Over the past few seasons, Penn State has established its identity as an offensive powerhouse. Since 2014-15, the Nittany Lions have not finished lower than 12th in goals-per-game, reaching their peak as the top-scoring team in the nation in 2016-17.
Through 10 games this season, the Lions have found the back of the net 38 times, good for the seventh most potent offense in the NCAA. The Lions focus on offense may come at the expense of defense, however.
In the same four season span, the Lions best finish on the defensive side of the puck also came in 2016-17, when they surrendered 2.77 goals per game, good for 24th in the nation. The Lions finished in the bottom third of the NCAA the two seasons prior, but have taken a major step back this season.
Guy Gadowsky’s squad has allowed 39 goals this season, ranking next to last in goals against per game. Gadowsky isn’t pinning the blame on his goaltending tandem of Peyton Jones and Chris Funkey, however.
“Strictly defense,” he said Monday. “Strictly team-based.”
Jones has started nine of the team’s 10 games this season, but has been pulled three times in favor of his backup, including during a 7-4 loss to Mercyhurst in which he allowed three goals on five shots.
While Gadowsky has put the onus on the entire team to improve defensively, Jones won’t be pointing fingers any time soon.
“I’ve always been the kind of guy that if a goal goes in it’s my fault,” he said. “I’m the goalie, I’m supposed to make all the saves. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 5-on-0 or 1-on-5 and they score, I say that it’s my fault and there’s always a way that I can make a save.
“I’m not going to blame anything on the defense. I’m going to say that I haven’t had the best start and that I need to be better.”
Assessing Sam Sternschein’s Debut
With significant injuries striking early this season, Penn State has gotten a few looks at those who spend more time in the stands than in the lineup. Derian Hamilton, who suited up just 15 times last season, has already played in eight games this year with Kevin Kerr out of the lineup. Though he’s listed as a defenseman, Adam Pilewicz has been on the lineup card twice this season as a forward.
With Denis Smirnov on the shelf last weekend against Mercyhurst, another promising freshman lined up in Smirnov’s usual position against the Lakers. In his absence, Sam Sternschein made his collegiate debut alongside Nate Sucese and Brandon Biro.
The Syosset, NY native earned his first career point on an assist on Alex Limoges’ second goal of the season — originally credited to Sternschein before review determined it deflected off Limoges — and certainly made an impression on Gadowsky.
"I like his presence. For a big guy, he moves very well,” Gadowsky said. “He seems hungry to get in on the forecheck."
At 6-foot-1, 204 pounds, Sternschein is far from the largest player in the lineup, with the likes of 6-foot-5 Brett Murray and 6-foot-7 Nikita Pavlychev on the ice. Gadowsky understands that it doesn’t always take the largest players to set the tone physically.
"Size is meaningless if you're not aggressive," Gadowsky said.
The freshman’s playing style perfectly aligns with what Gadowsky has been seeking this season. Whenever there was a loose puck in the offensive zone, Sternschein was routinely the first man to the puck and whenever he found himself in position to get the puck on net, he did just that, totalling seven shots over his first weekend of college hockey.
There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that Penn State dropped 11 goals over the weekend without Denis Smirnov, one of the team’s most dynamic offensive players. The bad news is that the Nittany Lions may have to do that again for a few more weeks.
After announcing after Friday’s game that Smirnov would be out for the weekend with an illness, Gadowsky provided an update on Monday that the sophomore forward would be out for the foreseeable future.
After leading the team in scoring last season with 47 points, Smirnov has upped his production this season with 11 points in eight games.