Once again, Penn State’s freshmen looked like anything but newcomers to college hockey.
Nothing is rattling these kids.
And nothing is rattling this Nittany Lion hockey team either.
Novices on the national stage, it would be hard to appear more comfortable than they looked Saturday night at U.S. Bank Arena in a 10-3 drubbing of Union.
There were plenty of opportunities to wilt, to realize they were crashing the party, but instead they planted a blue-and-white flag to proclaim their spot among the nation’s best.
As the lone survivor from the Big Ten to be playing Sunday for a spot at the Frozen Four, this is their moment.
Who needs experience?
“I don’t think we’ve ever talked about having inexperience,” said sophomore Chase Berger, who scored twice and assisted on another goal. “I think we were doubted a little bit all year, and we kind of like that mentality. We don’t really worry about what other people say about our chances. We just try to win games.”
They heard the whispers they were not ready when they reached the No. 1 ranking and then started to fade. It only challenged them more.
Time and again Saturday there was an excuse to say, “Maybe the other team is better; they know how to win.” The Dutchmen had played in five of the last eight NCAA tournaments, winning in 2014.
Each time over the first 30 minutes, when Penn State would score, the Dutchmen would find an answer.
Again, it was as if the Nittany Lions were handed a challenge.
They were hardened by the previous weekend, persevering through two overtimes to beat Minnesota in the Big Ten semifinals, then returned the next night for two more overtimes to beat Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions knew the win over the Golden Gophers likely clinched their NCAA tournament berth and they could have coasted. But they would not go down — not even with more than 240 minutes on the ice over three days, not even with sore legs and aching backs. Not without the Big Ten tournament title.
“I think last weekend gave a lot of experience,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “So it’s a blessing to go through that, win or lose. It’s great that they came out so well on the other side. It’s a physically and mentally demanding challenge. It gave them all a ton of experience, and I don’t think we have a freshman on our team right now.”
The team also is young just in NCAA terms, with 11 freshmen among the 28 on the roster, and eight more sophomores.
However, those first-year guys tallied six goals and six assists, and the sophomores had three goals and three assists.
Some of the freshman goals were highlight worthy, such as a Denis Smirnov laser for the team’s seventh goal, but most were of a blue-collar, dirty-work-in-front-of-the-net variety on which the team has thrived on all season.
That’s been part of the identity of this team pretty much from the first season of varsity play.
“We are young guys as a class,” said Sucese, who had two goals and one assist. “You have to give it up to our leadership. The seniors on this team have just paved the way for us, and we’ve gotten under their shell, and I think we grabbed the bull and ran with it.”
Setting aside Sucese’s mixing of metaphors, the team is following the lead of its elder statesmen and leaving a mark on the world of hockey. Five years into this venture of Division I hockey, maybe these guys don’t know everything they need to know.
But the rest of the hockey world can see there is a lot to like from this team this season and for years to come.
“They are a team that had a lot of freshmen,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “So they are going to be a powerhouse for years to come. The whole staff has done a really nice job, so I wish them luck coming up.”