For 5-foot-11, 190-pound Penn State forward Evan Barratt, successful hockey results from aggressiveness, grit and intelligence.
Barratt knows all those things matter as he and his teammates prepare to face Notre Dame in the Big Ten Tournament championship game Saturday night.
Led by a top line of Barratt, Alex Limoges and Liam Folkes, Penn State has maintained its offensive mindset throughout the tournament. At the same time, Notre Dame prefers a more measured style of play, backstopped by goalie Cale Morris, who is 5-0 in the tournament during his career with a 0.97 goals-against average.
“We know how they play and they know how we play, so it’s a chess match,” said Barratt, an All-Big Ten first-team honoree who produced 16 goals and 27 assists this season. “It’s going to be a long 60 minutes, for sure, trying to break them down, but we have to focus on how we play.”
The Barratt-Limoges-Folkes line has recorded 57 goals this season, and they’re not alone in their productivity. As Penn State rotates four lines, there’s never any lack of aggressiveness.
The championship game comes with more than just conference bragging rights at stake. Only the winner seems likely to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
While either team’s victory total (22 for Penn State, 21 for Notre Dame) might be enough to earn a spot in the 16-team national tournament any other season, both teams struggled at times while navigating the balanced and deep Big Ten.
Last season three conference teams, including Notre Dame, reached the Frozen Four. This season, only Ohio State and whomever wins the conference tournament will even earn bids.
Inconsistency was a recurring theme for Penn State during the regular season.
“Many other years, when you’ve won as many games as we have, you’re safely in. If we were comfortably in the tournament maybe we wouldn’t be talking about it,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said. “Rather than look at it that way, though, I think we’re optimistic that we’re coming around again at the right time.”
Penn State’s three-game winning streak is its longest since November while Notre Dame has won three in a row for the first time since December.
Style of play separates the two teams, but little else does. So there’s a sense of urgency, not just about the result, but about starting the game well.
“It really matters who can establish and initiate their game the best and quickest,” Gadowsky said. “When you can get ahead of a team, that’s when you can get them out of character and maybe get some of your best offensive changes.”
Penn State’s defense has been stronger in recent weeks, led by Paul DeNaples, a finalist as conference Defenseman of the Year, and steady Cole Hults. Plus, goalie Peyton Jones thrives in the postseason, with an 8-2 record in the conference tournament. He’s won 61 percent of his regular season games.
For Gadowsky, his team’s intangibles — a slightly overlooked bit of confidence and grit — might be the most important factor. Notre Dame has proven itself in tight games, and in tight games against the Nittany Lions, but Gadowsky remains calm and confident.
As a result, he’s not planning any out-of-character motivational speech and he expects his team to be focused. “I certainly don’t think you have to state the obvious at this point of the season,” Gadowsky said. “We’re just trying to prepare our best to play our best game.”
No. 17 Penn State (22-14-2) at No. 16 Notre Dame (21-13-3)
Big Ten Tournament Championship
Single Game: 8 p.m. Saturday
Radio/TV: Watch on the Big Ten Network or listen on 103.1 FM and GoPSUsports.com
Notable: The teams split the season series, 2-2. … Notre Dame won the tournament championship last season and Penn State did the same in 2017. … As it did during the regular season, Penn State’s offense has been the Big Ten’s best (4.50 goals per game) during the tournament. … Likewise, Notre Dame has maintained its defensive approach, allowing 0.33 goals per game.