The Penn State men’s hockey team played late into the night, hoping to keep alive its Big Ten title hopes.
Erik Autio made sure it was worth the extra-long wait.
In the longest game in conference tournament history, the sophomore defenseman buried the puck into the net with 6:27 left in the second overtime to give the Nittany Lions a 4-3 victory over Minnesota on Friday night in the Big Ten semifinals at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena.
The exhausted winners, who also played in Thursday’s first round, will meet Wisconsin at 8 p.m. Saturday for the conference’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. The Badgers, who had a bye Thursday, beat Ohio State 2-1 in the other semifinal. Penn State won 3 of 4 regular-season meetings.
Penn State (23-11-2) landed in its first Big Ten tournament championship game appearance after 93:33 of game action, and likely solidified its chances of making its first NCAA tournament regardless of Saturday’s result.
“A tremendous hockey game to watch,” coach Guy Gadowsky told the media in Detroit after the game. “Obviously a great game to win.”
The end came in rather stunning fashion.
With Penn State on a power play — the first penalty called since the second period — Minnesota had a chance at one end but was denied, and the Nittany Lions raced down the ice on a counter attack. Picking up a loose puck along the boards, freshman Denis Smirnov swept around the corner and fed the puck to Autio waiting alone on the far post, knocking it into the wide open net.
“I saw Denis had the puck. That’s when you know to go to the net,” Autio said. “He’s pretty good with that puck and has great vision. He made an unreal play, and I just put it in.”
The assist was the 28th of the season for Smirnov, breaking David Goodwin’s team record of 27 set last season
Nikita Pavlychev, Alec Marsh and Dylan Richard had the Nittany Lions’ goals in regulation, while Rem Pitlick, Justin Kloos and Jack Sadek had the Gopher goals.
In the nets, the Lions’ Peyton Jones outdueled Big Ten Goalie of the Year Eric Schierhorn, with the freshman making 37 saves to Schierhorn’s 59. The biggest save for Jones came in the first overtime, with Minnesota’s Mike Szmatula wide open taking a few feet from the net and lifting his shot toward the top corner. The goalie denied the try with a spactacular snag with his glove.
“I just went over, I guess just read and reacted to the play and made the save,” Jones said.
Penn State outshot Minnesota 63-40, avenging four regular-season losses to the Gophers, including an overtime loss at home after Minnesota tied it with 3.5 seconds left in regulation.
“We were so motivated,” Autio told the Big Ten Network after the game. “They stole one from us last time we played them at home. They ended up winning it in OT, so we were hungry and we wanted that one bad.”
The Nittany Lions got a boost before the game when Andrew Sturtz was in the lineup. The team’s goal-scoring leader took a big hit from Michigan’s Alex Kile in the first period Thursday and did not return to the game.
The sophomore had an impact on the game, picking up three assists, including the secondary helper on Autio’s winner, and also played through a bloody nose during part of regulation.
It took a mere 1:05 for the Nittany Lions to strike first, with Trevor Hamilton unloading a slap shot that was stopped by Schierhorn, but Pavlychev pounced on the rebound for his fourth goal of the season and first since Nov. 19 against Arizona State.
Pitlick tied it off a feed from Darian Romanko behind the net just over six minutes later, and Kloos gave the Gophers (23-11-3) the lead about three minutes later with a power play score from the high slot.
Early in the second, Chase Berger wheeled around the side of the net and lifted a backhand that banked off Kloos, then Marsh and into the net. Marsh got the credit for his sixth tally of the season.
The teams traded goals early in the third, first with Sturtz finding Richard across the crease on a power play, then Sadek responded with a rocket from the point off a faceoff win to set up the overtime drama.
The Nittany Lions are familiar with long games, playing the only other conference tournament game to go into a second overtime. Penn State beat Michigan 2-1 in the first conference tournament in 2014 — the freshman season for current seniors Richard, Goodwin, Ricky DeRosa, David Thompson and Zach Saar, who scored the game-winning goal in that game.
The team had been racking up major milestones all season, in just the fifth year of Division I play on campus. Saturday’s final brings another, and Sunday’s NCAA announcement at noon figures to provid another special moment.
“It’s always cool to get things off the check list,” Autio said. “This was obviously one of those things. We’re excited to play in that championship game tomorrow.”