, where he scored 47 goals in 113 games.

Pavlychev similarly played two years in the USHL before joining Penn State. He was even drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2015, but has not signed a pro contract.

Gadowsky credits the university for bringing in two players from the other end of the globe.

“Penn State University is a world-class university with a world-class brand,” Gadowsky said. “I think that's a big reason for being attractive to international student-athletes.”

Gadowsky knows that the strength of his team is its youth. 18 of the 27 players on this year’s team are either freshman or sophomores.

“We absolutely need freshman to contribute in a major way if we hope to have success this season,” Gadowksy said. “A big question mark is in goal where we don't have a player who has previously started an NCAA game. We also have significant turnover at every position, so it will be a bit of a waiting game to see how we develop through the season.”

Youth is not a bad thing, but their inexperience may be a weakness for this Penn State team.

Thankfully, Gadowsky has several important players returning for 2016-17 and none more important than senior forward David Goodwin.

Last season, Goodwin led the team in scoring with 38 points. This year, he’ll be expected to continue scoring and accelerate the learning process for his younger teammates after being named team captain.

“I do feel some added responsibility,” Godwin said. “I understand I am more "under the microscope" than I have been in the past. I have always enjoyed and taken much pride in being the best representation of this university that I can be.”

Remarkably, Goodwin is already Penn State’s all-time leader in points with 90 and is third in Nittany Lion hockey history with 33 goals.

It's an honor,” Goodwin said. “I am looking forward to adding to those point totals this season, however, I know there are some great younger players that will be looking to break my records in their upcoming years.”

Goodwin isn’t the only talented returning forward. Leading goal scorer Andrew Sturtz (18 goals) and Chase Berger (13 goals) will join Goodwin as this season’s offensive threats.

For Penn State to win the Big Ten, it will have to beat Minnesota, who has won the Big Ten regular season title in each of the three seasons of Big Ten hockey. In that time, the Nittany Lions are 3-9-0 against the Golden Gophers.

Penn State does not play Minnesota until February 3-4, but the Nittany Lions have important games before then. Matchups against Notre Dame, who qualified for the 2016 NCAA tournament, are scheduled for Oct. 21-22. December marks the start of conference play as Penn State opens the month hosting Michigan for the first two days. The Wolverines made it to the second round of the Tournament in the spring.

Penn State’s biggest question is its inexperience. If its young players fill the gaps left behind by graduating veterans, the Nittany Lions could very well finish above their projected fourth place ranking.

However, if the opposite holds true and the youngsters struggle, Penn State will almost certainly finish worse than fourth.

The freshmen will make or break the Nittany Lions in 2016-17.

The NIttany Lions are off to a 3-1 start, with dominant victories over Queen's-Ontario and Mercyhurst, and splitting a pair of games against No. 16 St. Lawrence. They travel to Notre Dame for a weekend series against the Fighting Irish on Friday and Saturday.

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