Blue White Illustrated

February 2022

Penn State Sports Magazine

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Page 45 of 67

4 6 F E B R U A R Y 2 0 2 2 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M MEN'S ICE HOCKEY E ven as a freshman, Penn State hockey forward Ryan Kirwan already has an NHL-level shot, head coach Guy Gadowsky said. He had put it to use five times through 22 games for the Nittany Lions, to lead Penn State's freshman class. "He shoots the puck as well as anybody who has played at this program," Gad- owsky said. "We actually expected him to put the puck in the net, and he's doing that." Penn State's coaching staff, though, is more impressed with the other aspects of Kirwan's progression to the collegiate level. Gadowsky complimented Kirwan's work ethic, and his willingness to con- tribute in the defensive zone as well. At 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, he's a physical presence for the Nittany Lions, capable of making plays on both ends of the ice. "I think I'm a player whose main focus is to get pucks on net," Kirwan said re- cently. "My defensive game has been an emphasis of mine this year, just doing the little details in the defensive zone so that in the offensive zone I can feel more con- fident when I do have the puck." That has translated into a nice statisti- cal season for Kirwan, who ranked sixth in the Big Ten among freshmen with 16 points as of Jan. 19. Kirwan has fashioned himself into an effective creator as well. He rode a stretch of four games with five assists into a se- ries with Wisconsin Jan. 21-22. Kirwan posted 12 points in 12 games entering that encounter with the Badgers. Clearly, he's a piece for the Nittany Li- ons to build around moving forward — and that's important considering how the 2021-22 season is playing out for Gad- owsky's team. Penn State sat in last place in the Big Ten heading into the Wisconsin series, five points behind sixth-place Michigan State. The Nittany Lions haven't finished a season below fifth since 2013-14, their second campaign at the Division I level. They'll have to go on quite the run to con- tinue that stretch. The remainder of the season will be approached with an eye toward player development, Gadowsky has said on nu- merous occasions. The Nittany Lions aren't necessar- ily a young team. They frequently field a lineup with more upperclassmen than underclassmen. But, Gadowsky pointed out, this roster lacks experience in key situations, and that's something he and the coaching staff will work to build up down the stretch. In previous years, Gadowsky noted, "you had a lot of guys that were out in those situations and had experiences like that, freshman year, sophomore year, ju- nior year. "No matter how much you talk about it, write on the chalkboard and show video, it's about having that experience when the lights are on and the stadium is packed, and points are on the line against Big Ten opponents." Gadowsky said after a mid-January sweep at the hands of host Michigan that the remainder of the season will be about "getting Penn State hockey back." The head coach has said on several occasions that he felt he did a poor job of coaching during the pandemic, allowing the cul- tural tenets of the program and the iden- tity with which the Nittany Lions play to slip. Kirwan's recent success is among the first signs of those building efforts bear- ing fruit. "It's been very obvious from the start of the year," Gadowsky said. "The way he changes, the way he approaches being the third man high without the puck, his at- tention to that has impressed us. "So, has he gotten better? His perfor- mance has. But he's really made it a goal for himself right from the start to be a complete hockey player, not just rest on his natural ability." Certainly, Kirwan isn't the only young Nittany Lion giving fans reason for op- timism moving forward this season and beyond. Three young defensemen — freshman Simon Mack and sophomores Jimmy Dowd Jr. and Christian Berger — have each shown promise. Shifty forward Danny Dzhaniyev has displayed plenty of moments of brilliance in his freshman season, too. Kirwan's path to collegiate success has just been a little bit more direct. And the Nittany Lions hope he can help lead oth- ers to a similar destination. "When I was playing junior hockey, it's not as if I was not focusing on the defen- sive side of the puck, but here you just have to," Kirwan said. "It's a little bit of an adjustment, but as you get older, it's the most important part of your game. It's been my biggest focus. It really, really helps." ■ Building Blocks The Nittany Lions have struggled this season, but young players like Ryan Kirwan are offering signs of hope for the future DAV I D E C K E RT | DAV I D E C K E R T 9 8 @ G M A I L . C O M Through Penn State's first 24 games, Kirwan was ranked sixth among Big Ten freshmen with 16 points. PHOTO COURTESY PENN STATE ATHLETICS ■ SEE PSU'S HOCKEY SCHEDULE PAGE 64

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