As the final horn sounded, Mike McDonagh turned around, skated to Matthew Skoff and gave the goalie a big hug, and the rest of the Penn State men’s hockey team soon followed.
The Nittany Lions gave their lone senior, McDonagh, and their fans a gift on Senior Day and the final game of the regular season.
Behind stellar games from Nate Jensen and Skoff, Penn State took a quick lead and held it the rest of the way for a 4-2 win over Ohio State on Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena.
“Before the game there was just a buzz in the locker room, you know when the guys are just ready to play and we’re going to come out flying,” said Jensen, who had a goal and two assists. “As soon as the puck dropped I knew we were going to win that game.”
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Curtis Loik and Tommy Olczyk also scored, Dylan Richard had a pair of assists and Skoff made 27 saves as he was in goal for each of the wins this season for Penn State (7-25-2, 3-16-1).
Curtis Gedig and Anthony Greco scored for the Buckeyes (16-13-5, 6-9-5-4) and Matt Tomkins stopped 28 shots.
On Friday night in his first game back from suffering a concussion on Feb. 8, Jensen confessed to being “rusty.”
He was in fine working condition less than 20 hours later.
“I got my touch back, I got my confidence back,” Jensen said after his first career three-point night. “The game was a lot slower tonight for me, obviously. I just felt good out there.”
Back in his role as the quarterback on the blue line of the power play unit, Jensen started the scoring just 2:51 into the game. He took a feed from Richard and fired a wrist shot from the slot for his third goal of the season.
“I was pretty pumped,” Jensen said. “I was trying to get the crowd going with that celebration. I was pretty excited.”
The goal was just 12 seconds into a man advantage for the Lions.
After each of Ohio State’s goals had trimmed the Nittany Lion lead to one, Jensen set up the Penn State responses.
With help from Jensen and Richard, Olczyk somehow found an opening from the boards on a tough angle, ringing his shot off the post and bouncing the puck behind Tomkins with 1:17 left in the first period.
“I was just trying to put the puck on net,” Olczyk said of his fifth score of the season. “Jonathan Milley had his big body in front of the net. (He) didn’t really give the goalie a chance to see it at all. If he’s not standing there causing a ruckus in front of the net, that puck definitely doesn’t go in.”
Jensen then triggered another goal in the third, taking a blast from the point on a power play that Holstrom redirected past Tomkins.
It was Penn State’s first game with two power play conversions since beating Robert Morris on Dec. 27 — the last time Jensen had scored a goal.
“Wow, did he play well,” coach Guy Gadowsky said of Jensen. “Very tough to be out that long and come back for the first night last night. Boy, tonight he was skating — a tremendous goal and a couple of assists to go with it, but besides that he was skating and making very calm passes right on the tape.”
Loik scored just over four minutes after Jensen’s first-period tally to make it 2-0, giving him six goals on the season.
“Against good hockey teams you just can’t fall behind like that,” Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik said. “It was a battle. It was a tough game and that’s the Big Ten right there. Every goal’s huge, they got the lead, they maintained the lead and then they won the special teams battle.”
Ohio State got its first goal during a 4-on-3 advantage, with the Buckeyes patiently working the puck around the zone before Gedig beat Skoff from the slot. Greco knocked in a rebound 3:25 into the second for the other Buckeye score.
As the minutes ticked away at the end, and with the Ohio State net empty for better than two minutes in favor of an extra attacker, McDonagh stayed on the ice for shift after shift as the team tried to get the senior a final going-away present.
“I was dead. I couldn’t breathe,” McDonagh said. “I wanted to get off (the ice) but they wouldn’t let me.”
Still his teammates kept doing their best to set up the senior, whose only other goal in the two years of the varsity program is also an empty-net tally.
“I gave up a bad turnover trying to get him a goal,” Jensen said.
“I appreciate how they were trying to get me a goal rather than trying to win the game,” McDonagh added.
With six seconds left for a draw in the Penn State end, Holstrom directed McDonagh to a spot just behind the junior center trying to send the puck back to the senior for one final attempt at the empty net, but McDonagh could not control the puck for a shot before the horn sounded.
“They made me feel so bad about myself,” McDonagh said. “I have no skill or anything. I was just back there and I looked around, and it kind of hit me right there that was the last moment I’ll playing in Pegula. A tear might have come down during the game but I won’t admit to that.”
He then wheeled and skated to Skoff.
“It was great,” McDonagh said. “Skoff and I have a great relationship and he played a tremendous game. He’s a big part of our victory, so to share that moment with him is special.”
Notes: Penn State will face Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. … Penn State finished with a 4-12-2 record at home this season. … For the 18th time this season, the Nittany Lions outshot an opponent (32-29). … The final game drew 5,892, the 16th sellout in 18 home games. The team averaged 6,010 this season, surpassed 6,000 fans 12 times and were one of five teams in Division I to pack its building to over 100 percent seating capacity (5,782) for the season. … A fight broke out between the teams with 16 seconds left — the biggest of the arena’s inaugural season — with everyone on the ice but the Ohio State goalie involved.