Boiled down, nothing about Penn State’s 5-4 loss to Notre Dame on Friday night was entirely surprising.
Penn State has not been strong in its own end, nor the beneficiary of good bounces around the net. There have been unlucky deflections off of both players and the rink itself.
Nevertheless, the Nittany Lions have not gotten much in the way of steady help from Peyton Jones or Chris Funkey in goal this season. The latter earned a start Friday night after much internal deliberation and with no obvious answer either way. After Notre Dame scored three goals on six shots, Oskar Autio made his collegiate debut, eventually contributing 16 strong saves while letting in two more goals.
It was a Jekyle and Hyde night for the Nittany Lions who became just the second team all season (and second team in the past 22 games against Notre Dame) to score more than three goals on the Fighting Irish and if not for Cale Morris in net, positioned to score more.
The offense started early, Aarne Talvitie sniping over Morris’ shoulder to open the night just 1:10 into the game. Against a Notre Dame team that rarely allows puck to get to the net, let alone in them, it was a fantastic start for the Nittany Lions.
But Notre Dame answered just two minutes later, tying the game after a point blank shot sneaked past Funkey. Even tied, a 13-2 shot margin heading into the second period gave Penn State reason to hope and optimism heading into the break.
It wasn’t to be as Notre Dame took charge in the opening minutes of the second period scoring twice in the 3:49, neither goal all that impressive, and Funkey was replaced by Autio with much of the middle frame to go.
If a struggling goaltending situation gives Penn State ample reasons for concern, its relentless offense is a source of optimism. Cole Hults tipped a shot past Morris and suddenly a one-goal game late in the period seemed manageable.
That was the case for about four minutes, and then Andrew Peeke put Notre Dame ahead by two yet again. A 4-2 margin after 40 minutes, the final 20 feeling more and more like a formality.
But nearing the midway point of the third period and in need of a spark, Penn State forward Denis Smirnov took over for a brief moment, swerving through traffic and flipping a puck past Morris. Once again, the game wasn’t out of reach just yet at 4-3.
In many ways it was fitting that Notre Dame scored just over a minute later. Penn State showcasing its strength and weakness in such a short span. The crowd groaned, the bench dipped its collective head, no matter how many goals they scored, it didn’t seem like enough.
The Nittany Lions, to their credit didn’t relent. Nate Sucese’s goal with just over five minutes to go gave Penn State life, but it never found the back of the net again. The Nittany Lions maxing out their second chances.
Peyton Jones will start in net on Saturday night, a strong performance would go a long way for a team desperately looking for stability in goal. With the offensive firepower, Penn State is not far off from being as good as it has ever been.
But until that stability comes, the Nittany Lions will be racing for that last goal each night, and that’s only if they’re lucky.
“We’re encouraged, because we did a lot of really good things,” Gadowsky said after the game after a pause, not quite ready to worry in public just yet.