Across the room from me on my TV, Penn State hockey is losing 4-1 to Michigan in Ann Arbor as the game rolls through the third period.
That score might change, and probably will, it seems unlikely though that it will change in the Nittany Lions’ favor.
So aside from Penn State’s historic proclivity for the comeback, we’re going to assume the game is over.
As such, this will mark Penn State’s 10th loss of the year, six more would be the second worst in the program’s short but not completely inconsequential history. It’s not out of the question this will happen given the Nittany Lions’ remaining schedule, current state of play and the general unforgiving landscape of the Big Ten.
The question is why this is happening, or if it should be, something that Guy Gadowsky and his staff will continue to ponder on the road from Ann Arbor to New York City for a Saturday night rematch with Michigan at Madison Square Garden.
The answers are both bluntly stated but equally nuanced.
The most obvious elephant in the room: Penn State has never played defense to a level that has matched its offense.
Some of this is partially self-inflicted as Gadowsky prefers to recruit offensive-minded defensemen than the other way around.
Some of it is goaltender management, an area that has been the program’s Kobayashi Maru, balancing performances with realities, team morale with pragmatism. If Gadowsky and his staff have a weakness, it’s that they have yet to solve the goaltending riddle. Equally true, the absence of obvious answers. Oskar Autio making his first career start on Thursday night is a little evidence of both.
But to put this on the universe of goaltending is simplifying things too far. The earlier iterations of Penn State hockey gave up odd-man-rushes in exchange for offensive pressure. The last time the Nittany Lions took the ice in New York, a third period lead evaporated because of rushes given up to one of the greatest forward lines in the history of the sport.
It didn’t matter who was in goal that night.
Those missteps have been less of an issue in 2018, but the offense-first mentality has always inherently put defense as a secondary objective. (I’ve written about this before here.) And in turn the solution to Penn State’s defensive problem has been more a philosophical battle than anything else.
The resulting outcome presents the program with three related, but somewhat independent paths to follow. It can either get better at what it does, change what it does, or find better players to try an execute what it does.
In reality the best and most likely of the three options is the third. Gadowsky is married to his system and the offensive results -and the Nittany Lions’ quick rise- have proven him right. They are deserving of the success they have had, no matter their flaws.
Equally true, Penn State has only begun to scratch the surface of the prospect pool across the nation and faces a continuous battle against traditional powers, talent identification and natural footprint. The Nittany Lions lost to Denver last year for many reasons, but chief among them was a straightforward reality that Denver had better players. Wanting to win and trying hard gets you to where Penn State is, but at the end of the day, every sport comes down to the guys running the show. They get you to where you want to go.
And that’s not a slight, Penn State’s roster is increasingly talented, perhaps as talented and capable as it has ever been. The Nittany Lions are relative equals with everyone they play in the Big Ten and have a punchers chances against anyone they face out of conference. Evan Barratt is a legitimate star, Peyton Jones an intriguing goalie prospect, Denis Smirnov a talented skater, Brandon Biro and Nate Sucese are as hockey-smart as anyone in Division I.
If nothing else, the program isn’t in a place where it can have early departures and not miss a step. In truth, few are.
It also comes down to how you define good players. Tiger Woods has spent most of his career not being the longest driver or even always the best putter, but what has made his career so legendary is the ability to access his best at a higher rate. Penn State’s roster is full of players that can be very good, the challenge is bringing that player to the ice more often than not. That comes both in development and recruitment.
All in all the Nittany Lions seem destined to have a down year, or at least a year falling short of what it otherwise could have been. And in the end that will happen. North Dakota finds itself struggling, many of the usual powerhouses are facing rough seas as parity continues to work its way through the growing sport.
But when you boil it down, beyond a hail-mary four-game stretch against Minnesota to close out the 2017-18 season and into the NCAA Tournament, Penn State has won five other games in regulation in the month of January and beyond dating back to last year. A harsh reality come home to. A difficult stat to reverse.
It might be a reminder that Penn State is not a very old program, and that building one to elite status takes more than a nice building.
Or maybe it’s a warning that something isn’t working.
Whatever the case, Penn State lost 5-1. That much is clear.