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Penn State Hockey’s Old Defensive Struggles Resurface Against Notre Dame

Penn State hockey seemed the Penn State hockey of old in the worst possible way against Notre Dame last weekend.

The Nittany Lions managed to earn only one of six possible conference points thanks to a 3-3 tie/shootout loss Friday and a 4-2 regulation defeat on Saturday night. Only two teams — Michigan and Ohio State — have scored more goals in one weekend against Penn State than Notre Dame’s seven.

Despite Friday’s result, head coach Guy Gadowsky was pleased with his team’s first effort. Both teams played well throughout a tense, chippy affair at Pegula Ice Arena, and the Fighting Irish had a lucky bounce on their game-tying goal within the final two minutes of the game.

Saturday night’s game, however, was a totally different story.

“We have given up more odd-man rushes this year — and in these past six games — than ever before,” Gadowsky said on Monday. “Saturday was a bad one compared to Friday. We have percentages on those, and it’s pretty much equal between high turnovers, zone-entry turnovers, and a lack of or missed assignments on backchecking.”

Penn State got off to a sluggish, sloppy start on Saturday, and the team was never able to fully overcome an early 2-0 deficit. Nikita Pavlychev scored a big equalizer in front of the Roar Zone midway through the third period, but Graham Slaggert snuck behind the Nittany Lion defense and slipped the game-winning score past Peyton Jones with exactly five minutes left in the third period.

Saturday’s loss was the culmination of a bad trend that’s plagued Penn State for most of the second half of this season. The team is allowing more odd-man rushes per game than it has in any of the last three seasons, but that isn’t necessarily being reflected on the scoresheet.

Despite conceding more grade-A opportunities to opponents, the Nittany Lions’ goals-against average is actually much lower now. Gadowsky’s side has given up an average of 2.57 goals per game in 2019-20 — much better than the 3.56 conceded last season and the 3.16 in 2017-18.

You can perhaps attribute the improved goals-against average to Peyton Jones having a renaissance season in between the pipes, but a goalie can only save so many top-class chances before some start to go in. Regardless, this trend is puzzling for observers and those in the program — including Gadowsky.

“It frustrates the hell out of me,” he said. “We’re doing other things better — not a huge amount, but it’s still a difference. We have improved in other areas. Maybe you can attribute some of it to goaltending.”

Penn State has spent nearly the whole 2019-20 season trying to balance improving defense without sacrificing offense, and Gadowsky just doesn’t have the right personnel to make that happen. For the most part, the Nittany Lions’ defense has improved this year, but how can the unit take that next step and prevent efforts like Saturday’s from happening again?

Junior wing Alex Limoges noted that opposing teams are dropping an extra forward in their neutral zone in order to prevent the Nittany Lions’ deadly counter-attack from getting easy chances, so perhaps instilling a similar formula could work for Penn State.

At any rate, the ninth-ranked Nittany Lions will travel to Columbus for a big series against No. 13 Ohio State. The two sides are knotted on top of the Big Ten’s standings with 29 points, and their series will begin at 7 p.m. on Friday.

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About the Author

Mikey Mandarino

In the most upsetting turn of events, Mikey graduated from Penn State with a digital & print journalism degree in the spring of 2020. He covered Penn State football and served as an editor for Onward State from 2018 until his graduation. Mikey is from Bedminster, New Jersey, so naturally, he spends lots of time yelling about all the best things his home state has to offer. Mikey also loves to play golf, but he sucks at it because golf is really hard. If you, for some reason, feel compelled to see what Mikey has to say on the internet, follow him on Twitter @Mikey_Mandarino. You can also get in touch with Mikey via his big-boy email address: [email protected]

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