It was a highlight that will be replayed over and over for years for the Penn State men’s hockey team.
Dylan Richard wins a faceoff, the puck drifts back to Zach Saar and the Nittany Lion then-freshman fires the puck into the net to beat Michigan 2-1 in double overtime in the first Big Ten Tournament game.
“What I remember the most is the guys during the game,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “They competed so hard, but were calm. They enjoyed what they did. They were having fun and competing hard. I think we felt we absolutely deserved to be there.”
As much as the win mattered, it was that feeling that really inspired the Nittany Lions — they were not the second-year program nipping at the heels of the conference’s big dogs, but were on level ground with them.
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“The result was great — I’m not going to minimize it,” Gadowsky said. “The fact of our feeling during that game, I think every one of us knew that we deserved to be there.”
The next afternoon Penn State saw its season end 2-1 at the hands of Wisconsin, but it was a step that contributed to an impressive 2014-15 season.
The Nittany Lions (18-14-4), who were in the chase for the conference’s regular-season title all the way to last weekend, return to the Big Ten Tournament at 4:30 p.m. Thursday to meet Ohio State (13-18-3) at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Penn State may still be a young Division I program, but it has already vaulted itself into Big Ten contention.
“I knew it wouldn’t take long,” Buckeyes coach Steve Rohlik said. “They’ve just done things the right way. They know their identity. They show up every night. You know what you’re going to get out of them. It’s 110 percent every shift, every night.”
Rohlik and his team have fond memories of last year’s tournament too, making a run all the way to the finals before losing to the Badgers.
They also should feel pretty confident against the Nittany Lions, taking three of the four meetings in the regular season. The question is, will Thursday’s game look like any of those four contests?
Each one was unique.
The first meeting in early January saw Ohio State build a 4-0 lead by early in the third period, then a Casey Bailey hat trick spurred a comeback to force overtime, only to see a turnover turn into an Anthony Greco breakaway for the winner.
The next night, Penn State took control in the second period in a 4-1 win.
Three weeks ago in Columbus, a quick start with a Tommy Olczyk goal 31 seconds into the game didn’t last in a 5-3 loss, and the next night the Lions played well and led into the third period before Taylor Holstrom collided with a Buckeye and was lost to a leg injury, and Penn State collapsed.
“We’ve learned different lessons here, and at Ohio State,” Gadowsky said. “I think it’s something we have to take with us.”
The Nittany Lions also were taught a lesson last weekend. Brimming with confidence after a home sweep of Michigan the week before, they were drubbed by Minnesota 5-0 and 6-2.
“We’ve got a short memory,” sophomore forward Zach Saar said. “Once the final buzzer goes, I think you mull it over for a couple hours. We’ve got to move on.”
Gadowsky said his team had bounced back before they even left the locker room last Saturday in Minneapolis.
“All they’re thinking, it’s playoff time,” Gadowsky said. “It didn’t matter what happened last Saturday, or Saturday in October.”
What Gadowsky did not divulge before the team left for Detroit was whether Holstrom was healthy enough to return to the lineup. He still leads the team in assists despite missing the last four games, and was part of an incredibly successful line wit Casey Bailey and David Goodwin. Bailey and Holstrom are both nominated for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player.
“You lose a big part of our line, a big part of our team,” Bailey said. “It’s just on everybody else to step up. I need to play better, Goodwin needs to play better, Rocket’s (Richard) line needs to play better. I just think some more guys need to step up and play better offense.”
Thursday’s winner will have to face the top-seeded Golden Gophers on Friday.
Unlike last season, when the Nittany Lions finally caught fire in the final weeks after struggling all season, they have been rolling since opening night. They also know they have the capability to beat anyone in this tournament.
“This year we have even more confidence with the way we’ve been playing and the success we’ve had,” Bailey said. “Beating every team in the league this year, we know we can. I think, honestly, our team’s built for a playoff push.”
A year ago they felt the excitement and thrill of a major program milestone. There aren’t many milestones left to accomplish, thanks to the 2014-15 season, but stringing together three straight wins to earn an NCAA Tournament bid is still on the table.
It starts with the Buckeyes on Thursday.
“You want to leave it all out there,” Bailey said. “You’ve got seniors — this is their last chance. They came here to play for a program that everybody said was going to lose. To be able to go out there and win, have that possibility of picking up the Big Ten playoff championship your second season, third season of Division I, is a huge accomplishment and something we’d love to do.”