Don't Let the Michigan Win Fool You, Penn State Hockey Still Has Plenty of Work to Do

By Jacob Cheris on December 8, 2020 at 8:00 am
Defenseman Mason Snell collides with goaltender Oskar Autio while diving for a loose puck
Penn State Athletics

The Penn State Men's Hockey finally got a much-needed win against arguably the best team in the Big Ten when it took down Michigan in the second game of that series. However, as the title of this article suggests, there is still work to be done.

As one would expect after a 1-5 start, head coach Guy Gadowsky is still trying to find the right balance between his goaltenders. Sure, Oskar Autio started back-to-back games for the first time this season and was better in the win against Michigan, but he still gave up five goals. Were all five goals were on him? No, but on most nights, that won't be good enough to win. So despite being the first to get consecutive starts, Autio likely hasn't won Penn State's number one goaltender role yet. His 4.32 goals-against average and a .840 save percentage show that he is far from running away with the job, but if he can play as he did against the Wolverines and the defense shapes up in front of him, better days will be ahead.

One of the strangest aspects of the start to the season has been the absence of Sam Sternschein. At first, it was just an absence on the score sheet (he has just 2 assists on the season), but then he was a healthy scratch in the team's first win. Last season, Sternschein tied Evan Barratt for the team lead in goals with 12 and was expected to be the team's top goal-scorer. Yet he hasn't found the back of the net once in five games. His linemates, Alex Limoges and Tim Doherty started slowly themselves, but while they have started to break out of their funk, Sternschein was replaced by freshman Xander Lamppa in the most recent game.

The question now is whether Gadowsky goes back to Sternschein for Penn State's series with Arizona State (3-4-1)? Penn State desperately needs wins going into the last series of Phase 1 of the Big Ten schedule. It's possible the head coach will ride with the lineup that put up 9 goals on one of the country's best goalies until it stops working. Sternschein has a great shot and is a physical player, and it has been disappointing seeing him struggle even with 20 shots on goal for him this season. Still, there is plenty of time for him to figure things out and provide a veteran scoring presence for the younger and quickly improving sophomores and freshmen around him.

Speaking of the lineup, unlike most of the rest of the team, the top four defensemen look to be set, in part thanks to phenomenal play from Jimmy Dowd Jr. The freshman was phenomenal in Penn State's win and was perhaps the best player on either side. His ability to find the open ice and make plays was apparent in the win. He is an excellent two-way defenseman which is something that Penn State needs desperately. He's someone that can block a shot in a key moment and also put up points at the other end. Gadowsky talked about how he slows the game down and his strong passing ability.

"The things [Dowd Jr.] does extremely well you can't really coach. He sees the game in a very unique way to slow it down," Gadowsky said. "He's got a really unique knack of slowing the game down and making very effective plays rather than just throwing a guy a puck somewhere in his body, he's going to put it exactly on your forehand."

That passing ability was on full display as he assisted on this Talvitie goal.

Thanks to a mix of previous success, a pandemic-altered schedule, and a massive influx of inexperienced talent, this year was always shaping up to be one of the toughest Gadowsky has had at Penn State. And most of the questions have still yet to be answered. But in the Michigan win, these Lions showed signs of what's to come. This team won't score 9 goals every game the rest of the way, though, and if they want to continue to find ways to win, they'll need some answers in the net and some names to step up and continue to evolve all around the ice.