The play may be somewhat common in a hockey game, but it still isn’t easy.
With just under eight minutes left in the second period last Saturday night, senior center Taylor Holstrom blindly sent the puck from behind the net back toward the goal, inches from the post, and David Goodwin easily redirected the puck into the net.
“Just another garbage goal for me,” the sophomore winger said. “But I’ll take it.”
The score helped Penn State drop the Buckeyes 4-1, but it also demonstrated the chemistry shown by what is now the team’s undisputed No. 1 line.
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Goodwin, Holstrom and Casey Bailey are all in the national rankings in scoring, they are getting plenty of attention for their skills and will lead the Nittany Lions into this weekend’s series against Michigan State. The teams battle at 7 p.m. Friday at Pegula Ice Arena, then again at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Putting a line together in hockey can be quite the experiment.
Sometimes there can be trouble, sometimes a trio will play sufficiently, and then there is the magic shown by Bailey, Goodwin and Holstrom.
“They just keep getting the job done every night,” Buckeyes coach Steve Rohlik said. “Even though you talk about it and say, what is it? 80 percent of their scoring’s coming from that line. Hey, you’ve got to stop that line. They find a way to get it done.”
The 80 percent might be an overstatement — the trio is accounting for 41 percent of the team’s goals and 38 percent of the team’s points — but they have the attention of opponents.
It’s one of those special cases were the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
“I think it’s kind of the passion, the love we all have,” Bailey said. “We’re all an upbeat kind of group, we stay positive with each other throughout the game. I think we all have an offensive mind. We’d rather find the middle guy than get the puck in deep and I think we have confidence in each other.”
Bailey is leading the Big Ten and is tied for third in the nation with 14 goals to go with eight assists. Holstrom, meanwhile, is tied for fifth in Division I with 16 assists to accompany his four goals. Goodwin is third on the team with eight goals and 10 assists, with his 18 points tied for 59th in the nation.
“We’re really starting to get some of that instinctual chemistry,” Goodwin said. “You don’t really have to think or see, you just know your linemate’s going to be there.”
That was demonstrated by the goal Saturday.
The puck went from the boards off Holstrom’s stick, banked off Goodwin’s blade and was in the net in a flash.
“I knew if I had the chance to get to the puck, he’d be in front of the net,” Holstrom said. “That’s the key to a good line. For me, knowing he’s going to be there, and for him knowing I’m going to pass there.”
The trust has been building. Bailey and Holstrom are in their third season as teammates, while Goodwin joined the party last season. Since this season began, the trio has by far been the most common line combination, together for 15 of the team’s 19 games.
It works at both ends — together they are a plus-19 in the plus-minus rating. The next-best combination is a mere plus-7.
“Sometimes you’re surprised by it, sometimes you can anticipate it and guess and think, ‘Man, those three should really do well together,’” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “You never really know until you really try it.”
The other top line expected to make a big impact at the beginning of the season of Curtis Loik, David Glen and Kenny Brooks has been together just six times.
The lines may be broken up by injury for one of the three players, or an injury to someone else necessitating a move. And sometimes a combination just isn’t right.
“It’s not one thing,” Gadowsky said of what goes into matching up a line. “You sometimes have guys that just come together that do pretty spectacular things because of their synergy.”
“The biggest thing is time,” Goodwin said. “You need to play with them for an extended period of time so you can kind of read each other. Communication’s huge.”
Once a line is really working, Gadowsky will try to keep them together. Once things get a little stale they may adjust, but that also can be beneficial.
“At times, absolutely you get complacent,” Gadowsky said. “Then it’s time to break them up a little bit, and usually when you put them back together the next time, they’re more hungry to stay together.”
The biggest star of late has been Bailey, who scored his first career hat trick in Friday’s 5-4 overtime loss. It was his seventh multi-point game of the season.
“If you look at what he did from Christmas on last year, I don’t think anybody’s surprised,” Gadowsky said. “I think we need more than that. It would be nice to have guys on other lines, so if it’s not him … it would be nice to have another guy that you could really count on.”
The coach said the one of the biggest reasons Bailey has improved so much is his work off the ice, not only with physical conditioning, but also with his nutritional habits. Gadowsky also sees when Bailey is playing solid on defense and other areas, it pays off in his scoring.
“The better hockey he plays, meaning what he does away from the puck,” Gadowsky said, “… when he’s doing that, it usually means he’s scoring goals.”
“I think I’m playing my most consistent hockey right now,” Bailey said. “A lot of credit goes towards my linemates. When I have a bad shift or a bad game, I feel like they’re picking me up.”
Bailey and Holstrom have gotten enough national notice to be nominated for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the nation’s top college hockey player. Who knows if they would be making that list if they were not linemates, but they have found something that works, and the Nittany Lions are the biggest beneficiaries.
“It gives you that unspoken confidence that as a scoring line is key,” Holstrom said. “We all know who we’re playing with and we don’t have to worry about getting shifted up or down. We just focus on scoring goals.”