Before the season started, at least two or three wins looked like a sure thing against some middle-of-the-road competition to start off the schedule, heading into a matchup with Michigan.
Now, I know you saw the image at the top of this article, so you know I’m talking about Penn State hockey, but that was also the most conservative expectation for Penn State football too.
Once James Franklin’s squad lost to Indiana (and in the second game of the season, to Ohio State), an ugly mood surrounded the program and infiltrated my group chats. That led to a spiral with losses to Maryland and Nebraska teams that Penn State has much more talent than on paper.
On the ice, Guy Gadowsky’s team is 0-4 after two sweeps on the road at Minnesota and Wisconsin. Not having at least one win is disappointing on its own, but the way they looked is the real cause for concern. Other than bright spots like Kevin Wall, a quiet offense and shaky goaltending have given Penn State more questions than answers.
If you subscribe to the notion, as I do, that Penn State football let Indiana beat it five times in a row -- that is to say, the mental toll of the first loss played a significant role in the following losses -- Penn State hockey is set up to follow in their footsteps. So, how does this team avoid letting early losses compound into a lost season?
Well, to follow the football team’s model, the best cure is to play a sorry Michigan team whose dweeb of a coach already has one foot out the door. Unfortunately, Michigan hockey looks like a team that can win the Big Ten and may be among the best teams in the nation, so let’s try something else.
How about a clumsy comparison of the team’s supposed offensive leaders? Sean Clifford already surpassed last year’s interception total (7 in 13 games) in less than six games, in addition to a handful of fumbles. Yes, he has a new offensive coordinator, and yes, KJ Hamler is gone, Journey Brown and Pat Freiermuth are out, and a youth movement on offense has been flashy at times but pretty inconsistent. That's still a lot of generosity for a quarterback to show to the other team. On the ice, Penn State lost just about all of its top scorers from last season, but some great players have returned. Captain Alex Limoges holds the program record for points in a season, and Aarne Talvitie and Sam Sternschein have shown they possess serious firepower in the past. They’re getting a ton of ice time already, but they haven’t been able to light the lamp as much as they should. Through four games, Limoges has one goal and two assists, Talvitie has two assists, and Sternschein has one assist.
This clumsy analogy will continue with Micah Parsons and Peyton Jones. The elite linebacker opted out of this football season, and the best goalie in program history graduated after last season. Both teams were able to fill those holes in the lineup, but the story of these seasons would already be very different if those game-changers were still around. Linebackers Jesse Luketa, Ellis Brooks, and Brandon Smith are all good players, and goalies Oskar Autio and Liam Soulière...should be. Each goalie has two starts this season, with goals-against averages around five and save percentages around .800. That won’t cut it, especially considering some of the offenses Penn State has yet to play against in the Big Ten. There isn’t really any replacing Parsons or Jones, but the linebackers have played well. To match that, the goalies have to at least reduce the loss of Jones from devastating to somewhere around fine.
Here’s the recipe for Penn State hockey to seriously compete this season, as it seems to me: The top players have to turn it around, and by doing so, prove that Clifford’s regression is an exception, not the rule. Both teams’ leaders have to lead, to which you may be thinking, “yeah no kidding, Doug,” but they’ve all proven themselves more than capable in the past. Clifford was a good quarterback last year, and the returning forwards on the hockey team were great. Autio was a very good backup goalie and Soulière dominated in juniors. Clifford has shown us that continuing to play at that level is far from a guarantee, but if Gadowsky’s best players from last year return to form, they should at least stay out of the Big Ten basement.
Or not. Then we move on to Penn State basketball.