Penn State Hockey

Penn State hockey team taking break in hot season

Penn State freshman Denis Smirnov (25) is among the nation’s leading scorers this season with 15 goals and 22 points.
Penn State freshman Denis Smirnov (25) is among the nation’s leading scorers this season with 15 goals and 22 points.

Here’s an odd thing to comprehend after watching the Penn State men’s hockey team rip off one win after another over the past two months: The Nittany Lions have only two more games on their schedule this year.

There will be just two games over a stretch of nearly seven weeks.

For the nation’s hottest team, they hope it doesn’t cool them off.

This is the way the schedule breaks for the No. 8 Nittany Lions, who hold the nation’s longest win streak (nine games) and unbeaten streak (11 games).

Penn State finished off another sweep last weekend, taking down Arizona State, and after practices Monday and Tuesday, most team members packed up their cars and headed home — or somewhere — for the rest of the holiday week. They will be back for practice Saturday, getting ready for the start of the Big Ten season.

Conference play opens with No. 16 Michigan visiting Pegula Ice Arena for games Dec. 1-2, and head coach Guy Gadowsky isn’t concerned about anything beyond those games.

“That’s the only thing we’re worried about right now,” he said Saturday night after his team’s 8-0 thumping of the Sun Devils.

The coaching staff is quite aware this team is surprising the hockey world, even if the Nittany Lions have been full of surprises the past couple seasons.

Penn State took a huge graduation hit after last season and saw its expected No. 1 goalie for this year leave early for the pros, while 11 freshmen and one more junior transfer joined the ranks.

Yet the Nittany Lions seem to be doing even better than last year’s 21-win campaign.

“You look back at the questions that we had,” Gadowsky said. “We had 12 new faces, eight, nine play every night and we didn’t know what we were going to get in goaltending. I think we can be very happy with how this is going.”

The Nittany Lions were among the nation’s best offensive teams last season, scoring 3.68 goals per game, and have upped that rate to a Division I-best 4.77 per game this season. But the defense also is vastly improved, dropping the goals-allowed rate from 3.21 to 2.0 — which is tied for fourth-best in the nation.

Not only has that led to the nation’s best record at 11-1-1 (an .885 win percentage), but they also lead the Big Ten in nearly every statistic, including goals scored, victory margin, shots, power play goals, shorthanded goals and penalty kills.

The unfortunate thing to ponder is that fans won’t get to see this team much for a while.

After facing the Wolverines (5-4-1), the team doesn’t hit the ice again until a trip to No. 13 Ohio State on Jan. 6-7.

After Saturday’s win, it left the Nittany Lions with 20 conference games and one more non-conference game (against Princeton in Philadelphia on Jan. 28) this season. There is still much to prove to the Big Ten.

“The coaching staff congratulated the players on a great start to the season,” Gadowsky said. “I think they’ve done a tremendous job.”

Around the Big Ten

The conference appears to be bouncing back after a couple lackluster years.

The Nittany Lions, Buckeyes and Wolverines are joined by No. 11 Minnesota to give the conference four ranked teams, and only Michigan State (3-6) has a losing record in non-conference play. Penn State and Ohio State are 1-2 in the nation in scoring, and Michigan is ninth in scoring defense to join the Nittany Lions in the top 10.

Even Wisconsin, which had been floundering the last few seasons and was 8-19-8 last year, appears to have improved at 6-4.

Around the nation

A few other statistical highlights, against the rest of Division I, heading into the start of conference play:

▪  Penn State leads the nation once again averaging 47.54 shots on goal per game, and is taking more than 23 shots more than its opponent. Union is a very distant second in shot attempts with 36.85.

▪  Denis Smirnov is tied for second in scoring with 22 points. His 13 assists is tied for third, and his seven goals is tied for 22nd.

▪  Andrew Sturtz is tied for fourth in goals with 10.

▪  Peyton Jones is 17th with a 2.16 goals-against average.

▪  The power-play unit is converting on 20 percent of its chances, which is tied for 17th.

▪  The penalty-killing unit is second, stopping all but five of the 61 chances it has faced (91.8 percent).

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @GordonCDT