They were exhausted, their muscles aching, but it didn’t mean they weren’t ready to celebrate.
They were a part of history for the Penn State men’s hockey team. In just the fifth season of Division I play, the Nittany Lions have booked their tickets for the NCAA Tournament.
Just over 12 hours after winning their first Big Ten title in a double-overtime marathon — a 2-1 win over Wisconsin — Penn State players learned they will face Union (25-9-3) in the first round at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at US Bank Arena in Cincinnati.
Everyone looked tired and worn Sunday as they waited to hear their name announced at Letterman’s Sports Bar and Gastro Pub during a viewing party of the NCAA bracket announcement.
“The last two games were very grueling,” senior captain David Goodwin said. “Very emotionally and physically draining, but I think everyone’s super excited for Saturday and I think we feel really good with our matchup.”
The Nittany Lions (24-11-2) survived a trying three days in Detroit, first dispatching Michigan before stunning regular-season champion Minnesota in double overtime on Friday, then going two extra periods again the next night against the Badgers.
“Honestly, I don’t know how they did what they did,” coach Guy Gadowsky said of his team. “That was an incredible physical feat.”
As impressive as the team was to still be competing in the fifth period of play Saturday, Gadowsky and the coaches were concerned before the game even began.
With the win over the Gophers the night before, everyone already knew they had likely clinched a spot in the tournament and could have coasted against Wisconsin.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Gadowsky said. “We could have been down 4-0 after 10 minutes and we wouldn’t have been shocked.”
Surviving the whole time on the ice — all 240 minutes — was goalie Peyton Jones, who stopped 118 of 123 shots he faced over the three days.
He may not have been sprinting up and down the ice, but his exhaustion was more from the mental side. One mistake in any of the overtime periods would have ended it all.
“I was pretty tired,” said Jones, who had 51 saves Saturday. “I wasn’t going to say it, and guys in the locker room weren’t going to say it, but we were tired.”
Scoring both goals Saturday night was freshman Liam Folkes, who recorded the game-winner on a breakaway.
“I don’t know how I got that open,” Folkes said. “I just do that move in practice all the time, and it worked out here.”
The scoring burst by the freshman was savored on the bench. Goodwin figures he’s watched replays just of the team on the bench watching Folkes score the winner about 30 times.
“Last night we were all together when we got home and we were all watching it,” Goodwin said. “We were commenting on how we could watch it forever.”
Gadowsky also has been watching replays.
“It’s a little addicting,” he said with a grin.
Joining the Nittany Lions and Dutchmen will be No. 1 overall seed Denver and Michigan Tech, who will battle in the other regional game at 8 p.m. Saturday. The winners will face off at 6 p.m. Sunday to earn a trip to the Frozen Four at the United Center in Chicago on April 6 and 8.
Despite Penn State’s short varsity history, this will not be the first meeting with Union. They tangled twice in 2013 and again in 2014, with Union winning all four contests. One game in 2013 at Penn State had the Lions leading in the third period before the Dutchmen rallied, winning with three seconds left in regulation.
Last weekend, Union lost to Cornell in the semifinals of the ECAC tournament. The Dutchmen, who are in the NCAA field for the fifth time in the last eight seasons and won the title in 2014, are led by Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo. Both are among the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the nation’s top player. Vecchione leads the nation averaging 1.71 points per game, while Foo is third at 1.64 points per game.
“I know they’re a really good team,” Gadowsky said. “They have a great culture, they’re very hard working and obviously now they have some high-end talent to go along with that.”