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Live on ESPNU: Penn State Hosts Michigan

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The Lions look for their first win of the season against a tough opponent.

Heather Weikel | Black Shoe Diaries

Guy Gadowsky’s No. 23 Penn State hockey team will face No. 7 Michigan in a rare Wednesday and Thursday night series. The game on Wednesday night will be televised nationally on ESPNU. The second game of the series, and both games the following week with Arizona State, will be streamed on BTN+, which costs $9.99 per month. It may be worth the cost of the subscription to see the team play over the next few weeks, consider it an early Christmas present to yourself and the team.

Fans may be wondering what is going on with Guy Gadowsky’s squad this year, getting out to a slow start as it has. There are reasons that the team has not won a game yet through four chances, but none that are worth dwelling on. They faced two tough teams, on the road. There’s plenty of hockey to be played.

How Did We Get Here?

The Lions began this abnormal season with a pair of games on the road against No. 5 Minnesota. The Gophers are 4-0 and received a first place vote in this week’s poll. It’s hard to win in Mariucci Arena against a good team but this version could be in the hunt for a national title.

Wisconsin played even with the Lions in the second series of the season but then pulled away late in the game twice for the sweep, sending Penn State home with an 0-4 record. Wisconsin played well and has a solid team, but they suffered a similar fate against Arizona State this past weekend, dropping a pair to fall to 4-4 on the season. The Badgers are ranked No. 14 in the poll this week and their .500 record does not exclude the team from being a potential tournament contender at the end of the season.

The Lions will face No. 7 Michigan this week and while the series is at home, without the support of the fans, it won’t be much of an advantage. One nice thing for the team will be that for the first time they will get to play on typical size of ice, as both Wisconsin and Minnesota’s home ice are a bit wider than in State College.

The Wolverines have a great deal of talent but are of a similar build as Penn State. Overall team speed is not a strength for the Lions but that won’t be an issue this weekend. Penn State has a well-rounded group of players and some exceptional skaters such as Clayton Phillips, but their roster has evolved into a slightly-larger than average group. Some people may remember back six or so years ago when Penn State, led by Casey Bailey, first became competitive at the Big Ten level. They did it with large players for the most part, sacrificing speed for power.

Penn State isn’t that lop-sided in its attack but after a handful of years featuring smaller-than-average players that hustled and had a ton of skill, the team now has more players like Alex Limoges; slightly above average size, good skill, great overall game. The only downside with Limoges and players like Kevin Wall, Sam Sternschein and the others that have good size is that they typically have trouble chasing around smaller teams.

Wisconsin has several key players that are under 5-foot-10 such as Jason Dhooghe, Brock Caufield, Linus Weissbach and Cole Caufield. They played a finesse game on a wider than usual sheet of ice and it wasn’t a very good match-up for the Lions. Minnesota has overall team speed and plays on the widest ice that Penn State will encounter. In terms of natural match-ups for the makeup of the current roster, Guy Gadowsky’s team has already weathered its two most difficult challenges.

That’s not to say that Michigan will be much easier. There are no easy games for Big Ten hockey teams. All 8 teams competing in the Big Ten garnered votes in the poll this week. The Lions were ranked No. 23 and Michigan State, the lowest-ranked team, was one spot behind them.

It is going to be a tough season but it’s likely that 4 teams will make the NCAA Tournament out of the Big Ten. One of those teams will have a record right around .500, which means that if it can stay within striking range, it could jump from the bottom of the B1G standings into a potential at-large position, very late in the season. We’ve seen such a thing in recent years, with a team making a late-season run. That’s what it might take for the Lions this time around.

Scouting Yourself

It is important to note where the Lions are in their development as a team. During the first game in Minnesota, when Guy Gadowsky spoke to his squad in the locker room just before the game, it was the first time that he addressed the entire team all at once in the locker room this season. With the restrictions facing them, it made replacing half of the roster that much more challenging.

The Penn State players have not had the chance to mingle with one another in a manner that they normally would and without having much ice time together, and no non-conference games to use as a warm up, they were thrown right into the fire with little preparation. It’s hard to know what the team will look like this weekend.

Not only are the Lions replacing a lot of players, the team that it has appears to be built to be one that will take time to grow together. There are no players that seem poised to score 50 points, rather a group that can all contribute 15-25 points, depending how the puck bounces on a given night. That will make it a challenge when things aren’t going as planned, as they don’t appear to have any players that can take over a game. That can work for and against a team, as it also doesn’t have any players that will go on solo missions, taking the rest of the team out of play when it isn’t prudent.

Out of the 12 periods that the team has played thus far it has won half of them on the ice, though maybe not on the scoreboard. It is clear that the Lions have enough talent to play with any team in the country, since they held their own with Minnesota on the road. The team looked strong at times in Wisconsin as well. The problem has been that it lost the other half of the periods pretty badly, giving up multiple goals quickly at times.

A New Style In Net

It is way too early to make judgements on players but it appears that Penn State will have to adjust to the new goalies. Oskar Autio has played well at times but he has let in a few goals that, for a Big Ten goalie, should not have gotten to the back of the net. It’s fair to remind ourselves that Peyton Jones, a great college goalie, had issues with letting soft goals in at times but with Autio it’s a little bit different. Jones sometimes lacked the attention he needed, which was frustrating. Autio’s problem seems to be that he is small and simply may not have the skill needed to compete at a high level.

That’s a horrible thing to say after only seeing Autio play for two games as a starter. I don’t like to criticize players but as a goalie, he is in the spotlight. Two goals in Wisconsin went right over his left shoulder, a place where a taller goalie would have blocked it without reacting. Autio didn’t react and there was space over his shoulders since he is four inches shorter than Jones. That’s something that is going to be a problem against some of the snipers that Autio will face in the Big Ten.

Autio and Souliere are different goalies than the team has seen since joining Division 1 hockey. PJ Musico was the shortest player to be in the starting rotation in net for the Lions prior to this season at 6-foot-1. Musico was a surprise contributor that used his athletic ability to move all around on the ice, seldom feeling content to stay within the crease, and was scary to watch at times. Even when Musico played well it was an adventure. He became part of a unique three-headed monster with Eamon McAdam and Matt Skoff, who were both well over 6 feet tall.

Chris Funkey made 12 starts as the back-up goalie behind 6-foot-4 Peyton Jones over a three-year period. He was 5-foot-10 but he was never a candidate to be the top goalie, always getting spot duty. Souliere and Autio will be in net for the remainder of the season and beyond. Autio is listed at 6-foot-0 and that may be generous; Souliere is an inch or so smaller. It may have just been a couple of great wrist shots that got over Autio’s shoulder, we may not see it as a recurring theme. If the goalie play does not step it up, one way or another, the team will have to score a lot more goals than it is designed to score.

A couple of the goals have been scored when the team let the goalie down and left him all alone. Those can be completely forgiven, in some ways, as they are for most goalies. This Penn State team, however, seems to be playing a much more complete style of hockey than it ever has, protecting the goalie more than in past years. It doesn’t appear to me that the style is driven by a lack of confidence in the goalies rather than an adjustment to the rest of the college hockey world. With larger, well-rounded players such as Penn State has, it does not have to sell out on the offensive side anymore.

The team will continue to take a great deal of shots but that does not mean that it will crash the net and leave odd man rush opportunities. In the past when defensive players joined the offensive push, the forwards that were given the responsibility of rotating back to help the defense were smaller, offensive-minded guys. They were not always thinking about their defensive responsibility and even when they were, they were small and ill-equipped to help much on an odd-man rush. Now the team has mostly long-armed forwards of above-average size that get their goals by working hard in the offensive zone. When forwards like Sternschein, Gratton, Wall, Limoges and others end up under duress during odd man rush situations, their size makes them interchangeable with defensive players, which reduces the stress on the goalie.