UNIVERSITY PARK — This was Penn State’s big party, but American International spoiled the fun.
“It’s always a goal to go in and kind of silence a crowd,” said Jon Puskar, whose goal with 21 seconds left in overtime gave the Yellow Jackets a 3-2 win Friday night in front of a standing room-only crowd of 1,300 at the Greenberg Ice Pavilion. “That was an unbelievable atmosphere.”
In a night of firsts, a loss was the bottom line on a historic night for Nittany Lion hockey, with the first Division I varsity game in school history.
With a decisive advantage in shots, a rocking home crowd and a festive atmosphere, it may be one of the few times head coach Guy Gadowsky walked out of a loss with a big smile.
“I’m thrilled right now. I thought we played great,” Gadowsky said. “We didn’t know if we would be completely outmatched. We had no idea and I thought we played tremendous. I thought we generated a ton of offense.”
Casey Bailey and Taylor Holstrom each got in the record book with goals for the Nittany Lions, who were playing the first varsity game since 1947, before hockey was sanctioned by the NCAA.
“The fans were unbelievable,” Holstrom said. “It was pretty awesome. They had the chants going the whole game and you couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Nathan Sliwinski and Chris Markiewicz found the net earlier for AIC, a small school in Springfield, Mass.
The evening began with a ceremonial drop of the puck by university president Rodney Erickson to captain Tommy Olczyk and AIC’s Steve Mele.
Penn State was not shy about putting the puck on net, outshooting AIC 63-29, shocking everyone.
“That surprised me,” Gadowsky said. “Certainly we’d love to say, ‘Jeez, we were hoping for that’ That really surprised me. I give the guys a lot of credit. Obviously you want to convert more, but give their goaltender a lot of credit.”
The Yellow Jackets’ Ben Meisner was up to the task, turning away 61 of those shots while freshman Matthew Skoff made 26 saves for Penn State.
The overtime period appeared all but over when fate handed Puskar the winner.
A loose puck had fluttered through the air and landed on the stick of Jake Williams, who shuffled it to Puskar in the right circle. He skated up and toward the boards for a couple strides, saw an opening and ripped a hard slap shot past Skoff just inside the post.
Holstrom’s goal which forced overtime was the prettiest of the night, stepping in over the blue line with the puck, splitting a pair of defensemen and firing a laser from the slot high to Meisner’s stick side with 6:05 left in regulation. He had gotten the puck from Mark Yanis, who had swiped a clearing attempt by AIC in the neutral zone.
“I was extremely happy with how it started,” Gadowsky said. “I thought Mark Yanis had a real strong game. He made atremendous play to get the puck to Holi with speed.”
The score made up for a missed opportunity a few minutes earlier when a Yellow Jacket pass around the boards slipped through everyone and Holstrom scooped up the puck behind the defense, breaking in one-on-one with Meisner. Holstrom’s shot, however, slid wide of the net.
“It was a little frustrating at the time but you just keep working at it,” Holstrom said. “Hopefully you get one.”
Bailey put himself in the Nittany Lion history books by seizing a rebound and lifting the puck under the crossbar 4:37 into the second period.
“It feels great to get that first goal and tying the game up there,” Bailey said. “That definitely felt great.”
Joseph Lordo had initially fired the puck on Meisner and Nate Jensen also was credited with an assist on the historic tally.
The second AIC goal was a blue-collar score, with Markiewicz pouncing on a rebound in front of the net and sending it past an out-of-position Skoff. Adam Pleskach and Chris Porter picked up assists. Sliwinski’s goal also came on a rebound, sending it top-shelf for the first goal scored against Penn State. Pleskach and Jeff Ceccacci had the assists.
“Even though we didn’t have a lot of volume we did a pretty good job going to the net and even the overtime goal was a blue collar-type goal,” AIC coach Gary Wright said. “The emphasis of going to the net, that kind of thing, pouncing on rebounds.”
It was a tough way to end, but the Nittany Lions still enjoyed their place in school history.
“I felt really alive,” Gadowsky said of his pregame feelings. “There’s a lot of little details and a lot of work and a lot of correspondence that goes into when you start something like this, and this was just so much fun. I really felt alive, and to come to the rink and to see the student section and they’re going nuts, I loved it.”