Denis Smirnov’s return to the lineup for the Penn State men’s hockey team’s games at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at No. 11 Ohio State was a pleasant jolt for the team and fans.
The spectacular sophomore should deliver a dose of confidence and excitement, especially when he is reunited with linemates Brandon Biro and Nate Sucese.
However, freshman Sam Sternschein stepped onto that line in Smirnov’s absence, and that trio was perhaps even more prolific.
The common denominator? Sophomore friends and roommates Biro and Sucese.
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“We all move the puck well,” Biro said this week. “We trust each other quite a bit, being our second year together. I think the biggest thing is we play together well.”
In six games early in the season, the Smirnov-Sucese-Biro line accounted for seven goals and seven assists together. Coach Guy Gadowsky said the trio was their top line before Smirnov was sidelined for a month with an illness.
The new line combination, with Sternschein subbing for Smirnov, was pretty solid, with six goals and 12 assists. Gadowsky said, at least for Friday, he wanted to see the original trio of sophomores back together, but he also noted Sternschein had “made a case to be in the lineup every night.”
When he finally got his chance, Sternschein said he wasn’t as much concerned about filling the Smirnov role as complementing his linemates.
“I just had to play my game,” said the freshman, who has three goals and three assists in 11 games. “Obviously two very fast skaters and I had to keep up with them. I think the past few weeks have been unbelievable.”
The Smirnov-Sucese-Biro combination works because they are three of the team’s fastest skaters who add a healthy dose of creativity and the confidence of a second season on the team.
“You get more comfortable,” Biro said. “You say, ‘Maybe we can try this.’ Overall we’ve taken on a little bigger role this year, being more confident. Overall I think our games have grown a lot”
Biro acknowledges he and Sucese are practically hockey junkies. They’re together all the time, talking about their games for hours Friday and Saturday nights, not to mention watching other games and highlights.
“We watch maybe more than anyone else on the team,” said Biro, who has four goals and eight assists this season, while Sucese has four goals and six assists. Smirnov posted five goals and six assists in his eight early games.
Sucese also helps the cause as one of the team’s top faceoff men, winning 52.2 percent of his draws. That win percentage trails only Evan Barratt (52.8 percent), and Sucese’s 117 total faceoff wins is behind only Chase Berger’s 129.
With decades of experience, Gadowsky can usually spot traits that can make for a good line combination, but beyond being roommates the coach was having trouble finding that emulsifier that makes the chemical on-ice bond.
“For them, I don’t know what it is,” he said. “I know that they’re roommates and they get along extremely well, and they’re two guys that do a lot of extra work. Maybe because of the extra work that they do together, it sort of feeds into that.”
Gadowsky didn’t want to separate Biro and Sucese when Smirnov had to sit because the pair also was together on power-play and penalty-kill units, thus it was easier on bench management for shift rotations.
They won’t know until Friday night if the Smirnov-Sucese-Biro line can pick up where it left off, but just keeping the hockey junkies together is a good start.
“They’re two unbelievable players,” Sternschein said. “They make everything so easy. Some of the stuff they do out there, the way they work, the way Brandon and Nate work, makes it very easy to play with them. A lot of fun.”
Men’s college hockey
Who: Penn State (8-7-1, 3-4-1 Big Ten) at No. 11 Ohio State (8-3-3, 3-3)
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday
Where: Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio
Radio: WAPY 103.1 FM
Leading scorers: PSU—Andrew Sturtz (8 goals, 11 assists), Chase Berger (3G, 11A), Brandon Biro (4G, 8A), Trevor Hamilton (2G, 10A). OSU—Tanner Laczynski (5G, 12A), Mason Jobst (7G, 6A), Matthew Weis (5G, 7A), Dakota Joshua (3G, 5A)