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Penn State Hockey: History Turns To Heartbreak As Minnesota Wins In OT 4-3

by on February 18, 2017 11:01 PM

With a minute and 26 seconds remaining in regulation Denis Smirnov took long strides as he approached the puck for a penalty shot, the crowd standing and cheering, equal parts excitement and terror.

By the time he reached the net it was silent as all 6,140 held their breath.

A few quick moves of the stick and a dipped shoulder was all it took for Smirnov to find an opening, sliding the puck past Minnesota goalie Eric Schierhorn to give Penn State a 3-2 lead.

And then Pegula Ice Arena roared as loud as it ever had in the brief but meaningful history of the building. Smirnov sank to the ice and pumped his fist, reaching the bench and jumping into the arms of his teammates waiting on the other side.

It was a moment that seemed destined to be remembered forever. A win on Saturday night would have all but likely sealed Penn State's first ever NCAA tournament bid. The Nittany Lions then standing a few wins from a national title just years after becoming a Division I program.

So as Justin Kloos collected the puck in the offensive zone with 3.5 seconds to go and sniped it over Peyton Jones' left shoulder into the back of the net those moments where all but forgotten. A bench that had exploded with joy was crouched over in disbelief, a crowd that had been jubilant was in shock. Ushers stood near the aisle with their mouths open. Penn State athletics' staff members collected themselves, working through an unparalleled whiplash of emotions.

"We looked at the faceoff sheet and thought we had the right guys," Gadowsky said of the late goal, his voice trailing off. "We've been over that a lot, it's not that we didn't do what we wanted to do. It's just one of those faceoffs man, I don't know what to tell you."

On the scoreboard the game had gone into overtime.

But the game was all but over.

Penn State would kill off a power play in the extra period, but with just over a minute to play Rem Pitlick finished what had felt inevitable minutes earlier, snipping his own shot over Jones' glove, deflecting on its way and giving Minnesota the victory.

"Obviously that's a tough one," coach Guy Gadowsky said after the game. "But that's not the first tough loss we've had and certainly it won't be the last. It was against an excellent opponent in an excellent hockey game and those are the types of games we know we're going to have to play down the stretch in the Big Ten (Tournament) and hopeful in the NCAA Tournament, so we can certainly learn from this experience."

The new challenge that faces Penn State became apparent as the teams skated off the ice, simply moving forward. At No. 11 in the PairWise rankings the Nittany Lions have inched closer towards the postseason bubble. A window that will only tighten if conference tournaments take an odd twist with their automatic bids.

For as historic as a Penn State win could have been on Saturday night, it's the response on the upcoming Saturdays that will determine how big the loss truly was. The Nittany Lions should be favored in all their remaining six games against teams Penn State has yet to lose to this season.

The Nittany Lions will travel next weekend to East Lansing to face a feisty Michigan State team before finishing up the home schedule against Wisconsin. Penn State will then travel to Ann Arbor, closing out the regular season against Michigan. A trip to Detroit for the Big Ten Tournament a last chance for the postseason for all teams in the conference.

"I think there is a lot to play for right now," Gadowsky said. "I think that the success that the team has had throughout the year puts us in this spot, a pretty good darn spot. I think there is a lot, a lot to play for. So for that reason I think there is a lot of motivation after tonight."

If Penn State fans have anything to hang on to it has been the Nittany Lions' fairly even keel resilience. The vast majority of the program's early success has been peppered with close defeats at the hands of teams just a bit better. Losing has been a rarity for this particular Penn State team, but it has been by in large a part of the fabric that has helped the program go so far in such a short time.

So as David Goodwin took the podium after the game and told a room full of reporters that everyone was moving on, it's hard to argue that it won't happen, even if it's hard to imagine in a building in shock.

"We're going going to take tomorrow off and I have no doubt by Monday that we're going to be positive and as confident as ever." 

As for the rest of the game, Penn State was for the most part the better team on Saturday. The Nittany Lions scored twice in the opening period, Smirnov netting his first of the night 3:17 into the game. No goals were scored in the middle period before Minnesota broke its shutout with a Jake Bischoff goal 5:08 into the frame.

And then Tyler Sheehy tied it with just under three minutes to go.

Seconds later Smirnov lined up for a penalty shot.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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