Fresh off of a Big Ten regular-season championship, Penn State had its work cut out to replicate that successful campaign.
The Nittany Lions were tasked with replacing more than half of their offensive production from the 2019-20 campaign. On the defensive side, four-year starter Peyton Jones would no longer be manning the goalie spot for the blue and white.
The general consensus of how Penn State’s season was mixed, as USCHO.com had the Nittany Lions in the preseason top 10 while the Big Ten’s coaches predicted the blue and white would finish last in the seven-team conference.
Neither result held up since the Nittany Lions finished the season unranked and were slotted in fifth in the conference’s final standings.
Regardless, the season provided a plethora of highs and lows for Penn State as it persevered through anything but a regular year.
Here are five of the biggest storylines from the 2020-21 campaign.
Souliere stumbles in goal
Looking to replace Jones, the Nittany Lions had two options in junior Oskar Autio and freshman Liam Souliere.
In November and part of December, Guy Gadowsky rotated between the two netminders as he tried to figure out who would be the team’s leader in between the pipes.
In five starts, Souliere hardly lived up to his heralded status coming into the program.
Souliere conceded 19 goals for a ghastly 4.60 goals against average that would have ranked last in the conference by more than a goal had he qualified with enough time in net.
Both Souliere and Autio can return to the squad next year, and the latter more than solidified himself as the team’s starter during the 2020-21 campaign.
Should Souliere want to spell Autio from time to time next season, he will need to demonstrate an improved level of play. Otherwise, he may continue to ride the pine.
Sternschein loses scoring touch
Arguably Penn State’s best goal-scorer in the 2019-20 season with 12 pucks that reached the back of the net, forward Sam Sternschein was anything but a sharpshooter for the Nittany Lions this past season.
In 19 games, Sternschein had just two goals to go with five assists. His seven points were tied for ninth on the team.
The senior marksman from Syosset, New York’s tenure with the blue and white has come to a close, but after a stellar first three years at Penn State that included a combined 26 goals, it’s abundantly clear Sternschein was anything but himself.
After a final year that was hardly as productive on offense as his first three, it will be curious to monitor how Sternschein’s professional career progresses.
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Wall snaps into action
Unlike Sternschein who struggled mightily this past season, Kevin Wall took a quantum leap forward.
The sophomore forward put eight goals across for the blue and white, which was tied for second on the team behind senior captain Alex Limoges. In 2019-20, Wall netted just two scores.
Whenever Penn State’s offense struggled to generate any level of consistency, it was Wall who sprung into action. During a stretch in January, Wall had five goals in as many games.
Without his offensive prowess, Penn State certainly would have struggled much more during the 2020-21 campaign.
Between Jan. 29 and March 5, Penn State did not play a game.
During the program’s brief history, the Nittany Lions had never endured such a gap between contests. The blue and white’s extended hiatus was due to coronavirus concerns within Michigan’s athletics department at first followed by Penn State’s own coronavirus concerns to put the team on pause.
Immediately after the break, the blue and white dropped back-to-back games to Notre Dame in convincing fashion. Prior to taking more than a month off, Penn State was riding high, having won five of its previous seven games.
But due to the program-wide pause, the Nittany Lions’ season was certainly derailed.
Surprising tournament run
Right after losing to Notre Dame in consecutive games by a combined score of 12-3, Penn State was tasked with facing the same Fighting Irish squad a little over a week later.
Not only had the blue and white lost to Notre Dame twice right before the Big Ten Tournament, but Penn State had also dropped an overtime contest to the Fighting Irish just before its pause.
As such, it came as a bit of a surprise when, after falling behind 2-0 in the first period, the Nittany Lions found a way to beat the Fighting Irish 6-3 in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.
Just a day later, Penn State took Wisconsin to the brink in a 4-3 overtime loss. Not only did the Badgers have to go past the distance, but the Nittany Lions led 3-2 late in the third period.
While the blue and white’s 2020-21 campaign will not go down for winning any championships or making the NCAA Tournament after an unexpected midseason break, Penn State certainly turned in a pair of excellent performances to close out what was a wild campaign.