Penn State Hockey

‘Top talent in college hockey’ finally returning to Penn State after illness

Penn State’s Denis Smirnov, facing American International on Oct. 19, returns to action after missing the last four weeks when the Nittany Lions visit Ohio State.
Penn State’s Denis Smirnov, facing American International on Oct. 19, returns to action after missing the last four weeks when the Nittany Lions visit Ohio State. Centre Daily Times, file

Coach Guy Gadowsky delivered the news Monday that Penn State hockey fans had been waiting to hear: Denis Smirnov will be back with the team this week.

The sophomore forward has been sidelined with an illness for the past month, but he has the go-ahead to play for the Nittany Lions’ visit to Ohio State on Friday and Saturday.

“That’s awesome,” defenseman Kevin Kerr said Monday afternoon at the team’s weekly media session. “There’s not much that needs to be said about that. He’s unbelievable. I think everybody knows that he’s a top talent in college hockey. Anytime you get a player like that, you can’t replace him with any single player out there.”

Smirnov, who returned to classes before last week’s holiday break, was the nation’s top freshman last season with 28 assists and 47 points, also scoring 19 goals. The sixth-round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche had five goals and six assists in this season’s first eight games, missing the last eight with his extended illness.

Gadowsky said Smirnov would be reunited with center Nate Smirnov and right wing Brandon Biro, at least for Friday’s game with the Buckeyes. The trio combined for seven goals and seven assists in six previous games together.

“They were our best line before Denny’s illness,” Gadowsky said. “We’re going to try to put that line back together.”

Biro also was happy to be reunited with the creative, magical skills of Smirnov.

“Super excited,” Biro said. “You guys know what kind of player he is, even the little things you guys might not notice. He’s a pretty special player.”

Kerr back in action

Making a return from a long absence last weekend in a win and shootout loss with Michigan State was Kerr. The junior missed the final month of last season with an injury, then he suffered the same injury in the second game of the season at St. Lawrence.

“Mentally it’s just a little bit tougher when it re-occurs and happens again where you spend so much time recovering,” said Kerr, who said he got a lot of emotional support from teammates, including senior captain James Robinson, who played just one period last season before he had he was sidelined.

Kerr had three assists in the two games, including setting up Trevor Hamilton’s game-tying goal with 33.6 seconds left in regulation Saturday. Gadowsky said having Kerr back on the ice has a huge difference both with his defensive skills and quick movement of the puck offensively.

“He just has such composure; he sees the ice so well,” Gadowsky said. “It’s great to have him back.”

Know your teammate

Some members of the team have pretty strong connections, and then there are Kerr and goalie Peyton Jones. They grew up a few miles apart in Philadelphia’s northern suburbs, played on the same youth and junior programs and were high school teammates at Holy Ghost Prep. They are even close in age: Kerr turned 21 five days before Jones last February. Kerr, however, started playing juniors early and arrived on campus a year before Jones.

Needless to say, Kerr is pretty comfortable with Jones guarding the net.

“On the ice it’s easy playing in front of that guy,” Kerr said. “He’s a brick wall back there.”

Embellished play

“Embellishment” is not a common infraction in college hockey, but the Nittany Lions were penalized twice for “taking a dive” Saturday. First, the Spartans’ Patrick Khodorenko had his stick under Biro’s chin, with the sophomore dropping to the ice. About 4  1/2 minutes later, Spartan Davis Keefer slashed Trevor Hamilton as they skated up the ice right in front of Jones. The mild-mannered Jones and Hamilton, still on his knees, both raised their arms in disbelief after the referee’s decision. The calls negated a pair of potential Nittany Lion power plays, and both resulted in a thunderous shower of boo’s from the Pegula Ice Arena crowd.

“I think we have a pretty good reputation as a coaching staff not yapping at referees,” said Gadowsky, who thinks players will be more likely to follow suit if the coaches contain their emotions. “When you see something like that ... when you get up on refs, it doesn’t help. It’s very difficult at the time, like Saturday, not to say anything. We didn’t say anything. The crowd said it for us, which was nice.”

It was the first time this season Penn State was whistled for the penalty.

The coach said the calls will be revisited in the offseason. Asked if he would be placing a call this week to the Big Ten office about the penalties, Gadowsky paused for five seconds, gave a downcast look and finally groaned, “No.”

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @GordonCDT