Penn State Hockey: Nittany Lions Win 2OT Thriller, Lock Up NCAA Bid And Head To Big Ten Title Game
Penn State forward Andrew Sturtz just smiled earlier this week when asked about the potential to face Minnesota one final time, a fifth meeting between the two teams this season.
And that smile was all you needed to know.
A few days later and three hours and 45 minutes after the puck dropped on Thursday night Sturtz smiled even wider as Penn State beat the Gophers 4-3 in double overtime to advance to the Big Ten Tournament Final. Perhaps more importantly, the victory essentially guaranteed the Nittany Lions' their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
Five years after the program hit the ice, Penn State will play in the postseason just a handful of wins away from a national title.
It doesn't get much bigger than that.
What will undoubtedly make the 23rd win of the Nittany Lions' season so special for years to come is the abundance of moments that the game can be remembered for. Moments that will stick in the minds of fans well after the season finally ends. Be it Peyton Jones flashing leather midway through the first overtime period to rob Minnesota of the winning goal, or far earlier as Alec Marsh tied the game at 2-2 early in the second period.
Or maybe the first goal just over a minute into regulation giving the Nittany Lions early confidence against a team they had yet to bet this year.
Perhaps when Erik Autio leapt through the air in the second overtime to poke the puck away to prevent a breakaway.
Whatever moment ends up making the official highlight video, it will be just one of many that the Penn State hockey program will remember forever. None more important than Denis Smirnov's feed to Autio with just over six minutes to go in the second overtime, Autio burying the puck into a nearly empty net to win the game. A circle of rubber bringing a dream of variety hockey at Penn State to a tangible completion.
To the point of less cinematic themes, Penn State controlled much of the pace of play at key junctures of the game. The Nittany Lions dominated good portions of the second and third periods and against a lesser team would have likely won in regulation. True to form the shots flew through the offensive zone, 63 finding the net while Jones had no small task of his own stopping 37. No stat taking its toll more than the 44 shots collectively blocked by both teams.
Now Penn State turns its attention to a Wisconsin team that the Nittany Lions have beaten three times already this year. The obvious hurdle, energy, Penn State's double overtime victory no small obstacle to overcome.
But the Nittany Lions have made a living doing what nobody really thought was possible, so winning a game on tired legs might not be such a tough task after all.