Is Penn State’s hockey team really that good?
Could this be the year the Nittany Lions are not only in the running for making the NCAA tournament, but even in contention for — gasp! — the Frozen Four?
Get a grip on those reins. We’re not there yet.
But it sure is nice to do a little dreaming.
It’s hard to believe we’re even entertaining these thoughts a mere five years into this program’s NCAA Division I life.
But there is still much to happen between now and the middle of March. The Nittany Lions are essentially at the halfway point of the season, winning 13 of their 15 games with 19 games left.
What do we think of what they have done? Overall it’s been pretty impressive. To be ranked third in the country in both major national polls, receiving first-place votes in each, and to be No. 1 in the PairWise Rankings Comparisons all should be taken somewhat seriously, even if it doesn’t influence anything. They have the nation’s best record (13-1-1), the longest win streak and longest unbeaten streak. They also have a bunch of stats that are pretty impressive.
The Nittany Lions are doing so well that uscho.com, a college hockey website, released its first “bracketology” this past week forecasting the NCAA tournament, and has Penn State as a No. 1 seed.
Road tests loom: The biggest notation to all of this success, however, is that this massive run has been done largely at home, with the full-throttle support of the “Roar Zone” student section. A dozen of the 15 games have been at Pegula Ice Arena, and that can skew a lot. Penn State already has gotten the reputation of one of the best home-ice advantages in the country.
Only eight home games remain on the schedule, so the team will get tested much more soon.
But there is so very much to like about this team.
Questions have been answered: There were question marks all over the ice, wondering where scoring losses would be made up and whether they would get strong goaltending.
Those questions have been answered by two of the nation’s top freshmen in Denis Smirnov and Peyton Jones, and nearly all of the team’s 10 freshmen are making contributions in rather substantial ways.
Smirnov is among the nation’s scoring leaders. He is tied for seventh with 27 points and with 17 assists, and he ranks first in both lists among freshmen.
Led by Andrew Sturtz, who is tied for fourth in Division I with 13 goals, the Nittany Lions have a half-dozen players with at least five goals already this season, and Penn State leads the nation with 4.87 goals per game.
At the other end, Jones had a decent reputation entering college, but he has exceeded expectations to this point, ranking sixth with a 1.97 goals-against average. His .920 save percentage is tied for 14th in the nation.
While he has done well, Jones has not needed to be spectacular because of the guys in front of him, blocking shots and playing fundamentally sound defense.
The team with the No. 1 offense possesses the No. 3 defense, allowing just 1.87 goals per game. They may take 48 shots a game, but allow just 24 per night.
Defense key: Asked before the team went on break which performance was bigger, coach Guy Gadowsky pointed to the defense.
“Our No. 1 priority coming in, to minimize our power-play opportunities against that we give, and I think we’ve done an excellent job of that,” he said. “And then what compounds the importance of that is that our penalty-kill has been great after that.”
His team also has the nation’s top penalty-killing unit, allowing just five goals in 67 chances, a 92.5 percent success rate.
So, they score a lot, don’t give up a lot, don’t take penalties and when they do they don’t allow opponents to cash in.
That’s a pretty good recipe for success.
If this team can continue to be at its best at home, and do reasonably well on the road through the rest of the Big Ten schedule, tickets to the NCAA tournament will be waiting.