The conundrum of Penn State men’s hockey this season has not only survived to fight another day, but is on the verge of history. Despite some baffling results, such as blowing a 4-1 lead to Princeton and inconsistencies all throughout Big Ten play, the Nittany Lions are catching heat at the right time. Coach Guy Gadowsky and company will head to South Bend on Saturday to play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the Big Ten championship game.
Overcoming the Odds
Not too many may have expected Penn State to reach this point, but the Nittany Lions have overcome the odds whenever the stakes have been at their highest. They took down this same Notre Dame team on the road during the last day of the regular season, and with some help from Wisconsin, were able to secure home ice in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Then, after dropping game one in the best-of-three tilt with those Badgers, Penn State won back-to-back games in order to keep its season alive.
Last weekend was no exception to the dire circumstances with which this team has become accustomed to. The Nittany Lions were staring elimination in the face, as they faced the Ohio State Buckeyes, the No. 1 seed in the tournament. Now, Notre Dame, the No. 2 seed, is the only thing that separates the Nittany Lions from a Big Ten championship and an NCAA tournament berth.
If this feels like a familiar sequence of events, that is probably because it is. In 2017, Penn State clinched its lone Big Ten tournament title in a nearly identical fashion. The Nittany Lions entered as the No. 4 seed, taking down the No. 5 seed (in this case, Michigan) in the first round. Then, Penn State became the first team to prevent a No. 1 seed from reaching the final, when they upset Minnesota. Finally, the Nittany Lions found their way to the promise land, defeating No. 2 seed Wisconsin with an overtime goal from Liam Folkes. Goaltender Peyton Jones skated away with tournament MVP honors.
Now, two seasons later, with the tournament format changed from a neutral site host to campus hosts, history appears, at least in a sense, to possibly be repeating itself. After taking out the No. 5 seed in round one, which included another overtime clincher from Folkes, Penn State upset the No. 1 seed in route to a clash in the championship game with a No. 2 seed. It is no coincidence that Jones has stuck out on this magical Penn State run as well. The netminder, mostly inconsistent throughout the season, has peaked in the Big Ten tournament. He is coming off arguably his best performance of the season, making 31 saves on 32 shots against Ohio State.
Much like the first time around, this last hurdle will not be an easy one for the Nittany Lions to overcome. Notre Dame has been a ruthless defensive unit this postseason. The Fighting Irish have only conceded once in their three tournament games. Led by one of the best goaltenders in the nation, Cale Morris, this defense will certainly be a tall task, even for Penn State’s top ranked offense.
In addition, Compton Family Ice Arena has been a nightmare destination at times for Gadowsky’s bunch. Not only were the Nittany Lions eliminated from last season’s Big Ten tournament after conceding with less than a minute to go in regulation, but they also blew a 4-1 lead to the Fighting Irish in this very venue. Not to mention, Notre Dame is undefeated in Big Ten tournament play in their brief two-year stint in the conference.
Still, if anyone has shown the pedigree for making history in this tournament, it is Penn State. The program holds the record for most tournament wins, most tournament upsets and with a win Saturday, they will become the first team to win the tournament twice.
Will history repeat itself? Only time will tell. However, if the Nittany Lions want to make their third straight NCAA tournament, then there will have to be a sense of déjà vu in Hockey Valley.
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