Penn State has an embarrassment of riches at the forward position.
Though we're only nine games into this young season, the No. 5 Nittany Lions already possess three attackers ranked in the Top-4 nationally for points scored. Anxious talks about how this team would survive without their freight train of a scorer Andrew Sturtz swirled rampantly during the countdown to 2018-19's opening night, but it was clear that Penn State had the depth and talent to handle a huge hit to its nightly boxcars.
However, I don't think anybody expected this.
The top line of Alex Limoges, Evan Barratt, and Liam Folkes was originally created because Guy Gadowsky wanted an experienced player (Folkes) to mentor two incoming freshmen (Limoges and Barratt). The head coach also knew the individual strengths of these three guys would complement each other, making the decision that much easier. Folkes provides the speed, Barratt provides the two-way muscle and scoring touch, and Limoges provides the incredible puck skills. Boom: the perfect line combination.
Those little factoids are funny considering how that same trio is now operating at a level mirroring that of a well-oiled machine. It swarms, steals, pins its opponents to the boards in the offensive zone, and scores at will. Their effect is devastating, but when you watch them play together, they appear as if they're dancing a beautiful ballet. When a big goal is needed, Gadowsky doesn't waste a breath, calling upon them to leap over the bench boards and hit twine in a pinch. They never fail an assignment.
Before November 9, the Limoges-Barratt-Folkes line was responsible for an absurd 24 goals and 29 assists over Penn State's previous 15 games, carrying over from last season. Over that span, Limoges tallied 10 goals and 10 assists, Barratt put up eight goals and nine assists, and Folkes added six goals and 10 assists. For perspective on how good that is, they've netted 14 goals in their last eight games. During the home-and-home series with Robert Morris this past weekend, that trio added another 14 points. In two games. That's insane.
But what exactly is making this line so ridiculously good?
I took it upon myself to sit down with a few hours of game film to finally break down their menacing process.
It all starts with their Dedication to Playing Away From the Puck
Most people will focus their attention on what this line can do with the puck on their sticks in the attacking zone, as their go-to scoring ability is constantly on display, but their success can be traced all the way back to the consistent pressure and speed they apply on the backcheck.
They bait the opposition into the defensive zone, patiently wait for either a simple giveaway due to a well-timed hit or a successful poke-check, or trust that Peyton Jones or Chris Funkey will make a save so they can turn on the jets and win the ensuing puck battle. Then, they channel that speed, skate coast-to-coast behind their opponent and generate chances in the other end. It's like clockwork.
They seemingly Operate with the "Same Brain"
It's one thing to know where your teammates are on the ice so that you can feed them the puck after they get space for potential shots on goal. It's another to know exactly where the're going to be seconds beforehand so that you can thread an impossible-looking needle to the slot or goal crease for an easy score before they even get there.
Here's a look at what I mean:
Starting to think that Alex Limoges, Evan Barratt and Liam Folkes share the same brain. This line is unreal. 5-2 Nittany Lions at 3:26 of the third. pic.twitter.com/yE2YzIdS4W
— Patrick Burns (@PatrickBurns_) November 10, 2018
There's a 100-percent chance that when Barratt received the pass up at the left faceoff dot from Limoges at the goal line and subsequently flicked it cross-ice to Folkes, they all knew it'd be going right back to Limoges for a wide open goal down low. They just needed to spread out the defense first to make it happen.
That's what this line has figured out to do on every opposing defensive scheme they've faced so far, and they masterfully utilize their predictive nature to always create nothing out of something, fill the same open lanes to the net the other two would in that situation, and light the lamp time after time. The communication and chemistry they showcase is spectacular, and from the chunks of points they gobble up, it's working quite well.
"I think the biggest factor for them is that they love playing together," said Gadowsky. "They have a blast at practice and they have a blast in games."
Their Suffocating Forecheck Keeps Them Locked inside the Attacking Zone
Bullish-style hockey has always been around in this sport. Throwing big checks, slamming guys against the boards, and knocking your opponent down to the ice have all been praised since hockey's inception.
However in the college ranks, blue line defense takes a bit of a back seat, while speed, skill, and finesse are celebrated as the prominent blueprint for winning games. Because of this, the game is lightning fast, scoreboards see tons of action, the ice regularly gets tipped in the favor of the team with the better offense, and goalie performance becomes more important than ever due to the bloated amounts of shots on goal they face.
The Limoges-Barratt-Folkes line is the textbook example of what happens when you brandish all of those traits in a persistent manner. With their aforementioned balance of skills and strengths, controlling them (or even slowing them down) is nearly impossible for blueliners and goaltenders alike – mostly because they can't get out of their own zone. When you're unable to gain back possession and get the puck out to your forwards for a break out because you've been smothered to death by a spritely attacking corps, you're going to be exhausted and concede a lot of goals.
They Love Playing Together
When the players are asked about why they think they've been so good paired together, none of the analysis or stats the rest of us think about come to mind for them. Instead, they go off on tangents about how much they enjoy playing alongside each other.
“I can’t describe it,” said Limoges. “It’s so much fun. It feels like we’re all working out of one brain, too. All of us know what each other’s thinking. You don’t see that as much in games, but more during practices and off the ice. It’s so much fun.”
Having that enjoyment translate to performance in the rink is hard to muster if you don't like your teammates or if you simply don't click as a unit, but there's no evidence of that at all. They love playing together. That's all it takes.
For us as fans, it's been fun as hell to watch too.