In the second overtime last Friday night in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, Denis Smirnov swept through the corner with the puck and centered a perfect pass to a wide open Erik Autio at the far post for the game-winning goal to beat Minnesota.
The next night, Brandon Biro broke through the neutral zone with the puck and, as the Wisconsin defense began to gravitate toward him, he fed the puck to Liam Folkes on a breakaway to win the Big Ten title.
At the other end of the ice, in both games plus the opener against Michigan, goaltender Peyton Jones was making one spectacular save after another, building a wall in front of the net and giving the Nittany Lions a chance.
For Jones, Smirnov, Biro and Folkes, it was freshmen coming through when the pressure was greatest.
The Penn State men’s hockey team plays its first NCAA tournament game ever at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, and the team would not be facing Union at Cincinnati’s US Bank Arena if not for the incredible impact of the freshman class.
“The freshmen were unbelievable this year,” senior defenseman David Thompson said. “They came along really quickly. Obviously, they were really crucial to our success this entire year. Obviously, this weekend you saw it shine through ... on the big stage.”
The Nittany Lions knew before this season even started they would have to rely pretty heavily on the kids. Of the 28 men on the roster, 11 are in their first season. That means 39 percent of the roster is the freshman class.
They nearly hit their quota: Freshmen have scored 55 of the team’s 147 goals — 37 percent. Of the 248 assists, 85 came from freshmen, or 34 percent. Ten of the freshmen have registered at least a point, including two assists for Jones, and Penn State heads into the tournament leading the nation in freshman scoring.
Smirnov and Jones have grabbed the most attention.
Smirnov leads Division I freshmen with his 45 points, which ranks 15th overall nationally, while his 17 goals rank fourth among Division I freshmen. His point total also is a program single-season record.
Meanwhile, Jones has been stellar, with his calm demeanor keeping the team steady through the emotional highs and lows of each game. They had been counting on Eamon McAdam minding the net for his senior season, but he left early to play professionally. Jones skated in and has had very few bad outings among his 34 starts, tallying a 2.51 goals-against average for the season. Last weekend in Detroit he stopped all but five of the 123 shots he faced over the 240-plus minutes of game action, including 51 saves in the double-overtime victory over Wisconsin.
“It’s spectacular. I haven’t been a part of a more spectacular performance,” coach Guy Gadowsky said of a showing that landed a Most Outstanding Player award for Jones for the conference tournament.
“He has been really good all year. It’s not like we’re just shocked — ‘Where did he come from?’ He’s been excellent all year, and he’s stolen games for us during the season as well.”
The other freshmen also have had major roles in this season’s stunning success. Nate Sucese is fourth on the team in scoring with 15 goals and 17 assists, while Biro is ninth with five goals and 18 assists. Folkes registered half of his season goal total of six in Detroit. Helping shore up the defensemen has been Kris Myllari, who has been solid all season but had to pick up a bigger load when Kevin Kerr was lost for the season last month to injury.
Myllari gave a lot of credit to the leaders in the locker room for how well the freshmen blended in with the Lions.
“Any impact you get from a younger class comes from the influence of the older classes,” Myllari said. “The seniors, juniors, sophomores on down have really helped the freshmen get adapted to the game quicker. I think that’s been the biggest key to success for the freshmen, the older guys helping them, teaching little tricks to speed up their development.”
Now nearly six months into the season, Gadowsky said he could not recall the last time one of his newcomers had one of those “freshman moments,” and certainly has been impressed with their success.
“They’ve exceeded all of our expectations,” he said.
For the new guys, it has been an impressive way to start a college career.
“It’s so surreal right now,” Folkes said. “Everyone’s real excited, but we know we need to play Penn State hockey, so I think that’s where we are right now.”
Note: Winger Alec Marsh, who was twice helped from the ice in the Big Ten championship game, practiced Friday but it is unclear if he will play. Gadowsky told Mike MacAdam of the Schenectady Daily Gazette that it would not be decided until Saturday if the sophomore forward would play.
What: NCAA Championships, first round
Who: No. 1 Denver vs. Michigan Tech, 1 p.m.; Penn State vs. Union, 4:30 p.m.
Where: US Bank Arena, Cincinnati
Second round: 6 p.m. Sunday
TV: ESPN3 (online video), Saturday; ESPNU, Sunday
Radio: WAPY 103.1