Penn State men’s hockey coach Guy Gadowsky acknowledged his team has a few issues to sort through.
For the fifth time in as many weeks, his team skated away with a weekend split, this time losing 7-4 to unranked Mercyhurst on Friday, then beating the Lakers 7-5 Saturday.
Life doesn’t get much easier for the No. 19 Nittany Lions (5-5), who visit No. 6 Notre Dame (6-3-1) on Friday and Saturday.
With the Fighting Irish now a member of the Big Ten for hockey, Gadowsky would like to spend some time looking at the scouting reports, since the games will impact the conference standings. But he doesn’t have a lot of spare time.
“I would love that if we felt that we had our own house in order and could spend time focusing time on our opponent,” Gadowsky said at his weekly session with the media Monday. “There are enough really well-defined issues that we have that we have to — the No. 1 priority is to take care of that.”
The list includes poor work on faceoffs, special teams play, shaky starts to games and — most importantly — a defense that has allowed 39 goals. The average of 3.9 per game is fourth-worst in Division I. Gadowsky said the whole team is accountable for those numbers — and he’s not blaming the goaltending, but sophomore goalie Peyton Jones is still shouldering the blame.
“If a goal goes in, it’s my fault,” Jones said. “I’m the goalie, I’m supposed to make all the saves. No matter if it’s a 5-on-0 (break) or if it’s a 1-on-5 when they save, it’s my fault.”
One of the many little issues is allowing early scores. In half of their 10 games, the Nittany Lions have fallen behind 1-0 in the opening five minutes, twice allowing a goal less than 15 seconds after opening faceoff.
Gadowsky asked his players why they were having such bad starts after Mercyhurst scored 13 seconds into the game Friday.
“We didn’t get an answer,” Gadowsky said. “I know they had a meeting after the coaches left, and I think that aspect of the game was handled much better Saturday night.”
The team just ended a stretch of six straight games at home, figuring things out in comfortable surroundings, but now have to fight through their issues against one of last season’s Frozen Four participants.
Defenseman Erik Autio ticked off several points on their to-do list for this week, like back-checking back into the defensive zone and maintaining their positional gaps.
“We’re just trying to get back to normal,” defenseman Erik Autio said. “Get back to the things that give us success.”
Leading scorer Denis Smirnov missed last weekend’s games, with Gadowsky saying then it was because of an illness. The coach confirmed Monday the sophomore winger, who has five goals and six assists this year after being one of the nation’s top freshmen, will be out for a few weeks.
Forced to step into the lineup is freshman Sam Sternschein, who picked up an assist in his first collegiate game Friday. The 6-foot-1, 204-pound winger played on two different lines over the weekend, and the coach said the freshman figures to be getting a lot more playing time with Smirnov out.
“For a big guy he moves well,” Gadowsky said. “He seems hungry to get in on a forecheck. When you get big guys that are aggressive, I think that really adds to your identity. Size doesn’t do anything for me unless you’re aggressive.”
Coupling Smirnov’s absence with other injuries and struggles, and the Nittany Lions needed to be shaken up. At the suggestion of a player — Gadowsky did not say who — he put Andrew Sturtz, Chase Berger and James Robinson on the same line.
On Saturday, Berger had a goal and an assist, Robinson netted a hat trick and Sturtz picked up one goal and four assists — a single-game team record.
“When we have things in mind, not just systematically but in terms of lines and synergy ... it seems you always get surprised,” Gadowsky said, adding he plans to keep the trio together this weekend.