Picking a favorite play by Denis Smirnov would be like picking a favorite grandchild.
Was it the freshman skating backward, waiting for the Wisconsin defense to commit to him Saturday night before feeding the puck to a wide-open David Goodwin for an easy goal?
Was it the play he made from his knees earlier, effortlessly redirecting the puck to Nate Sucese in stride to set up Goodwin’s first goal during Saturday’s 6-0 win against Wisconsin?
Could it be any of the many other spectacular passes that found a perfect path through the defense to set up goals, a blind feed to a breaking teammate from the boards, or any of scores of other plays that didn’t result in a score but were nonetheless stunning?
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“We knew his vision was special, his hands were special,” Penn State men’s hockey coach Guy Gadowsky said Monday at his weekly session with the media, “but wasn’t sure he would be able to have the results in both those areas at such a high level so quickly. He’s amazing.”
Smirnov also is among the nation’s best for the Nittany Lions, who visit Michigan this weekend. He has 17 goals and 26 assists. His 43 points are already a single-season team record, breaking Casey Bailey’s 40 in 2014-15. His 26 assists matches Taylor Holstrom’s record from the same season.
The 43 points also ranks Smirnov 13th nationally and first among freshmen, and his assist total is tied for second among Division I freshmen.
“He’s an elite player,” Wisconsin coach and 13-year NHL veteran Tony Granato said Saturday. “Let’s face it, he scores against everybody. And tonight when we fell behind, had to open it up a little more defensively, we probably gave him a little too much room and he made some plays.”
The native of Moscow moved to eastern Pennsylvania as a young teenager, playing youth hockey for a few seasons in Wilkes-Barre. He wasn’t alone, with three other Russians including fellow Nittany Lion freshman Nikita Pavlychev on the team. There time in Wilkes-Barre is how they caught the attention of the Penn State coaches.
They also had Smirnov’s older sister there for a few years to be a “mom” to the group as they learned English and adjusted to life in America. Smirnov, who turned 19 in December, said he couldn’t have made the transition without her, and has been enjoying the season both he and the No. 11 Nittany Lions (21-9-2) have had.
“Kind of surprised and not surprised,” he said of what he and the team have done, “because obviously when you play with players like that, like any player on the team, when you’re winning, individuals get successful to as a team gets successful.”