Another week of college hockey in the books. Despite the Holiday Break in sight, the game load is starting to ramp up. More games for Hockey East and Atlantic Hockey, and even the beginning of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) season in the ‘pod’ located on the campus of Nebraska-Omaha.
Of all of the stories that have come out of the early stages of the 2020-21 season, one team’s early-season struggles have really raised eyebrows across the country.
Penn State’s Early Season Struggles
The Nittany Lions were looking to take a bit of a downturn compared to years past, despite coming off a Big Ten Regular Season Championship. Heading into this season, Penn State graduated six of their top eight scorers, including star forwards Nate Sucese and Evan Barratt, each of who averaged over 30 points in their careers at Penn State. The Nittany Lions also lost starting goaltender Peyton Jones, who finished tied for the most wins in the Big Ten last season with Michigan’s Strauss Mann.
Yet, there was still some optimism up front. The returning Alex Limoges finished third on the team in scoring behind Sucese and Barratt with 32 points a year ago. Along with sophomore forward Aarne Talvitie, a younger player, and a relatively experienced goaltender in Oskar Autio, the Nittany Lions looked to keep up with the rest of the extremely competitive Big Ten Conference. They were even ranked No. 10 in the country in the preseason polls.
Stumbling Out of the Gate
Even though the Nittany Lions were not expected to be as strong as they were last season, no one could have predicted how rough of a start the team would have, as Penn State started off the season with a pair of losses to both No. 11 Minnesota and No. 14 Wisconsin.
In the series against the Gophers, the Nittany Lions outshot Minnesota 63-55 over the two games. However, Gophers’ netminder Jack LaFontaine was outstanding, only giving up three goals.
Against the Badgers, Penn State was able to muster up a little more offense, scoring three times in each of the two games, including 52 shots on the Badgers’ goal in the first game of the two-game set. However, the goaltending struggled against the high-powered Wisconsin offense. Autio gave up six goals on 20 shots in the 6-3 loss on Nov. 23, with freshman Liam Souliere allowing seven goals the next night.
The Coach’s Fault?
With the team falling to an 0-4 start, some were looking at the players for their inability to execute on the ice. Yet, it was Nittany Lions’ head coach Guy Gadowsky who took the bullet for his team.
“We have to coach better. We have to do a better job. That’s not just goaltending or ‘D.’ That’s as a team, certainly to give them the structure and reps and understanding to know what’s going on, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”From ‘This Week in Big Ten Hockey
Gadowsky also admitted it has been an adjustment trying to prepare his team for the season has been a struggle compared to seasons before during the pandemic.
“I have done a very poor job of coaching the way I coach with the limitations that we have.”
Finally Picking Up a Win
The schedule did not get any easier for Penn State, as they had to prepare to host No. 7 Michigan this past week. The Wolverines themselves were coming off a pair of losses to Notre Dame but still looked strong in the process.
Game one on Wednesday saw a similar story that it had been in the season thus far for the Nittany Lions, as they outshot Michigan 39-31. Once again, the opposing goaltender stole the show, as Mann was only beaten once, including stopping 17 shots in the second period. Michigan sent Penn State to an 0-5 record with the 3-1 win.
Penn State did not have time to lick their wounds, as they had to get right back up the next night, once again looking for that elusive first win of the season against the Wolverines.
What then happened was…strange.
Talvitie scored the opening goal, which was only the second time this season where Penn State scored first, just 47 seconds into the contest. That was followed up by a goal from Jared Westcott just a couple of minutes later. Yet, the Wolverines bounced back with a pair of goals from Nick Blankenburg.
That’s when the biscuits began to really fill the baskets.
Cam York scored in the opening minute of the second period to give the Wolverines the lead. Talvitie scored his second of the game a couple of minutes later before San Jose Sharks’ prospect Thomas Bordeleau gave the lead right back to Michigan with his third of the season. The Nittany Lions then roared off four-unanswered goals, with Jimmy Dowd Jr., Limoges, Bobby Hampton and Chase McLane all finding the back of the net, with Limoges and Hampton’s tallies coming 15 seconds apart.
After all that, Penn State took a 7-4 lead into the final frame.
The third period was a little less hectic. Brendan Brisson brought the Wolverines back within two, but Hampton’s second of the game (an empty-netter) and one final power-play goal from Tim Doherty (the Nittany Lions fourth of the game) helped send Penn State to their first win of the season by a final score of 9-5.
The win also proved special as freshmen Dowd Jr. and Westcott, along with the Northeastern-transfer Hampton, scored their first goals as Nittany Lions.
Gadowsky was certainly impressed with his team’s performance, as they almost matched their season’s goal total in one night.
“We looked like us again,” Gadowksy told the media after the game. “We had sustained pressure from hard work.”
With the monkey finally off their back, Penn State can now look to focus on ending their first semester strong. It will not be easy as they are set to host the Arizona State Sun Devils, a team that has really turned it on as of late, next week.
Tuesday, Dec. 1
Holy Cross def. Bentley, 2-1 in overtime
The Crusaders had a tough time with the Falcons. Andrew Dumaresque gave Holy Cross their second win with the winner in overtime. Erik Gordon picked up the win in goal, making 19 saves.
No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth def. Nebraska-Omaha, 5-3
The first game of the NCHC schedule saw the host Mavericks keep up with the Bulldogs, but two-point nights from Koby Bender and Nick Swaney led Minnesota-Duluth to the win.
St. Cloud State def. No. 17 Western Michigan, 4-3
In a back-and-forth affair, the Huskies were able to outlast the Broncos. Micah Miller and Nick Perbix each had a goal and an assist, with Perbix scoring an extremely flukey game-winner with 27 seconds left.
No. 18 Bowling Green def. Robert Morris, 6-3
The Falcons dominated the Colonials, despite trailing 2-0 in the first period. They ended up outshooting the Colonials 40-18. Cameron Wright led the charge with a goal and three assists, with Will Cullen chipping in with a goal and two assists.
Wednesday, Dec. 2
No. 1 North Dakota def. Miami (OH), 2-0
North Dakota controlled the play in their season opener. Matt Kiersted and Riese Gaber were the goal scorers for the Fighting Hawks, with Shane Pinto assisting on both goals. Adam Scheel had a relatively easy night, stopping all 19 shots he faced.
No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth def. No. 4 Denver, 2-1
In another close game to start the NCHC season, the Bulldogs needed goals in the third period from Jackson Cates and Kobe Roth to pull out the win against the Pioneers. Jackson, along with younger brother Noah Cates, each had two points on the night.
Thursday, Dec. 3
No. 13 Ohio State def. No. 14 Wisconsin, 4-2
Another great performance from Buckeye netminder Tommy Nappier helped Ohio State to their second win of the year. Gustaf Westlund and Travis Treloar each tallied a goal and an assist for the Buckeyes.
No. 5 Minnesota def. Michigan State, 3-1
The Golden Gophers continue to impress in the early stages of this season. Scott Reedy tallied a goal and an assist for Minnesota and has now scored in four of the team’s first five games. LaFontaine looked comfortable once again, in goal, stopping 24 of 25 shots.
Nebraska-Omaha def. No. 17 Western Michigan, 10-2
In what certainly was a shocker to just about everyone, the Mavericks hit double-digits for the first time since January of 2018. Jason Smallidge had an amazing night, scoring a goal and four assists. His five points tied a school and an NCHC record for most points in a game. Matthew Miller and Chayse Primeau had a pretty good game themselves, with each posting three-point nights.
No. 20 Arizona State def. No. 16 Notre Dame, 6-3
The Sun Devils are back the .500 mark with a win over the Fighting Irish. Matthew Kopperud led the attack with a pair of goals and an assist, with Jax Murray scoring twice for the second game in a row.
Friday, Dec. 4
Bentley def. Army-West Point, 4-2
The Black Knights finally took to the ice after many postponed contests but were not met with open arms as the Falcons picked up their first win of the season. Michael Zuffante scored twice for Bentley, with Matt Clark chiming in with a goal and an assist. Nicholas Grabko earned the win in net, making 32 saves.
Sacred Heart def. Holy Cross, 2-1
Similar to Army, the Big Red had to wait to take to the ice. They were able to pull out a close one over the Crusaders. Ryan Steele and Marcel Godbout each posted a goal and an assist for Sacred Heart. Josh Benson was stellar in goal for the Big Red, stopping 38 of the 39 shots that he faced.
Robert Morris def. Air Force, 4-1
The Colonials got back on the winning track with a win over the Falcons. Blueline Nick Jenny led the charge for Robert Morris with a goal and an assist. Noah West earned his first collegiate win, making 30 saves for the Colonials.
No. 14 Wisconsin def. No. 13 Ohio State, 3-1
The Badgers bounced back to earn the split against the Buckeyes thanks to big games from Cole Caufield and Jack Gorniak. Each tallied a goal and two assists.
No. 5 Minnesota def. Michigan State, 4-2
Minnesota stayed perfect by completing the series sweep of the Spartans. Michigan State put up a fight though, coming back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the game. Yet, Reedy’s power-play goal late in the second period ended up being the game-winner, send the Gophers to a 6-0 record.
No. 2 Boston College def. No. 12 Providence, 3-0
The Eagles continue to start their season strong with a win over the Friars. Trevor Kuntar, Nikita Nesterenko and Mike Hardman (empty-netter) scored for BC, with goaltender Spencer Knight stopping all 30 shots he faced.
No. 1 North Dakota def. No. 4 Denver, 4-3 in overtime
A matchup that was as exciting that it was built up to be. The lead changed hands throughout the contest, with the Pioneers’ Carter Savoie scoring his second of the night to send the game to overtime. Just over a minute into the extra frame, 2020 Hobey Baker Finalist Jordan Kawaguchi scored to give the Fighting Hawks their second win of the season.
St. Cloud State def. No. 4 Denver, 4-3
Denver’s early-season struggles continue as their offense was stifled by the Huskies. St. Cloud State held the Pioneers to 14 shots through two periods, before Huskies’ netminder David Hrenak stopped 18 of the 19 shots the Pioneers put on goal in the third period en route to a 30-save victory. Sam Hentges and Kevin Fitzgerald each scored a goal and an assist for the Huskies.
No. 16 Notre Dame def. No. 20 Arizona State, 5-4
It was not easy, but the Fighting Irish split the two-game set with the Sun Devils in dramatic fashion. The Irish trailed 4-2 in the third period before Jake Pivonka and Solag Bakich scored just over a minute apart to tie the game. Then, with five seconds left, defenceman Nick Leivermann scored to help give the Irish the come-from-behind win.
Saturday, Dec. 5
RIT ties Niagara, 3-3 (Tigers win in a shootout)
In their first game of the season, the Purple Eagles were looking good, leading the Tigers 3-0 by the end of the first period. However, RIT chipped away and tied the game thanks to Andrew Petrucci’s goal in the third. Overtime solved nothing, and Jake Hamacher gave the Tigers the extra point with the winner in the shootout.
Army-West Point def. Bentley, 2-0
Army bounced back to earn the weekend split with the Falcons. No goals were scored until the third period as the Black Knights’ Grabko and Bentley’s Justin Evenson went save-for-save. Lincoln Hatten scored in the latter half of the final frame to help Army to the win. Evenson earned the shutout with 24 stops on the night.
Robert Morris def. Air Force, 4-2
The Colonials continue their impressive start to their season by completing the weekend sweep over the Falcons. Many thanks go to Jordan Timmons, who completed a natural hat trick less than 10 minutes into the contest.
No. 8 UMass def. Merrimack, 3-1
The Minutemen were able to earn their second win of the season with a solid performance against the Warriors. Josh Lopina picked up a goal and an assist, with Matt Murray having a relatively easy night, only having to make 16 saves in the win.
No. 2 Boston College def. No. 12 Providence, 9-0
In an offensive explosion, the Eagles came close to hitting double-digits while completing the sweep over the Friars, despite getting outshot 36-23. Six players had multi-point games for Boston College, with Matt Boldy and Logan Hutsko each tallying three points.
Nebraska-Omaha def. Miami (OH), 2-1 in overtime
In another low-scoring NCHC affair, the Mavericks picked up their second win in dramatic fashion. After the Mavs’ Primeau and RedHawks’ Scott Corbett scored during regulation, Martin Sundberg scored just 17 seconds into overtime to give Nebraska-Omaha the win.
Lake Superior State tie Alabama-Huntsville, 2-2 (Lakers win in a shootout)
Despite coming back from a 2-0 deficit, the Chargers lost the extra conference point to the Lakers, thanks to Ashton Calder and Mitchell Oliver’s tallies in the shootout. Mareks Mitens played well in goal for Lake State, stopping 23 shots.
Mercyhurst def. No. 18 Bowling Green, 2-1
Another team playing their first game, the Lakers were able to knock off Bowling Green, despite the Falcons outshooting Mercyhurst 39-13. Bemidji State-transfer Hank Johnson was sensational in goal, making 38 saves. Justin Cmunt and Cade Townend were the goal scorers for the Lakers.
Sunday, Dec. 6
Holy Cross def. Sacred Heart, 6-3
The Crusaders bounced back to earn the split with the Big Red, thanks to five unanswered goals. Alex Peterson scored a pair for Holy Cross, including the game-winner.
RIT def. Niagara, 5-1
After picking up an extra point in the shootout win on Saturday, the Tigers earned all three points in a win over the Purple Falcons. Andrew Rinaldi found the back of the net twice for RIT, with Logan Drackett picking up the win in net, making 34 saves.
Merrimack def. No. 8 UMass, 3-2
The Warriors and Minutemen traded chances and goals in the second game of their weekend set. Defencemen Patrick Holway and Zach Vinnell, along with freshman Alex Jeffries each registered a goal and an assist in the win.
No. 1 North Dakota def. No. 17 Western Michigan, 8-2
The best team in the country showed why on Sunday with a convincing win against the Broncos. Five players registered two points for the Fighting Hawks, with Grant Mismash and Shane Pinto each scoring twice.
No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth def. Miami (OH), 5-3
The Bulldogs are now 3-0 on the season with the win over the RedHawks. Roth scored twice and added an assist in the win, with Quinn Olson and Cole Koepke each earning two points on the night.
Lake Superior State def. Alabama-Huntsville, 3-2
Lake State was able to pick up a win in a close one against the Chargers, and they used all three goaltenders, as Mitens, Seth Eisele and Ethan Langenegger all getting in the action, with Langenegger earning the win. Calder, Brandon Puricelli and Mucha were the goal scorers for the Lakers.
Michigan Tech def. No. 6 Minnesota State, 3-1
The Huskies pull of an upset in the first game of their weekend set with the Mavericks. Eric Gotz’s second goal of the season ended up being the game-winner. Sophomore netminder Blake Pietila was outstanding, stopping 43 of the 44 shots he faced, picking up the first win of his collegiate career.
No. 18 Bowling Green def. Mercyhurst, 3-1
After the slip up on Saturday, the Falcons turned it around to earn a win against the Lakers. Mercyhurst goaltender Johnson making 48 saves in a losing effort. Tim Theocharidis registered his first multi-goal game at Bowling Green, with T.J. Lloyd assisting on both of his goals.
I’m a broadcast journalist from West Michigan, with an incredible passion for the game of hockey. After playing in goal for 16 years, I realized that my time on the ice was up, and chose a slightly different path working in the media. It is just as demanding, just a little less physical.