Denis Smirnov and Nikita Pavlychev were still kids back in Yaroslavl, Russia, and playing hockey with their buddy Ivan Provorov when ESPN’s famously funny “Russian Spy’’ commercial — featuring Alex Ovechkin and Semyon Varlamov — was made seven years ago.
But it wasn’t long after their arrival on the Penn State campus that they were made aware of it. Smirnov, a 5-foot-10 sophomore forward on the Nittany Lions hockey team, is hidden in the ceiling, or so goes the joke among teammates. Pavlychev, the 6-7 forward who came with him to Happy Valley after arriving to this country with Provorov, the Flyers defenseman, a few years earlier, is Ovechkin at the copy machine.
“If anything, we kind of joke about it with them,’’ junior defenseman Kevin Kerr, a Bensalem native, says of the ongoing Russian election-meddling investigation. “They’re both pretty lighthearted, funny guys.’’
That’s the fun conversation. The other, in the sometimes heated environment of a major university campus full of opinions and debates, is not.
“That I get probably more than I would like,’’ Pavlychev says. “I am not a huge fan of politics in the first place. Just don’t really care about it, don’t like to talk about it. Most of the time, I either completely ignore the person or I will give them a really quick comeback and get out of the conversation.’’
This comes, of course, when Penn State’s two Russian-raised teammates move about the greater campus, using a second language they have mastered with just a tint of an accent to gain an experience and an education at a place that Smirnov says “will always have a place in my heart.”
“And I will always feel connected to it.’’
The feeling is mutual. Leaving their families with Provorov in their early teens to play for an elite Wilkes-Barre team, both players had their eyes on Happy Valley early. And Happy Valley on them. “The first time I met them, I met them all together,’’ says Guy Gadowsky, the only coach in the Lions’ six-year history as a Division I hockey team. “They came onto campus together.’’
Provorov played himself right out of that college conversation, becoming the seventh pick overall in the 2015 draft before he was old enough to go to college. The other two, both of whom have also been drafted by NHL teams, did not. As freshmen, they played key roles in Penn State’s surprising (and brief) ascent last season to No. 1 status in the country and, later, in an equally surprising run from the fourth seed to their first Big Ten tournament championship and first NCAA tournament berth.
This season, the Nits (16-13-5 overall, 9-10-5-2 in the Big Ten) fashioned an 11-game unbeaten streak from late November into mid-January, then didn’t win a game in eight tries. A weekend off in mid-February after they showed some promise against the nation’s top team, Notre Dame, allowed them a reset, and they have won three of four since, sweeping Minnesota (19-15-2, 10-12-2-1) last weekend to gain the fourth seed and home ice for their three-game Big Ten tournament quarterfinal series this weekend against those same Gophers.
That meant three home games at intimidating Pegula Arena, where there has been 74 consecutive sellouts.
As with the team they play for, this season has been one of peaks and valleys for the two sophomores. After leading all NCAA freshmen last season with 49 points, Smirnov contracted mononucleosis and sat out the month of November. As Smirnov recovered, Pavlychev went on a scoring binge. Then, as Smirnov built back his game, his comrade (sorry, couldn’t resist) went stone cold.
A sixth-round pick by Colorado in last June’s draft, Smirnov has 14 goals and 11 assists in 26 games this season. Built like a brick, he’s strong on the puck and a shifty skater. “The thing that stands out about Denis is just his skill set,’’ Kerr says. “I played with a lot of phenomenal hockey players, Jack Eichel and Nick Schultz for Team USA overseas at one point. And obviously they are unbelievable hockey players. But when it just comes to vision on the ice, and straight skill set, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quite like Denis.’’
Pavlychev was drafted by the Penguins in the seventh round in 2015. His game, because of his height, is around the net. He had six goals in the Lions’ first 15 games, but has scored just three in the 19 games since. “The first half, I had a little luck,’’ he says. “The opportunities are still there. It’s all about cashing in on them for me.’’
This weekend would be a good time to do just that. A year ago at this time, Penn State catapulted to the Big Ten title and its first NCAA tournament appearance from the fourth seed. The Nittany Lions were a surprise team in a surprise season, but no one’s looking past this program anymore.
And maybe not in Russia, either.
“I hope so,’’ Gadowsky says. “Only time will tell. But hey, I’m just very grateful we got the two we got. Our experience with our Russians has been absolutely tremendous on and off the ice. And the culture they’ve helped develop here. They’re extremely committed players.”