The sight of a blue-and-white No. 25 sweater brought plenty of happiness to the Penn State hockey team and its fans last weekend.
After battling an illness for a month, Denis Smirnov — a sixth-round NHL draft pick — returned to the lineup and netted a goal during a tie and win at Ohio State.
“It was great — finally came back,” Smirnov said Monday at the team’s weekly session with the media. “Not in best shape, but almost there. Hopefully after this weekend it’ll be much better.”
If the sophomore could put a number on how close he was last weekend, what percent would that be? “99.9,” he said with a grin.
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The Nittany Lions (9-7-2, 4-4-2-1 Big Ten) have found their stride, unbeaten in the last six games and returning to the U.S. College Hockey Online poll at No. 18. They have a home-and-home series with Robert Morris this week. They skate at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ PPG Paints Arena at 7 p.m. Friday, then host the Colonials at 7 p.m. Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena before taking a break for final exams and the holidays.
Smirnov was the nation’s highest-scoring freshman last season, netting 19 goals and 28 assists, and was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in June. He had five goals and six assists through this season’s first eight games, but was sidelined after facing Michigan on Oct. 28.
He said it was difficult watching practices and games, unable to contribute.
In his return, the skill was there along with the chemistry he had with linemates, but being in full game shape is difficult to simulate.
“It’s hard but the coaches, athletic trainer, strength coach made it easier than it could be,” Smirnov said. “The first period was kind of hard, but the rest of the game was back to normal.”
He was held scoreless during Friday’s 5-5 tie, with Penn State winning in a shootout for an extra point in the Big Ten standings, but he netted a second-period goal in Saturday’s 4-0 victory. Coach Guy Gadowsky said it wasn’t a typical power-play score, but it boosted everyone’s confidence that Smirnov hit the net. Everything runs through Smirnov on that power play unit, making him even tougher to replace.
“Once he did score that goal,” Gadowsky said, “he had a little of his attitude back, a little bit of his confidence.”
Kerr injured again
Junior defenseman Kevin Kerr missed the final month of last season with an injury, suffered the same injury during the opening weekend of this season before returning in mid-November, and now he is out again. Kerr has a broken wrist, Gadowsky said, knocking him out again after playing just six games.
“It’s kicking someone when he’s down,” fellow defenseman Trevor Hamilton said. “I feel for Kevin.”
The silver lining is the team will be on break after this weekend, so he won’t miss too many games. Gadowsky said Kerr suffered the injury during the second period Saturday but stayed on the ice.
“That was a tough game,” Gadowsky said. “He basically played half the game with a broken wrist, which is not an easy thing to do in this game.”
Gadowsky did not have an update on defenseman Erik Autio, who has missed the last two weeks with an injury.
Andrew Sturtz certainly has a flair for the dramatic. He took a pass in the high slot from Alex Limoges and hit the net with 0.7 seconds left in regulation to tie Friday’s game.
“I knew it got in in time,” Sturtz said. “My one doubt was, was somebody offsides (or) were there too many men on the ice? I thought that was the only problem we were going to have.”
There were a number of looks by the officials in Columbus, Ohio, before signaling the goal counted, and the long break helped calm the excited Lions for overtime. Gadowsky felt his team learned a hard lesson last season when Smirnov scored a penalty shot with 1:26 left in regulation to take a lead on Minnesota, but didn’t settle their emotions and gave up a tying goal with four seconds left and lost in overtime.
Bring a bear
Saturday’s game will feature the annual “Teddy Bear Toss.” Fans are encouraged to bring a stuffed animal to Pegula Ice Arena, toss them onto the ice during the first intermission and they will be gathered and donated to the school’s annual IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon helping children battling cancer.
“It’s something special for everyone at the school, not only us but the kids as well,” Hamilton said, clutching a 3-foot-tall tan bear as he talked. “I wish I could see the teddy bears get tossed on the ice Saturday, but it’s going to be a special game.”