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As Penn State Hockey Closes In On No.1 Ranking, Are The Nittany Lions Really That Good?

by on December 13, 2016 12:10 PM

On Monday afternoon Penn State hockey checked off yet another first for the program as the Nittany Lions received four first place votes in the latest USCHO.com poll.

Penn State sits officially at No.3 for the second straight week, a program high, but the votes for No.1 overall ranking seemed all but inevitable as the Nittany Lions enter the winter break with the best record in the nation at 13-1-1.

But how good are the Nittany Lions really? A question that nearly everyone in the college hockey world is asking right about now. The anticipation has always been that Penn State would rise up the ranks quickly, but even this seems far more than anyone expected.

Although as one coach famously said of Penn State during its first season of Division I play, "We're playing them now before they get good."

So how good is Penn State?

It depends how you look at it. Here are the votes for and against Penn State's current standing in college hockey.

 

 

For:

Simply put, Penn State sits at 13-1-1, it's the best record in the nation. You don't pile up wins like that by mistake and if Penn State wasn't as good as advertised, sooner or later the losses would happen. Sooner or later your weaknesses catch up to you. For Penn State they haven't and the results speak for themselves.

Equally true the Nittany Lions have quality results. A dominating sweep over No.20 Michigan a win/tie against then No.3 Notre Dame and a win/loss against then No.16 St Lawrence. In total Penn State can point to four wins over ranked teams and just a single loss in six games against ranked opponents. In a sport where non conference wins are huge, Penn State has picked up great results against its best opponents out of conference and started off Big Ten play with a statement sweep.

Individual play has been strong as well. Peyton Jones has been rock solid in net with a .920 save percentage and a 1.97 goals against average. In a season where goaltending was a huge question mark, Jones has lived up to his recruiting hype and then some. Maintaining that in conference play will be key, but so far Jones has been everything Penn State has needed in net.

Penn State's defense has also improved since an occasionally suspect 2015 season. The Nittany Lions are third in total defense and have reliable puck movers in the offensive zone. Jones has some to do with the stout defensive numbers, but this unit by in large has taken a step forward from last year. Penn State's penalty kill is also the best in the country having killed off 62-of-67 opportunities.

On the opposite end of the ice it is more of the same as Penn State is ranked No.1 in the nation in total offense with 4.87 goals per game and the eighth best power play in the NCAA at 22.73 percent. 73 total goals is tied for best in the country 

Individually freshman Dennis Smirnov is sixth nationally in total points while Andrew Sturtz is second in the country with 13 goals in 13 games. Penn State's freshmen in total have scored 29 goals and have registered 42 assists, both the best for any freshman class in the nation. Albeit Penn State has a massive 10-man freshman class.

Against:

This section isn't as long but it's just as important. Penn State is currently ranked No.30 in strength of schedule, about dead in the middle of college hockey. As a result the Nittany Lions have largely dominated some of the worst teams in the sport. Nine of Penn State's wins come against teams ranked No.42 or lower out of 60 teams in the PairWise rankings. The Nittany Lions can always point to results against Notre Dame, St Lawrence and Michigan as proof of legitimacy, but it's hard to ignore the simple truth that so far Penn State has beat teams it had no real business losing to in the first place.

So there is on some level the question of inflated stats. History shows that Penn State can score goals as well as anyone in the sport, but it stands to reason that nearly five goals per game average will drop as the opponents improve. That's not necessarily a bad thing though.

So are they this good?

Despite a handful of weak spots on the schedule and the implied stat bump because of it, the answer is probably yes. Jones has been strong in goal, the offense is coming from all over the ice, the quality wins are there and the team simply passes the eye test. More importantly the defense has improved and its near impossible to score on the power play against this team. You can only beat the teams on your schedule and so far Penn State has dominated nearly all of them.

It will be telling though in the next six or eight games how good Penn State really is. The Nittany Lions will travel to Columbus after the winter break to face a No.9 Ohio State team that has given Penn State fits over the years. Then it will be back to Pegula to host Michigan State and then the Buckeyes again. If Penn State can come out of those three series with a winning record that will go a long way towards solidifying the early season ranking. A single game against Princeton will then stand between Penn State and what should be a massive midseason series at Minnesota.

So yes, Penn State really is that good, but it still has plenty of work left to do to prove it.



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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