The Penn State hockey team limped to the finish line of its season Thursday afternoon.
With injuries depleting the lineup, the Nittany Lions didn’t have an answer for Ohio State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament at Joe Louis Arena.
David Gust’s goal with a minute left in the second period sealed the 3-1 Buckeyes win, sending them to the semifinals to face top-seeded Minnesota on Friday.
“You look at the game and you certainly wouldn’t think it was one of our best performances,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said. “But I tell you what, it was definitely one of our greatest. We had a couple of guys that probably shouldn’t have played at all and really gritted it out.”
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Nick Schilkey and Justin DaSilva scored first-period goals for Ohio State (14-18-3), which advanced to the finals of last year’s inaugural Big Ten Tournament also as the No. 5 seed.
Max Gardiner was the only one to beat goalie Christian Frey, as the Ohio State goalie made 31 saves.
Eamon McAdam stopped 26 shots, but allowed scores on two of the first four shots he faced.
Penn State (18-15-4), which lost its last three games of the season and eight of its last 11, got a boost when senior forward and team assist leader Taylor Holstrom rejoined the lineup. He had not played since suffering a knee injury against the Buckeyes on Feb. 28.
“It meant a lot that he was there,” Gadowsky said. “We really didn’t expect him to play even up till game time. I thought it was a really, really gritty effort by him to play. Obviously, he couldn’t skate nearly as well as he normally does, but I think it meant a lot to our team that he was putting in the effort and going through the pain that he did to play.”
But the Lions lost defensemen Mike Williamson and Nate Jensen during the game, leaving them with only four healthy blue-liners for the final minutes of the game. Williamson slid hard into the boards in the second period, slamming his left knee into the boards, and was helped to the locker room. Jensen left with just over six minutes left in the third period and an awkward collision with a Buckeye, though he did return.
“I think part of that is not an excuse,” Gadowsky said, “but we have a pretty significant part of our offense that was really struggling to play a couple of our players, and I don’t think we had the speed that we normally have to jump on pucks and try to get second and third chances.”
Penn State outshot Ohio State 32-29, and no penalties were called in the entire game.
A tough break led to the opening goal. The Nittany Lions were attempting to clear the puck from their own zone when the pass bounced off a linesman standing at the blue line. The puck stayed in the zone, Gust picked it up and fed a breaking Schilkey just as he crossed the blue line and the sophomore broke in alone and beat McAdam between the legs.
The lead went to 2-0 as the Buckeyes had a 3 on 2 break, catching the Lions on a line change, and Tanner Fritz dropped the puck back for DaSilva in the high slot, with McAdam screened by the Lion defensemen on a rocket shot.
“It was a whitewash,” DaSilva said. “I was at the end of the shift, and I saw them changing (lines). So I decided to jump up as quick as I could. Fritzy left a nice little gift for me there, and I don’t think the goalie really saw it. Their ‘D’ man tried to block it. So it was set up for me and I was fortunate to put it in.”
It was a tough mountain in front of the Nittany Lions to climb.
“We tried to stay positive,” Gardiner said of the mood in the locker room at the first intermission. “We’ve come back many times this year. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to tonight. But we went out there and laid it on the line. I’m proud of the guys on our team, and unfortunately the result wasn’t in our favor.”
Penn State finally got on the board midway through the second period when Gardiner broke in on a 2 on 1, and with a sliding Buckeye defenseman cutting off any passing options to Zach Saar on the other wing, the fifth-year senior rifled a shot just under the crossbar for his fifth score of the season.
“Tommy Olczyk made a real nice play there,” Gardiner said. “He picked off a pass and made a nice pass to me. And Zach kind of drew the ‘D’ over, drove hard doing that, and kind of gave me an opening to let one go. Luckily enough it went in.”
The Nittany Lions stayed in the hunt until another turnover led to another Buckeye goal with a minute left in the second. Sam Jardine swiped the puck at the Ohio State blue line and sent a long lead pass up to a breaking Gust, who was alone on McAdam and beat the sophomore goalie with a top-shelf shot.
It gave Ohio State a jolt of energy for the final 20 minutes.
“You certainly feel a heck of a lot better with a two-goal lead than a one-goal lead,” Buckeyes coach Steve Rohlik said. “Against a team like this earlier in the year, we were up 4‐0 with (seven) minutes to go, and it went into overtime. So we know what kind of fire power they have.”
Penn State had a handful of good scoring opportunities, including a steal and breakaway for Eric Scheid less than five minutes into the game, but Frey denied the junior.
“I know it’s not the result we wanted,” Gadowsky said. “But I tell you what, when these guys especially this senior class looks back at what they accomplished while they’ve been here and especially this season, I think they’re going to be very proud.”