In another weird, high-scoring affair with Mercyhurst, the Nittany Lions staved off the Lakers' late push 7-5 and earned the out-of-conference split at home.
Penn State (5-5, 2-2 B1G) came out in the first period looking a hell of a lot better than it did Friday night, but the unfortunate and familiar narrative of its lacking defense showed once again that things desperately need to be fixed. That showed on the scoreboard, as Mercyhurst (3-3-2) still tacked on a handful of easy goals.
However, getting back to the good stuff, captain James Robinson knocked in a rebound just 2:33 into the first, with Andrew Sturtz and Cole Hults getting credited with the assists. About three minutes later, a boarding call sent Mercyhurst to the box and Penn State on its first power-play of the evening. The Lakers killed the two-minute minor, and then co-captain Jack Riley ripped a slap shot past Peyton Jones to tie the score at one goal apiece.
Winger Taylor Best would also slip a rebound in himself to give Mercyhurst its first lead, but Robinson, affectionately nicknamed "Jimmy Pucks" by Coach Gadowsky, would knot it all up at 2-2 with his second tally at 15:33, a career-best for the senior.
If you thought Jimmy was done, you'd be sadly mistaken, as he went on to record a hat trick less than a minute into the second period off a great set up by Hults. By the way, here's a reminder that Hults is a very, very good set up defenseman. Chase Berger would add to the noise, notching a goal set up beautifully by Sturtz a few ticks later.
Derian Hamilton took a bad roughing penalty, a dumb thing to do against the best power-play unit in the country, and the Lakers would make him pay, cutting the lead back to one. Liam Folkes didn't like that too much, and after he created a bit of space, an extremely patient backhand tickled the twine, and Penn State regained its two-score advantage 5-3.
The Lions started the third frame on a power-play, but Mercyhurst managed to kill it. Penalties were the theme of the period though, as we got to watch 4-on-4 hockey until a hooking call on Erik Autio put the best PP unit back onto the ice. The Lakers didn't manage a tally this time around.
But while Penn State's defense was busy scrambling around its own zone, Zach Todd exposed the poor backing and coverage once again, cutting the Nittany Lions lead to one. Mercyhurst would then go on to catch the defense standing still again, rallying to tie the game again at 5-5 with seven minutes left to play.
Penn State didn't give up hope. After a messy pile of sticks trying to push and shove the puck through Brandon Wildung's pads, Nikita Pavlychev would take a well-spaced pass by Brett Murray and wrist it into the back of the cage. After killing an insane 6-on-3 with Mercyhurst's goalie pulled, Sturtz put away the Lakers 7-5 with an empty-netter.
- James Robinson recorded his first career hat trick, becoming just the fifth Nittany Lion to do so. The most recent hat trick was off the stick of Denis Smirnov almost a year ago on November 18, 2016 against Arizona State. To refresh your memory, the other players in Penn State history to do so (so far) are David Glen, Casey Bailey, Tommy Olczyk, and Smirnov. If you're like me, you're really surprised, given the offensive arsenal Penn State has had over the years, that the hatty list isn't a bit bigger. Give it time, I bet Andrew Sturtz has his eye on it.
- Speaking of Sturtz, the junior set a single-game record for most assists in a game with four tonight, and also tallied his 46th goal of his collegiate career, another program record. That's great, he's great, and the kid has a stake in just about every game he plays. The way he always pokes his way into plays, leads his team on the ice, and commands the energy inside Pegula is something special. It's been a treat to watch his game grow.
- Cole Hults is another exceptional hockey player in this regard, especially when it comes to setting up his teammates for goals. And as an offensive-minded defenseman, the role he seems to fit so far, he's been so much fun to watch this season. I expect his growth to surpass his ceiling this if he continues impressing at this pace.
- The defense was a mess yet again, and with veterans making up a lot of it, it's a little inexcusable how often it looks scatter-brained or seemingly stuck to the ice on the back on their heels in front of Jones. It's been a problem all year, and it's the reason why teams like AIC and Mercyhurst leave Happy Valley and return home with a split for the series. Gadowsky really needs to start fixing the major problems this defense has, or Penn State's future tournament bids will dry up quickly.