It’s hard to overstate just how important Penn State’s road sweep over Wisconsin was last weekend. After starting the season with an incredible 13-1-1 record, and achieving the first number one national ranking in school history, Penn State stumbled in the second half. The Nittany Lions went 3-5-1 in their first eight games of the second half, including a five-game winless streak capped by a pair of blowout losses at Minnesota, that temporarily put Penn State outside the top-10 of the Pairwise and putting what looked like a sure NCAA bid into jeopardy.
So stemming that tide with a pair of wins last weekend was huge for the Nittany Lions. They now likely need to be no better than .500 in their final eight games to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, and have put themselves back into the conversation to win the Traviolia Cup and glory and relevance in the New York market. They trail league leader Minnesota by five points and host the Golden Gophers at home this weekend.
If there has been one indicator of success for Penn State this year, and potentially one key to success this coming weekend against Minnesota, it would appear to be freshman forward Denis Smirnov.
Many may remember Smirnov’s hot start to the year, and talk about him slowly dying off in the second half, but the splits are truly staggering.
From the beginning of the year through December 31st, Smirnov had 10 goals and 17 assists in just 15 games. He was ninth nationally in scoring, and third overall in points per game. In Penn State’s first nine games to start 2017, Smirnov had just a single goal and a single assist.
This past weekend, Smirnov began to rebound. On Friday night, after Penn State had lost a 2-0 lead, Smirnov broke a 2-2 tie with a goal that would eventually help Penn State to a 6-3 victory. On Saturday night, was dominant, scoring a pair of goals and a pair of assists in a 5-2 win.
Smirnov’s success and Penn State’s success are beyond the point of coincidence. The Nittany Lions are 10-0-0 this year when Smirnov scores a goal, and 8-6-2 when he does not. They’re 16-1-1 when he registers at least a point, and 2-5-1 in games in which he does not score a point.
Whether Smirnov’s mid-year struggles were a case of a freshman hitting a mid-season wall and working through it, or just a bad a stretch of games, or whatever, the fact that he seemed to have worked past it last weekend is a very promising sign for Penn State. Smirnov was virtually non-existent in Penn State’s first series at Minnesota, and the Nittany Lions will definitely need him this coming weekend, and potentially down the road in the NCAA tournament.