Quick starts in hockey are often of paramount importance. Opening a game with high energy can get the crowd and the rest of the bench engaged, which regularly carries over to a strong performance and, more often than not, a win.
Unfortunately for Penn State, the Nittany Lions have found themselves behind the eight ball far too often this season, which has directly translated to their sub-.500 record through the first nine games of the season.
During their 7-4 loss to Mercyhurst Friday night, the No. 17 Lions found themselves trailing for the third consecutive game — and sixth time in nine games — and sooner than ever during this season.
Just 13 seconds into the contest, Blake Gober was shoved off the puck in his defensive zone. Derek Barach recovered the turnover for the Lakers and set up Jonathan Charbonneau in the slot, who wired a wrist shot off the post and in.
The Lions responded well, ultimately outshooting the Lakers 22-6 in the first period, but could not solve Lakers’ goalie Brandon Wildung. The Lakers took advantage of some sloppy play as the opening frame was winding down.
After blown coverage by James Gobetz, Joshua Lammon found himself on a breakaway from the blue line. Peyton Jones made the initial stop, but the puck bounced through his legs, allowing Lammon to easily tap the puck into an empty cage.
Just a minute and a half later, Zach Todd expanded the lead to 3-0, firing a wrist shot over Jones’ glove and spelling the end of the night for the Lions’ sophomore netminder. Jones was replaced by Chris Funkey after allowing three goals on five shots.
The goaltending change seemed to spark the Lions. Just 33 seconds after Funkey entered the game, Andrew Sturtz brought the Lions to within two with his patented toe-drag-to-wrist-shot.
The goal moved Sturtz into a tie with Casey Bailey for the program record for career goals with 45.
Just 28 seconds later, Erik Autio made it a one-goal game. On a tic-tac-toe play, Autio stepped into the slot and fired a wrist shot over the blocker of Wildung.
The quick-strike offense late in the first period gave way to a back-and-forth middle frame. Three and a half minutes into the second period, the Lakers regained their two-goal lead after Zach Todd netted his second of the game on a nifty passing play.
Less than three minutes later, the Lions once again made it a one-goal game on the power play. After cycling the puck for much of the man advantage, Nate Sucese controlled the puck near the goal line. The sophomore forward sent a bullet pass to Nikita Pavlychev, who was parked in his usual spot right in front of the net. Pavlychev redirected the pass through Wildung’s legs for his third goal of the season.
Just five minutes later, however, the Lakers responded once again, regaining their two-goal lead. Derek Barach received a stretch pass fro Jack Riley and came in on a short breakaway on Funkey. After making a quick move, Barach slid the puck through Funkey’s legs for his third of the season.
The Lions responded once more just over six minutes later. Making his collegiate debut, Sam Sternschein hopped off the bench and took a pass from Evan Barratt in the right faceoff circle. With a crowd in front of Wildung, Sternschein fired a quick wrist shot into the top corner of the net.
While the goal was initially credited to Sternschein, he said after the game that he thought it hit linemate and fellow freshman Alex Limoges before going in. Sternschein’s suspicions proved true, as the goal was later credited to Limoges.
The Lions got off to a much stronger start in the third period, as Trevor Hamilton led a rush off the opening faceoff that nearly culminated with a slick goal by the senior defenseman. While Wildung made the save, Hamilton drew a penalty to Les Lancaster. The Lions peppered Wildung with shots during the man advantage, but came up empty.
The Lions continued to mount an attack until Cole Hults was issued a five-minute major for head contact and a game misconduct, sending one of the Lions’ top defensemen to the locker room and the Lakers to an extended power play. The Lakers took advantage of the power play, as Lancaster fired a point shot through a crowd that elluded Funkey.
While the Lions killed off the remainder of Hults’ penalty, they found themselves in penalty trouble again late in the third, as Andrew Sturtz was called for interference after trying to set a pick to give linemate Chase Berger a clear path into the attacking zone.
Lancaster once again made the Lions pay, as another of his point shots deflected off James Gobetz and past Funkey, capping off the scoring for the Lakers.