After a promising non-conference performance, Penn State has struggled to get momentum rolling in Big Ten play this season. The Nittany Lions have yet to pick up a weekend sweep, and currently sit at sixth place in the seven-team conference.
Although Penn State still sits at No. 11 in the USCHL polls with the inside track to an NCAA tournament birth,its play will certainly have to improve if it wants to maintain that status.
Luckily, coach Guy Gadowsky has reinforcements on the way. The now-eligible transfer student Evan Bell is already being acclimated into the lineup to shorten up Penn State’s defensive woes. In addition, Evan Barratt, one of the top scorers in the NCAA, is returning to the Nittany Lions’ lineup this weekend for a showdown with last place Michigan State.
After gaining eligibility, Bell made his debut last weekend in Minnesota, where the Nittany Lions split the two matchups with the Golden Gophers. On Friday night, the defense looked solid with the newly implemented transfer student, conceding only two goals on 32 shots.
This was only the second time in Big Ten play where Penn State conceded two goals or less.
Bell took the responsibility of manning the point on Penn State’s top power play unit. It is also likely that Bell will remain paired with senior Kevin Kerr after the two played well together last weekend, including an assist for Bell on Friday night which led the duo to a +1 rating.
Despite signs of more defensive stability last weekend, it was the Penn State offense which uncharacteristically hit a brick wall in Saturday’s 4-1 defeat.
It was the first time the Nittany Lions, who continue to lead the NCAA in most offensive categories, had been held to a single tally all season. It appeared the team was badly missing two of its best producers: Evan Barratt and Aarne Talvitie.
Both forwards were facing off against one another in the gold medal game of the IIHF World Junior Championships. The Nittany Lions badly missed the skill in the open ice and clinical finishing ability of Barratt, and the overall playmaking ability of Talvitie as they both put up impressive performances on one of hockey’s biggest stages.
However, the fantastic display from the Penn Staters did not come at a cheap price. The Nittany Lions might have lost Talvitie for the season after sustaining a knee injury in the gold medal game.
Despite the grim news on Talvitie, he still brings important experience and leadership to the locker room from his time captaining Finland.
With the other additions of Bell and Barratt, along with the depth of the Nittany Lions’ offense, Penn State still likely introduces its strongest lineup of the season on Friday night for the opener against Michigan State, and just in time to prepare for next weekend’s home showdown against Big Ten leaders Ohio State.
The Nittany Lions have a chance to play themselves right back into a regular season conference title and cement a third-straight NCAA tournament spot, but with all their cards now on the table, these next couple of series will be crucial.
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