Underclassmen key to Lions' season

David Eckert, BWI Staff
Blue White Illustrated

When freshman Liam Folkes found the back of the net in double overtime against Wisconsin and earned Penn State its first Big Ten Tournament title in program history, he provided an climax emblematic of the Nittany Lions’ rapid ascent towards the top of the college hockey world.

If Penn State is to repeat last year’s magic, Folkes and the rest of the Nittany Lion underclassmen will have to carry the load once again.

Now a sophomore, Folkes was one of many youngsters who provided the firepower that propelled Penn State to the NCAA Tournament for the first time. He’s part of a group that will have to take on an even larger role following several notable departures, including former captain David Goodwin, as well as Vince Pedrie, who signed a two-year entry level contract with the New York Rangers.

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Standing in net this season will be another underclass contributor and arguably the most important Nittany Lion on the ice. Peyton Jones was instrumental in Penn State’s postseason run, and Gadowsky is confident in his netminder headed into a fresh campaign.

“We really had no goaltender last year who started an NCAA Division I game,” Gadowsky said of last year’s situation. “It’s ironic when,at the of the year you’re holding a trophy, that goaltending was a big part of that. We sure feel a lot better than we did last year.”

With Penn State’s high risk offensive playstyle that often leaves defensemen in poor position to defend the rush, Jones’ play can determine the outcome on any given night.

So can the prolific scoring efforts of sophomore forward Denis Smirnov, who led all Division I freshman with 47 points a year ago.

The 5-foot-10 native of Moscow, Russia brings a natural element of speed that fits well in Gadowsky’s up-tempo style. But according to the head coach, Smirnov is poised to add a bit of physicality to his game in 2017-18.

“We’re very fortunate at Pegula Ice Arena to have great facilities, and he’s really taken advantage of that,” Gadowsky said. “He’s improved his strength and conditioning greatly since we saw him in September of last year. I think he’s going to bring much of the same in terms of his vision and skill, but I think it’s going to be a little easier on his body and he’s going to be able to play in traffic a little better.”

The Nittany Lions will be bolstered by a pair of incoming freshmen selected in in the summer’s NHL Draft. Evan Barratt was chosen in the third round by the Chicago Blackhawks, while the Los Angeles Kings chose Cole Hults in the fifth round.

Barratt, specifically, could help fill the void on the blue line left by Pedrie’s departure. Like Pedrie, Barratt is an offensive minded, left handed defenseman who scored 86 points in 96 total games last season.

Aside from the tangible upside, Gadowsky also touted his intelligence on the ice as such a young age.

“I love his instincts,” Gadowsky said.”He thinks so quickly. He processes what’s going on so quickly. When we’re finally able to practice, I’m looking forward to how he can create on the ice.”

The Nittany Lions will get their first taste of game action when they open the 2017-18 season with a home exhibition game against the University of Ottawa.

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