Penn State’s 6-2 loss to No. 2 Michigan on Friday at Pegula Ice Arena was nothing if not a slight variation of Thursday’s defeat, which in and of itself is all that really needs to be said.
The Nittany Lions played fine. If ever a performance was summarized by a single word, ‘fine’ would be the one to choose for Friday. The offense was fine. The defense was fine. Penn State did enough to hang around in a game that it was frankly outmatched in from the start, which counts for something but not for goals.
But because hanging around is often something that does not last, it did not last on Friday either. The slow skate toward the inevitable began as Penn State opted to go with Liam Souliere in goal and an error in front of net resulted in Michigan’s opening tally of the game early in the first period. It was a preventable error, Souliere failing to play the puck and his teammates failing to do the same. If there was a golden rule of hockey, it’s to never leave the puck unattended in front of goal and Penn State broke it.
In spite of that miscue, Penn State tried, and to the Nittany Lions’ credit they do so admirable, tying up the game just 36 seconds into the second period.
But Michigan would respond not long thereafter, and then respond again, and again, and again. It was not a particularly aggressive display of dominance but Penn State would try, Michigan would defend with relative ease and then the Wolverines would pick their spots and display clinical finishing. Souliere was no better on Friday than Autio was on Thursday, but Michigan’s talent may not have cared even if he was, a group clinical in its finishing from start to finish.
Penn State on the other hand was not. The Nittany Lions had a five-minute power play, a few odd man rushes and a breakaway, but none of it ever clicked. Meanwhile a Michigan team loaded with seven first round draft choices just took its time and found the goal when the moments arose.
The Nittany Lions are 0-4 in Big Ten play this year which – judging by the quality at the top of the league – might already be enough to put them out of the race unless Penn State finds itself again.
That is perhaps the most concerning factor for coach Guy Gadowsky at this moment in time. It’s one thing to lose, one thing to get beat by maybe the best team in America. But Penn State has not looked like Penn State. The Nittany Lions are not as experienced on the whole as some of their predecessors, but they lack the gusto and edge, aggression and maturity that made those teams so good.
And in turn, Thursday and Friday are not so much a red flag for Gadowsky as a matter of results, but rather for the method. The Nittany Lions may have never had a chance in the first place, but they could have looked far more like they believed they did.