White GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State defenseman Mark Yanis (Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich.) said last week he would prefer to be eased back into the lineup after being sidelined for two months with an ankle injury. Plans changed quickly for the freshman and he was a key factor in Penn State's 5-2 win and 3-0 loss to the United States U18 National Team.
Coach Guy Gadowsky opted to dress five defensemen, and Yanis was thrown right back into the rotation as the Nittany Lions (8-11-0) split a weekend exhibition series with Team USA. Nate Jensen (Shorewood, Minn.) and Luke Juha (Mississauga, Ont.) were both out of the lineup, but the defensive unit thrived while shorthanded in the weekend split.
"[They were] phenomenal," said Gadowsky, "and we played just five defensemen all weekend. Coach [Keith] Fisher came to me twice in the third and said 'We have to grit this one out because we're dead.' You have a guy like Mark Yanis and this was his first weekend [back]. They held a very skilled team to zero power play goals and we had to kill a lot [of penalties] and that's very exhausting for defensemen so I was very happy."
Yanis had a rigorous practice last Thursday to prepare for the weekend series and he was happy with the way his ankle held up over the weekend. Yanis played with confidence and did not hesitate to throw a hit or take a shot. The added confidence was a boost for a thin back line.
"I think when you have five defensemen you get in the game a little more," Yanis said. "You're never sitting down and everyone is playing the same amount. Overall everyone was happy."
Gadowsky pointed to Yanis' play to keep the puck in the zone that led to Tommy Olczyk's (Long Grove, Ill.) goal that put the game out of reach on Friday night. He blocked four shots and added toughness to the blue line.
"I thought he was excellent," Gadowsky said about Yanis. "I thought he shot the puck really well which is something that we've lacked. He's a big, imposing guy...I thought he moved the puck really well."
The Penn State penalty killing unit continued to impress, finishing the weekend going nine-for-10 while playing a man short. The Nittany Lion defenders slowed down some of the top-flight talent of Team USA.
Goaltenders Matthew Skoff (McKees Rock, Pa.) and PJ Musico (Orange, Calif.) split duties this weekend and both had good showings. Skoff got the win on Friday night, making some unbelievable saves that displayed his flexibility and athletic ability.
There were a couple saves that were just dynamite and obviously many saves because they had a lot of shots," Gadowsky said of Skoff. "He also made a few that you shouldn't make. We weren't going to win that game without him. There are not too many good hockey teams without a great goaltender. That's why he's here."
Team USA took a 2-0 lead at the start of the second period. Instead of getting rattled, Skoff and the defense tighten up and shutout Team USA the rest of the game.
"Tonight I thought the defense did a good job of just keeping their shots to the outside," Skoff said. "They are a team that shoots the puck a lot. The whole defensive corps really stepped up with only five healthy defensemen. It was a good overall response to adversity only having five defensemen."
Rich O'Brien (Furlong, Pa.) received the hard hat, given to the player who excels in the little aspects of the game. O'Brien had his best weekend to date, blocking five shots and playing a punishing style of defense. He made Team USA pay for coming into the zone.
"I thought the third period [O'Brien] made three awesome defensive plays and he played very physical without taking penalties," Gadowsky said. "He led by example of how to play tough without taking penalties and I think he played classy tough."
Joe Lordo (St. Louis, Mo.) was an anchor on the Penn State blue line all weekend, and played solid all around defense. He stepped in as the quarterback of the power play, a position usually played by Jensen and Juha, and didn't skip a beat. Lordo was rewarded for his efforts with his first goal of the season, which turned out to be the game winning goal on Friday night.
Connor Varley (Lansdale, Pa.) lead the Nittany Lions with eight blocked shots during the weekend. He was a pivotal piece on the penalty killing unit and stepped up in a big way in the absence of Juha and Jensen.
Gadowsky said that good teams usually have good goaltending, and that is what Penn State had this weekend. A major part of the defensive success was the communication between the goaltenders and defensemen. Skoff has been the more vocal of the two goaltenders throughout the season, but Musico continues to improve as the season progresses. He was noticeably loud on Saturday night and played a large role in the team's solid play.
"I couldn't do it without my defensemen," Musico said. "Communication is such a huge part, especially with only five defensemen playing tonight. I know I was yelling and giving direction and they were yelling at me when there was a scramble in front of the net. So it is definitely a team effort."
Penn State has a quick turnaround with Division III Neumann College paying a visit to Happy Valley on Tuesday. The Nittany Lions then travel to Philadelphia, Pa. to play Vermont at the Wells Fargo Center next Saturday.