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Penn State Hockey Wins at Least a Share of Big Ten Title

by on February 29, 2020 12:05 AM

[While Penn State sits inactive for the final weekend of the regular season, a series of results across the Big Ten on Friday night made the Nittany Lions no worse than co-Big Ten Champs]

Not long before Penn State hockey's season began coach Guy Gadowsky sat picking through his dinner on the east side of State College thinking about the upcoming year.

He nods, his head tilted sideways as he lets out a small puff of air, mentally acknowledging the topic of the night.

His team might be very good. This is something that strikes him in a singular moment as both good and bad.

Being very good means that people expect you to be very good. This is in many ways a unique scenario over the course of Gadowsky's not terribly short coaching career. In Alaska there were no national title aspirations, at Princeton he developed that program to the point of moderate relevance but still far from a national threat.

Now here he sits, the best team on paper that he has ever coached, certainly the deepest and most talented he has had at Penn State. There are goal-scorers galore, a senior goaltender that has shown flashes of being elite, seemingly poised for his best year to date. There are talented defensemen who can generate offense but have also improve in their own zone at a rate which has given an offensive minded program a bit of a defensive backbone.

Everything appears to be coming together, everything you read about the state of college hockey in 2019 says to watch out for the Nittany Lions. As a Frozen Four contender hosting the Allentown regional Penn State's historically potent offense could power them to a national title.

Expectations come with that, pressure comes with that. The days when Penn State hockey was just a fun novelty and a dream realized have long exited the building. Now fans get angry, now people expect something better, now people want to see what happens when things go from being fun to being serious. Penn State plays within a slapshot of Beaver Stadium and there are expectations in that shadow.

To put it bluntly, during the regular season the Nittany Lions never really became the team they looked like they could be. Maybe that's a product of their own success, maybe a product of expecting perfection out of a team that plays a game in which bad luck also wears a uniform.

Penn State showed glimpses of what it could be, but also glimpses of why going from very good to truly elite is a far bigger challenge than simply putting pucks on net.

Of course the rest of the Big Ten was still behind bringing up the rear. No matter how imperfect Penn State may have been, it was still better than the rest in a conference not short on quality.

On Friday night Penn State, sitting at 41 points, four ahead of the next closest team, needed a lot of things to happen in order to lock up at least a share of the regular season title. It needed an Ohio State loss, it got that. It needed Notre Dame to lose, it got that. It needed Minnesota to not pick up more than four points on the weekend, and as Michigan won in a shootout the Gophers are capped at that limit even with a victory on Saturday.

It is fitting that Penn State clinched a Big Ten title thanks to the things it couldn't control. It's fitting because Penn State hit the post twice in two different overtime games. It's fitting because bad bounces turned more than their fair share of games from wins to losses. Gadowsky is fond of saying that hockey is a game of pucks, goalies and refs. He also likes to evoke the Hockey Gods, a fancy of way of saying that stuff just happens and there's nothing you can do about.

On paper Penn State was the best team in the Big Ten and also perhaps the most unlucky. So if the Nittany Lions' nearly lost their shot at bringing home a banner because they couldn't get the bounce, then the Hockey Gods righted the ship and rewarded a team for what it truly was: the best team in the Big Ten. Divine intervention indeed, the ultimate bounce.

It goes without saying that sporting theology makes for weak analysis, but it was hard not to laugh as all of the right bounces fell in Penn State's favor after a season of bounces going against the Nittany Lions.

They will have their chance to prove their worth in the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 1 seed and as whatever seed they are given in the NCAA Tournament beyond that. They will perhaps feel a stronger urgency to do so after a season that has not felt like its end result. The Nittany Lions might be champs, but it is unlikely that the past two months of struggles and ups and downs have left them feeling validated.

The thing is though, when the banner hangs above the benches, it will never come down, and nobody will care anymore about how it looked or how much easier it could have been.

And when it's all said and done, if the banner is up in your building, maybe you're better than you thought.



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