The distance between Penn State’s 2021-22 campaign and last season continues to grow.
In a year that featured strictly Big Ten play, the Nittany Lions got off to an 0-5 start before rebounding to finish two games below 0.500 in 2020-21.
However, after a pair of commanding victories over LIU by a combined score of 8-3, the blue and white holds a 2-0 record.
Now, Penn State will continue its nonconference slate with weekend matchups against Canisius on Friday and Saturday at 7 and 1 p.m., respectively.
“Last year was kind of getting thrown into the fire playing some of the top teams in the country with Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan,” sophomore forward Christian Sarlo said. “This year having LIU and Canisius, they’re all still good teams, it’s college hockey… but it’s definitely a different type of transition, and hopefully it will help out a bit, especially with the freshmen.”
The Nittany Lions played solid all-around hockey against the Sharks, pairing their scoring depth with some stringent defense, as evidenced by senior goalie Oskar Autio saving 93% of Long Island’s shots.
Penn State’s young, third line brought plenty of energy, as freshman forwards Danny Dzhaniyev and Ryan Kirwan and sophomore forward Chase McLane combined for seven points.
They’ll look to keep Penn State’s high-octane offense going against a Canisius squad that will play in its opening games of the 2021-22 season.
Last year, the Golden Griffins turned in one of their best showings in recent memory.
After Canisius finished well under 0.500 in both the 2018-19 and 2019-20 campaigns, it went 11-6 last winter.
Pacing the Golden Griffins’ attack was junior Keaton Mastrodonato, who had more points than games played last year. Mastrodonato led Canisius with nine goals and tied for the team lead in assists.
Though Guy Gadowsky and his staff don’t typically focus on one of the opposition’s players, he noted an area he’d like to see his defense improve upon when it takes the ice against Canisius.
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“Coming back into the defensive zone, our communication was quite poor [against LIU],” Gadowsky said. “It’s one of those things that you talk about, but to actually execute it at a game speed is very different. That’s something that we’re trying to work on, and I hope we see some improvement.”
On the opposite end of the ice, the Golden Griffins bring back a stellar goaltender in junior Jacob Barczewski. The O’Fallon, Missouri, native was honored as Canisius’ Male Athlete of the Year and was a first team All-AHA selection.
Though Penn State had little trouble penetrating LIU’s defense, the Nittany Lions may be in for a tougher task with Barczewski manning the Golden Griffins’ net.
Though Canisius averaged a steady 3.5 goals per game last year, the Golden Griffins only converted on 19% of their power-play opportunities.
However, should Penn State give Canisius ample chances as it did against LIU, considering the Nittany Lions took 11 penalties in two games, the Golden Griffins would have a number of opportunities to improve upon last year’s clip.
Freshman forward Carson Dyck touched on Penn State’s struggles with taking penalties in its first two games, as well as the balancing act between playing physical and staying out of the sin bin.
“You got to have each other’s backs, but at the same time you don’t want to retaliate,” Dyck said. “If something happens to one guy that the team doesn’t like, we’re going to deal with it as a team.”
However, the early returns indicate the blue and white’s penalty kill unit has improved. Penn State gave up one power-play goal to the Sharks while it kept LIU scoreless for its other six times with a one-man advantage.
Just a season ago, the Nittany Lions featured the statistically worst penalty-kill unit in the Big Ten.
Conversely, Penn State scored on 22% of its power plays in the 2020-21 campaign. Now, the Nittany Lions are off to a 2-for-7 start this year.
The marked improvement from Penn State’s special teams units are welcome sights for the blue and white. And while Canisius will present a more stringent test than Long Island did, the blue and white will gladly accept a return to a more normal schedule that features nonconference opponents.
“I think it’s important for everybody that you get a few games under your belt,” Gadowsky said. “The way we do things, these are games where we rely on a lot of information, both good and bad. So for us, they're extremely important.”
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