Penn State begins its 2019-20 campaign against Sacred Heart this weekend (#WeBeatSacredHeart for all those original RZ kids), and we at Roar Lions Roar have provided for you our best takes for the upcoming season.
It is no secret that the strength of this team comes from its remarkable depth at forward. Who do we see leading the way in scoring this year?
Andrew Rubin: I’ll go with Chicago’s next Patty Kane, Evan Barratt. Hard to predict just one on a team that should lead the nation in goals (I’ll be totally shocked if they’re outside the top-5) but Barratt will lead a balanced Nittany Lion attack.
Kaitlyn Dividock: It’s got to be Alex Limoges or Evan Barratt, right? I think the only other guys that could come anywhere near sniffing that duo’s production rate will be captain Brandon Biro, who’s a scrappy scorer in his own right, or Denis Smirnov, who’s still trying to get back to his outrageous freshman year numbers. Those two won’t get top-line minutes though, which will give Limoges or Barratt the edge. Aarne Talvitie is also an interesting dark horse candidate, as the Finn (who’s coming off a 2019 World Junior Championship win) has one of the silkiest pair of mitts you’ll see in college hockey this season.
Sam Watson: Assuming that we see the Folkes, Barratt, Limoges line stick together the whole season, I think we’ll see Alex Limoges lead the way in scoring. He and Barratt were dynamic together last season and we’ll see Limoges pile up the points close to the blue paint.
Penn State was every synonym for “bad” on defense last year. Is this the rebound year for the blue line group?
Andrew: If Oklahoma football can improve their defense to give an elite offense some help (which has happened so far), so can Penn State hockey. Probably wouldn’t hurt if Guy Gadowsky gave Lincoln Riley a quick call sometime soon though for some advice on the subject.
Kaitlyn: Well, they surely can’t get worse! When you’re coming off a goals-against average rate of 3.56 per game, you know you have a big problem. Hopefully, Evan Bell has a huge season–he’s already off to a great start–and Penguins’ prospect Clayton Phillips can bring some newly added strength to the blue line, but I think we’re going to see a lot of what we saw last year. The defense’s performance (ill-timed turnovers, lots of chances off the rush gifted to the opponent, failed clears and breakouts, etc.) during the exhibition game vs. Ottawa was evidence of that. The leaky faucet needs to be clamped. I personally believe Kris Myllari will have a big senior year, though.
Sam: I’m going to need to see some evidence that the defense will be better before I can say that it will be. Last year, all the defense needed to be was average and it managed to not come close to that, so as far as I am concerned, a jump from flat out bad to average would be a gift. Not having to lug around the weight of a certain alternate captain anymore will be a plus, and the new blood should help to bring the best out of the returning veterans.
There has also been room for improvement between the pipes for Penn State. Do we see one (or both) of Penn State’s primary goaltenders improving their stat lines this year? Who is starting in net come March?
Andrew: Going to kick this one back over to the defense. Sure, Jones and Autio need to be better if this team wants to contend for a national title, but the goalies were hung out to dry so much last year and they were very inconsistent because of that. Providing them with some support would help both of them to grow throughout the season.
Kaitlyn: I feel like Peyton Jones has been on this team for a billion years. Ever since I started on the beat writing for Onward State back in my college days, he has been around. It’s wild. Anyway, every year, without fail, we talk about how he needs to be better than he was the previous year, and this season is no different. Jones is an excellent college netminder and will regularly give you that highlight-reel save, but he also has the tendency to be streaky and let in soft goals. As Andrew said, a lot of the blame falls back on the defense’s inability to play a full 60 minutes in front of Jones without any glaring errors that leave him out to dry. But if this team is to get back to the Big Ten championship and Frozen Four, Jones needs to stand on his head and have the best season of his career. If not, Oskar Autio is capable of taking over and will be waiting in the wings to prove himself if need be. It all comes down to which guy can give Guy Gadowksy that elusive .900 save percentage he so desperately wants on a consistent basis.
Sam: I would not be surprised if we see Oskar Autio get the start in at least ten games this season. I was ready for it to happen last year because Peyton Jones can be so dang streaky, and maybe giving him a slightly lighter workload will help him be his best more often. In addition to needing the defense to step up in a big way, this team really needs its senior netminder to be at his best down the stretch. And yeah sure, not all the bad goals fell on Jones’ shoulders last season, but enough of them did that it's still a concern going into this year. Come Big Ten Tournament time, Jones will still be the starter and hopefully the road to get there is smooth.
The race for the regular-season conference title was tight last season, but Penn State wasn’t able to challenge for the regular season hardware. Where do we see the Lions finishing in the conference this year?
Andrew: I think second in the conference, but I need evidence of defensive improvement before I see them pacing the league throughout a grueling Big Ten slate.
Kaitlyn: Penn State is predicted by Big Ten coaches to win the whole dang conference, so I’m pushing all my chips to the middle of the table and predicting the same thing. Let the chaos ensue!
Sam: I was genuinely shocked to see Penn State be the top team in the Big Ten coaches poll. Traditionally, Penn State has not gotten the preseason respect from coaches, so this is a massive nod from the rest of the conference that this team is legit as it gets. This group of forwards is as good of a scoring group as has existed in college hockey over the last decade and you better believe they are out to prove that missing the NCAA tournament last year was a fluke and not a long term regression. Penn State wins the regular-season hardware.
Where does Penn State finish the season?
Andrew: They'll make the tournament, and win a game in Allentown with a partisan crowd behind them. But they won't be able to win two high scoring track meets in a row against tournament teams and will fall short of the Frozen Four.
Kaitlyn: I wrote in my preview piece Wednesday that if the Nittany Lions don’t make the tournament, they’ll fall short of expectations and the season will be a disappointment. They have the best line in college hockey returning that’s complemented by a forward group that’s tough to match up against. If they figure out a plan to stop hemorrhaging shots against and backcheck efficiently, they have the talent up front to roll over anybody. I’m not so confident that will happen, so I bet Penn State earns a tourney berth and shows up in front of a quasi-home crowd in Allentown, but ultimately loses in a letdown in the second or third round.
Sam: This team will take the next step forward for the program. It’s too talented and too experienced not to. I think we’ll see the boys make it all the way to the Frozen Four and lose a close game in the semifinals or national championship. Buckle up ladies and gentlemen, it’s going to be a wild ride.