In sports, the phrase “having a team’s number” means you almost always find a way to beat them. This phrase could not be more accurate in describing Penn State hockey forward Liam Folkes and the Wisconsin Badgers.
Folkes helped the Nittany Lions advance to the Big Ten tournament semifinals on Sunday, by scoring two goals in a win or go home game three of the quarterfinal series, including an overtime winner.
The two goals, however, only tell part of the story. Folkes was pivotal to Penn State’s success through the duration of the weekend series. He was the series’ leading scorer, accumulating nine points through three goals and six assists.
This also is not the beginning of Folkes’s postseason heroics against the Badgers. In the championship game of the 2017 Big Ten tournament, he scored another game-winner in double overtime, to clinch the Nittany Lions lone Big Ten title, and send Wisconsin home empty-handed.
Folkes has been one of many who paved success for the Penn State program in the Big Ten tournament. This will be Penn State’s fifth Big Ten semifinal in the conference’s six years of existence in division I hockey.
However, the semifinal has become a rather daunting hurtle for the Nittany Lions to overcome. Coach Guy Gadowsky and company are only 1-3 in the previous four semifinal matchups. The odds will not be in favor of Penn State either, as they will be traveling to Columbus, taking on Ohio State. The Buckeyes are the top seed in the Big Ten tournament, and ranked No. 7 nationally in the Pairwise. To draw further symmetry within the daunting challenge which lies ahead of the Nittany Lions, their record against Ohio State this season is, you guessed it, 1-3.
Although, it would not be wise to count out Penn State just yet. The Nittany Lions have been responsible for upsets in one game playoffs before. In 2014, sixth-seeded Penn State kicked off the inaugural Big Ten tournament by taking down third-seeded Michigan. In 2017, The Nittany Lions were successful once again, eliminating the top seed, Minnesota.
If Penn State has another big upset in the cards, the stars may be aligning in its favor. Ohio State has lost its step down the stretch of the regular season. The Buckeyes have only won one of their last six games, including being swept by Minnesota at home. While the bye week has allowed Ohio State a bit of extra rest, but it also allows the Nittany Lions to roll into Columbus with a ton of momentum, while the Buckeyes are stuck in neutral.
Still, the task is not easy for Penn State. The Nittany Lions will have to clean up their game tremendously, especially on defense. Penn State is notorious for pushing too far into the attacking zone, and Wisconsin exposed this, breaking for numerous odd-man rushes this past weekend. The Badgers just lacked the quality to capitalize on most of their opportunities. However, Ohio State has shown to be far more clinical this season and could make the Nittany Lions pay for their weak defensive game plan.
Another big game will be needed by goaltender Peyton Jones as well. Jones was electric against Wisconsin. He will need to put his .900+ save percentage in the Big Ten tournament to the test again should the Nittany Lions stand a chance of advancing.
Finally, the aforementioned Folkes and Limoges, along with the rest of college hockey’s leading offense, will need to be on full display against one of the nations better defenses, led by an elite goalkeeper in Tommy Nappier.
The odds are certainly stacked against Penn State. However, this team has played its best hockey with its back against the wall. With the Nittany Lions currently sitting at No. 19 in the Pairwise, their season effectively ends with a loss. In a Big Ten conference which has been anything but predictable this season, perhaps there is just one more surprise in store.
Strangely enough, if Penn State is victorious against the Buckeyes in the semifinal, their opponent in the championship would be the winner of, you guessed it, Michigan and Minnesota. Both teams previously upset by Penn State in this tournament, and both currently a higher seed than the Nittany Lions.
Perhaps Folkes’s winning goal against Wisconsin can be the beginning of a little “folktale” in “Hockey Valley.”
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