Fans can expect a little bit of experimentation and a first glimpse at a team dealing with some high expectations when the Penn State men’s hockey team plays its annual international exhibition game at 1 p.m. Sunday against the University of Ottawa.
While much about the team already seems determined, especially with the abundance of proven talent returning, what happens on the ice ultimately determines everything.
For a talented team with a destination in mind — an appearance in the NCAA tournament after just missing it last season — every opportunity on the ice could be a step in the right direction. The exhibition game might be a baby step, or two.
“I think it’s important for the players just to knock the rust off,” head coach Guy Gadowsky said. “It doesn’t happen after three periods, but it’s a start.”
Penn State enters the season as the preseason conference favorite, according to the Big Ten coaches’ poll released Monday. Still, the Nittany Lions sit 13th in the national rankings. They’re behind two other Big Ten teams there, No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 12 Ohio State, and just ahead of No. 16 Wisconsin.
“It just doesn’t matter to us,” Gadowsky said of polls and rankings. He knows where his team finishes matters more than where it starts. Last season, the Nittany Lions just missed the NCAA Tournament. “It really isn’t part of how we think. We have to prove it.”
Whatever Penn State proves will be done with its standard offense-first mentality. With the nation’s most productive scoring line back, and with proven depth as well as another strong scorer back from injury, the team has many reasons for optimism.
That top line — Evan Barratt, Alex Limoges and Liam Folkes — returns healthy, and with a healthy focus on the postseason.
“We have a goal and we have some unfinished business from last year,” Folkes said. “That’s the feeling we’re bringing to the rink every day. We know want we want to do. Everybody’s here for a reason so it’s good to see that.”
Barrett battled nagging injuries as last season wound down, but Gadowsky said he’s 100% and has displayed “a visible difference in his skating and his jump.”
Aarne Talvitie returns after playing in just 17 of 39 games last season. He sustained a season-ending injury when playing for the Finnish National Team in the gold medal game of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships. Before that, he had 16 points.
He’s not quite fully healthy, the coach said, but he’s been practicing well. He’ll be at center instead of wing this season, with Gadowsky suggesting that if Talvitie was good enough to play that position for his country’s national team he’ll do fine for the Nittany Lions as well.
Five players who scored at least 16 goals return for the team, including all three members of the top line, captain Brandon Biro and Nate Sucese. Denis Smirnov, who scored 34 goals his first two seasons, is 100% healthy was well. He was injured in the international exhibition last season and hampered by injuries much of the season.
Because of the team’s experience and proven talent, Gadowsky sees this season as a continuation of last season, when the team was playing well despite just missing the tournament.
Still, what continues as a question mark — at least until proven otherwise — is the team’s defense. Penn State allowed 3.6 goals per game last season, a number not good enough to rank among the top 50 in Division I and a clear limitation on the team’s elite aspirations.
Defense was a focus all last season and throughout the offseason. Defenseman Paul DeNaples had a standout freshman season and Cole Hults earned preseason praise from conference coaches. Plus, Minnesota transfer Clayton Phillips adds quality depth.
Challenges have been mental and physical for the defense, but optimism abounds at this point.
“We’re thrilled with what our strength is, and we believe you win that way,” Gadowsky said. “We’ve looked at how we can improve our defensive side of the game without sacrificing our offense.”
No. 13 Penn State vs. Ottawa
Game: 1 p.m. Sunday (exhibition)
Notable: Ottawa, ranked No. 4 nationally in Canada, opened its regular season Thursday with a 3-2 victory over No. 7 McGill. … Ottawa’s top scoring line returns intact this season. Kevin Domingue, Cody Drover and Brendan Jacome produced 106 points last season. … Ottawa’s roster includes goalie Anthony Brodeur, son of Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur. … Penn State has a 3-1 record in international exhibition games with its only loss to Ottawa, a 4-3 overtime decision in 2017. … Penn State’s top line also returns intact. Alex Limoges, Evan Barratt and Liam Folkes tallied 135 points last season.
Tickets: $5 for the public and free for Penn State students. All non-student seating is general admission.
Up Next: Penn State opens its season with a series against Sacred Heart on Oct. 11-12 at Pegula Ice Arena.
Big Ten preseason poll
Conference coaches picked Penn State as the favorite in their preseason poll.
Here’s a look: