Nittany Lions Sweep Niagara to Continue Hot Start

Story posted November 4, 2016 in Sports, CommRadio by Will Desautelle

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa – The Niagara Purple Eagles came into University Park still searching for its first win after a dismal 0-5-2 start to the season. The No. 14 ranked Penn State Nittany Lions had other plans, however, as they improved to 7-1-1 after sweeping the Purple Eagles in this weekend’s series. The Nittany Lions struggled at times to find their rhythm offensively but still outscored the Eagles 10-2 in both games.

On Thursday night, the Nittany Lions came out aggressively from the opening faceoff, as Zach Saar found the back of the net off a Ricky DeRosa assist just two and a half minutes into the opening period. Leading goal scorer Andrew Sturtz found the back of the net minutes later after a gorgeous move to get past Niagara goaltender Guillaime Therien.

Despite having no wins thus far, the Eagles often demonstrated some scrappy defense, which clearly frustrated the Lions at times. Penn State had several power play opportunities but failed to convert on any of them. Denis Smirnov finally broke through the Niagara defense late in the period and scored two goals to build a three-goal lead. Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky referred to Smirnov’s first score as the turning point in the contest. 

“That first one was a major momentum shifter,” Gadowsky said. “We had some difficulty finishing some opportunities we got, but that play really carried us the rest of the game.”

A Dylan Richard goal off of a Smirnov assist with five minutes left to go in the third sealed the deal for the Nittany Lions. Penn State finished the game with 58 shots to Niagara’s 23, and was well above its nation leading average of 43.57 shots per game.

Chris Funkey got the start in the net for the Lions and collected his first win on the season. Funkey recorded 22 saves in a very solid effort. The sophomore goaltender’s family happened to be in town for the game, and it was a special treat for them to see their son get the start and make a major contribution to the victory. Coach Gadowsky praised Funkey’s character and his value to the program after the game.

Penn State struggled early on Friday night, but a dominant third period powered the Nittany Lions to an impressive 5-1 victory, completing the sweep.

Initially, it appeared as though Penn State was a bit complacent after their Thursday night victory, attempting just 12 shots in the opening period. The Lions also committed several early penalties, including a game misconduct penalty from James Robinson.

“That is one aspect of our game that we’re not happy with and want to get out of our game,” coach Gadowsky said regarding the penalty. “We’ve labeled it as our top priority, and it is an indicator that we still have work to do.” 

Just two minutes later, Andrew Sturtz scored on a power play off an assist from Denis Smirnov and Erik Autio. The goal was one of Sturtz’s two on the night, giving him a team-high eight on the season.

Just like Thursday, the Nittany Lions began to struggle offensively in the second. Vince Pedrie soon scored his third goal of the season to break the tie and put the Nittany Lions up 2-1.

The Lions then exploded and showed why they are one of the top offensive teams in the nation. An early goal from Sturtz, set up nicely by Nate Sucese put the Nittany Lions up 3-1. Just two minutes later Zach Saar scored his second goal of the series off of a Brandon Biro assist, increasing the Nittany Lion lead to three. Gadowsky did not point to any specific adjustments made going into the third, but he did emphasize closing the game out on a high note.

"We are trying to develop the attitude that we could put teams away,” Gadowsky said. “I thought we did a nice job of that in the final period."

Penn State continued its dominant third period, as senior captain David Goodwin netted his first goal of the season off of Smirnov’s third assist of the game. Goodwin tallied his 99th career point with the goal. Meanwhile, Smirnov has been on an absolute tear for the Lions recently as the assist gave him his 15th point of the season, which is now third nationally.

It took the Nittany Lions a while to find their groove, but a strong third period earned them a 5-1 win and further proved their legitimacy in college hockey. However, the team still believes there is room for improvement going forward.

"Our goal coming into any weekend is two wins, but at same time you have to put it behind you and begin to prepare for next week," senior Rickey DeRosa said after the game.

The Lions are still far from perfect, but there is plenty of room for optimism.

They are now ranked No. 2 in the PairWise rankings, a statistical poll that ranks teams based on their records against common opponents and head-to-head competition. The PairWise rankings are usually quite accurate when it comes to predicting which 16 teams will qualify for the NCAA tournament, meaning if it started today, the Lions would be a No. 1 seed.

Gadowsky’s team may be young, but there is an abundance of talent across the board, and it is the deepest team he has had since Penn State became a division-one hockey program. Penn State is off to a fantastic start, but there is still much hockey to be played this season.

The Nittany Lions will be at home for a two game series next week against Alaska Anchorage.

 

Will Desautelle is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email willdesautelle@gmail.com.