It comes as no surprise, but Pegula Ice Arena is particularly cold when empty.
And for the entirety of the 2020-21 season, a rink that normally reverberates with the sounds of nearly 6,000 fans cheering and shouting, will hear only the sounds of skates, the slapping of sticks and players crashing into the boards. And it will be bitter cold.
In a normal year fans would have watched Penn State raise its first-ever Big Ten regular season champion banner. It would have been a moment to remember for a program that has come so far in fairly short order. There would have been talk of big games, there would have been an out of conference schedule, there would have been normalcy.
But this is not a normal year. Instead the banner will go up, the sticks will tap, and the game will be played in front of a few dozen instead of a few thousand.
Away from the things that will make the season strange, Penn State finds itself not without a shortage of more practical questions. With nearly 60% of its scoring gone either to the professional ranks or departing because of graduation, the Nittany Lions will have to find their leaders, scorers and a new goaltender in short order.
All of this leads Penn State to where it finds itself heading into a Thursday night season opener against Minnesota in Minneapolis. The Nittany Lions sit at a crossroads, ranked No. 9 in the USCHO Poll while being picked to finish last in the Big Ten among conference coaches. One poll indicates what Penn State has done as defending Big Ten champs, the other a nod to the unknown and a Big Ten conference that looks as deep and as talented as ever.
Like all things in sports, congrats on what you’ve done, but now it’s time to tackle what’s next.
“I got a similar question last year when we were picked first,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said of being ranked No. 9 and being picked to finish last. “And I think the answer was when we were picked last before we didn't pay much mind. So it's not really fair to now pay much mind when we're picked first. And now we find ourselves on the other end, I think the answer stays the same. The coaches were right about us last year. I hope they're wrong about us this year. But I do think that it speaks to the quality of the league. That's how I feel about it.”
First or last. Time will tell. And here are some of the talking points that will pave the way towards an answer.
Penn State loses longtime starter Peyton Jones who ranks No. 1 all-time in the Nittany Lion record books in just about every goaltending category including wins, starts and minutes. Jones had his ups and downs but had some of his biggest moments when the stakes were the highest including the best three-game stretch in program history en route to Penn State’s first Big Ten Tournament Title.
In his wake Penn State will lean on the tandem of junior Oskar Autio and freshman Liam Soulere, the latter of the two delayed his enrollment last season to continue playing in Canada once Jones had finalized his return for a senior year.
Autio, if the name sounds familiar, is the brother of former Penn State defenseman Erik who skated for the Nittany Lions most recently in 2017-18. Autio saw action in five games in 2019-20 and posted a .930 save percentage.
“Nothing determined yet,” Gadowsy said of the goalie situation. “But we certainly are really excited to see what Oskar can do. He's certainly going to be given every opportunity to find out what he can do. And obviously, Liam comes in very highly touted and someone where that in the future for sure is going to be in the same position that Oskar will be in. So we don't have anything predetermined for sure. I think it's going to play out. And we're as curious as you.”
Generally speaking, as mentioned above, it’s expected that Autio will get the majority of the starts but until both goaltenders play that is still uncertain.
“Just being able to play last year and just kind of experience playing against Big Ten opponents and playing against non conference opponents and just all that is kind of taught me what it's all about,” Autio said. “And I think those experiences will help me this year.”
And as far as setting a legacy away from his brother? Autio just laughed.
“I feel like every year it gets a little calmer, but I don't expect it to go away during the time that I'm here,” Autio said about comparisons to his brother. “So I'm just trying to kind of not focus on it too much.”
For various reasons, mostly to get in the season quickly, but also have flexibility for potential stoppages down the road, the Big Ten is opting for a more condensed schedule that will in turn lead to a far more active week. Penn State will open the season with four games in six nights between road trips to Minnesota and Wisconsin before heading back to State College.
This is a big change for a sport that is used to the twice a week, weekends only format, and a challenge when it comes to fitness and recovery on a daily basis.
“It’s going to be a lot different,” Alternate captain Aarne Talvitie said. “Because last year, as you guys know, every week it was pretty much two games a weekend. And now we're having two games Thursday, Friday, and then Monday and Tuesday. So it's looking a lot different. You just gotta be smart about the recovery and stuff like that, because you only got a couple of days, and we're sitting on the bus, going from Minnesota or Wisconsin. So you really got to get enough sleep and rest as much as possible. But also you’ve got to go out there and skate around and get the muscles going again.”
The scheduling could also impact Penn State’s goaltending as well, a highly mental sport, so many games in so few days could see both players getting some run. Then again as Jones proved during that Big Ten Tournament run, finding your stride in goal sometimes comes from playing more often, not less.
“I think it almost might be easier just to kind of keep that rhythm and stay in the game and stay in the zone there,” Autio said.
Alternate captain Aarne Talvitie is among Penn State’s most talented skaters when healthy, and while he was able to return from knee surgery last season after getting hurt during international play in 2018-19 but he never looked like he quite had his confidence back.
Now with more time to rest and increase his own self-trust, the Finnish native is back and more confident than before.
“Arne is excellent, and he does look different,” Gadowsky said. “He looks very comfortable, very calm, the same that we saw as a freshman. Very comfortable, very confident and very powerful, so yes, there's a visible change to the confidence.”
When healthy Talvitie is a force, and has the hands and eyes to match it. He might not be a volume goal scorer but his 13 assists in 2019-20 proved important and his role will only increase this year.
How does he feel having his confidence back?
“I think it's absolutely massive,” Talvitie said. “It's definitely way easier to get out there. And just knowing that I'm really a hundred percent now and it's not bothering me anymore. Last season it was sore in the game so it was kind of in the back of my mind all the time.”
It goes without saying -and yet here we are- that leadership is key at all times, but even more important in a COVID world where decisions off the ice will never be more important than they are right now. Where a football roster might be able to get away with a few positives here or there, the numbers are thin on a team with fewer than 30-40 people around the program at any given moment.
Simply put, it’s one thing to lead on the ice, it’s another to keep everyone healthy and smart off of it.
Enter captain Alex Limoges and alternates Aarne Talvitie and Paul DeNaples.
“We really got on the same page,” Limoges said. “We kind of had an honest conversation with the guys like, Hey, this is what it is. This is how we're going to go about it. And then ever since our season has been announced, or there was a rumor we could be starting before Christmas it was just added motivation [...] it's been tough at times I feel bad for everybody. They're missing out on a college experience. But we've been doing a really, really good job as a team. So I'm proud of our guys.”
Penn State’s defense has long been a weak point compared to an offensive attack that has been among the nation’s best. With Big Ten defenseman of The Year winner Cole Hults heading to the next level it leaves behind some uncertainty on the back end of the ice. Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, Paul DeNaples returns as a fellow finalist for the same award.
The question now is how the Nittany Lions integrate new faces into the mix, and work with a new goalie tandem, making sure everyone is on the same page both with the netminder, and with each other. Something all the more important in Penn State’s offensive zone where defensmen are active and always prone to giving up the dreaded odd-man rush.
“In the last couple of weeks we're finally out there together,” DeNaples said. “In the beginning it's more skill development, now we're focusing on team play. The last couple weeks I've been able to get to know the guys and get a relationship with them.”
“The coaching staff here does a really good job of making sure that everyone's on the same page for communicating,” defenseman Clayton Phillips added. “Obviously when the puck gets dumped in and the goalie has it, you don't want to be all scrambling and having different calls. So we’ve kind of got our own language here that seems to be working and worked for us last year. And hopefully, we'll have the same success this year.”
Key Names Out The Door:
G: Peyton Jones: The most successful goaltender in program history. Up and down at times during his career, but earned all of his program records, wins and honors. Penn State’s Big Ten Tournament Title doesn’t happen without him.
F: Liam Folkes: Mr Clutch. Game-winner in overtime to clinch Penn State’s first Big Ten Tournament Title and secure the programs’ first NCAA Tournament berth. One of the better Nittany Lions on a nightly basis and was always up for the big moments.
F: Evan Barratt: Talented, skilled and not afraid to mix it up. Penn State will miss his tenacity and his goal scoring abilities.
F: Denis Smirnov: Among the best hands the program has seen. May not have quite his his ceiling while at Penn State but isn’t short on talent.
F: Nikita Pavlychev: A great testament to program development. Went from being tall and physical to a surprisingly agile and capable scorer for a player so big. Few players have imposed their size quite like the Russian.
F: Nate Sucese: One of the most consistent and nigh-to-night players in program history. Not overly flashy but almost always in the right place at the right time. Finished his senior season 15th in the nation in total points.
F: Brandon Biro: 2019-20 captain had an ability to make his game better than everyone else’s at a moment's notice. Quiet but consistent and wildly creative to boot.
D: Kris Myllari: A consistent presence on the defensive end of the ice, you don’t build a good defensive unit without guys like Myllari.
D: Cole Hults: Pound-for-pound, probably among the most talented players to hit the ice for Penn State. Certainly the best offensive minded defenseman the program has had. It will take a special player to match his production.
F: Sam Sternschein: Had a surprisingly productive, breakout year in 2019-20. Penn State will need him to continue that in 2020.
F: Alex Limoges: Penn State’s most successful returning offensive threat and now captain. Still looking to recapture magic of his explosive 2018-19 season but his follow-up act was nothing to laugh at. Good for a point a night.
F: Aarne Talvitie: As talented as they come but probably smarter between the ears. Sees the ice great and at 100% health can have the best hockey IQ on the ice. If he can find the back of the net more consistently he’ll be the complete package.
F: Kevin Wall: Solid as a freshman and will look to build on that in 2020. Was ready for the moment and Penn State will need him to be ready to step that up one more notch this season.
D: Paul DeNaples: Among the better defenseman in the Big Ten and that doesn’t look to be any different this season. Not as offensive minded as Hults but equally as reliable. Frankly that’s all Penn State will need from its d-corps in 2020.
D: Clayton Phillips: The former Minnesota Gopher was solid on penalty kill and will look to expand his role even farther in his second year on campus.
D: Evan Bell: Solid on the +/- but his biggest asset will be experience in his senior year. This season ought to provide him with the most ice time so far in his career and the Nittany Lions will need him to rise to the occasion.
G: Oskar Autio: Has played well when called on but largely unproven as a long term option in net. Either way the time is now and Autio will look to follow in his brother’s footsteps with a successful career on the defensive end of the ice.
Penn State welcomes 10 new players to the roster including Maine transfer Tim Doherty who was a talented player in Hockey East. The Nittany Lions will need some young new names to step up in the absence of so many returning stars but who that might be remains to be seen. Christian Berger is noteworthy here as the brother of former captain Chase Berger, the second brother legacy on the team.
Overall: Anything is possible in 2020, but Penn State has a lot of questions and little time to find answers. There's nothing wrong with a rebuilding year and this would be the season to have one. Only time will tell how well the new faces answer Penn State's most pressing needs. In the meanwhile, don't expect this group to defend its regular season title without a few bumps in the road.