In the span of 8 minutes, 21 seconds, Kyle Connor showed why he is the best player in the Big Ten, and perhaps the best college player in the nation.
The Michigan freshman scored a natural hat trick in less than half the second period and finished with four goals as the Wolverines pounded Penn State yet again, this time 7-2 Friday evening at Xcel Energy Center in the Big Ten men’s hockey semifinals.
It was the second hat trick of the campaign for Connor, who leads the nation in scoring this season with 34 goals. Linemate JT Compher also had a stellar offensive night with five assists.
Max Shuart, Alex Kile and Cristoval Nieves netted the other goals for the No. 2 seed Wolverines (22-7-5), who head to the championship game at 8 p.m. Saturday against No. 1 Minnesota.
Defensemen Kevin Kerr and Luke Juha accounted for the goals for the No. 3 seed Nittany Lions (21-13-4), who finished the season with a program record for wins.
Eamon McAdam made 14 saves but gave up four goals before getting chased in the second period. Matthew Skoff finished the contest, making 18 stops in the final career game for him and seven other seniors.
Steve Racine halted 40 shots for Michigan, which swept all five meetings between the teams this season by a combined 33-11.
“Michigan is just really, really good,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky told the media in St. Paul. “I think they’re really, really good, they’re really scary. Their offense is tremendous, it’s as explosive an offense as I’ve, I think, coached against in college.”
The Wolverines blocked out that prior success before the game.
“Tonight was more starting from square one,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I told our team, Penn State will be a different team and we need to be a different team. And we were fortunate we got the good start, like I said, early. It could have been a different game.”
McAdam made a spectacular stick save a few minutes into the first, reaching back across the crease to deny Kile with a soft redirection shot, but that was the last Nittany Lion highlight for a while.
The Wolverines netted a pair of goals in the first period, starting with a Shuart rebound, then later when, from behind the net, Tyler Motte fed Kile.
Then it was time for The Kyle Connor Show as the second period began.
His prettiest goal was his first one 48 seconds into the period, racing down along the boards, slamming on the brakes at the circle and firing a wrist shot to the corner over McAdam’s shoulder.
He added his second by bursting straight up the middle and using a Lion defenseman as a screen to beat McAdam, which ended the night for the junior goaltender. A few minutes later on a power play, the hat trick was complete when he redirected a feed from Compher.
“I’m a firm believer that Kyle Connor is the best player I’ve ever played against, and I even told him that in the handshake line,” said the Nittany Lions’ David Goodwin, who set up both Penn State goals. “And it’s fun to watch, but yeah, they’re pretty incredible.”
Penn State finally got on the board on a power play, with a patient Goodwin waiting by the boards to draw the Wolverine defense his way, then feeding a wide open Kerr on the other side.
Nieves scored early in the third during a 4 on 4, but on a power play seconds later Kerr and Goodwin began a nice passing combination before Goodwin fed the puck across to an open Juha on the other side for the score.
The two assists gave Goodwin a team-high 38 points on the season.
Connor netted his fourth midway through the third period on a power play, gathering in a rebound to beat Skoff and end the scoring for the day. The freshman scored 10 of his goals against Penn State this season.
It closed the books on a Nittany Lion season that produced a program-record 21 wins.
“Any time a college team can get 20 wins I think it’s something special,” Gadowsky said. “And it just seems to be that number that a lot of people have looked at. I certainly didn’t see this coming this quickly so I think that, not only the seniors, but the entire team, is very proud of that.”