While the Penn State men’s hockey team had been struggling through a five-game winless streak, another Nittany Lion also was having a tough stretch.
Freshman Denis Smirnov has been absent from the scoring column of late — until he regained his form last weekend as part of two wins at Wisconsin.
He did not miss any games, but the creative forward had been playing hurt, according to coach Guy Gadowsky.
“He was going through a few bumps and bruises and is getting healthy,” Gadowsky said Monday during his weekly session with the media. “It showed this weekend. He was able to move a lot better.”
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Smirnov, once among the nation’s leaders in scoring, hadn’t registered a point since beating Michigan State on Jan. 14. He broke out of the slump with three goals and two assists in two wins against the Badgers.
“Getting a player like that back (who is) more like what we saw at the start of the year is huge for the team,” Gadowsky said as his No. 9 Nittany Lions prepare for a Big Ten showdown with No. 5 Minnesota at 6:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena.
Smirnov ranks 16th nationally with 34 points, best among freshmen. He has 14 goals, which is tied for third among freshmen, and 20 assists.
Overcoming the aches and pains, and the tougher Big Ten, has been a challenge.
“I think it’s just all in your head,” Smirnov said. “We play teams, they have video of us and know what we do so it’s a little harder to play in (the) Big Ten than non-conference, but you just have to battle through it.”
Kerr out this week
Penn State will be playing No. 5 Minnesota on Friday and Saturday without one of its top defensemen with Kevin Kerr sidelined.
During the Nittany Lions’ game Friday, Kerr was racing down the ice with the Badgers’ Peter Tischke, and when they were near the net both went into a slide. Tischke hit the goalpost and Kerr slid hard into the boards with one foot jammed into the corner where the ice meets the boards. The sophomore had to be helped from the ice, did not return to the game and did not play the next night.
“He’s definitely out this weekend,” Gadowsky said, unsure how long Kerr will be missing. “That’s all I know.”
The coach said his team will still be using three full defensive pairings, with more depth among blue-liners than in past seasons.
“Obviously it’s a big hit for our team,” junior defenseman Trevor Hamilton said. “I think our D-corps is strong enough where our third D-pair can play our first D-pair and so on. Definitely with Kevin out of the lineup I have to change my game a little bit.”
Also, Gadowsky figures the team will get back forward Dylan Richard, who has been out a few weeks with an injury, unless the trainers say otherwise.
Penn State looked a lot more like the powerful squad Nittany Lion fans had been used to seeing all season, and not the one struggling through the previous three weeks.
After seeing his team lose 6-3 and 5-2 to the Lions, Wisconsin coach Tony Granato was impressed.
“This is the first weekend all year that, at the end of it, you say we got beat by a better team,” Granato told the media in Madison on Saturday.
Gadowsky gave credit Monday to the team leadership for staying positive, and captain David Goodwin ticked off the areas on which the team concentrated last week, including sticking with the game plan, putting pucks behind the opposing defense to grind with their forecheck and staying disciplined.
“Any time you can get out of a little bit of a losing streak there, it’s positive,” Goodwin said.
Along with rising to No. 9 in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll, the team is No. 8 in the USA Today-USA Hockey Magazine poll and No. 7 in the Pairwise Ratings Index.