ST. PAUL, Minn. — Michigan and Penn State each came into the opening game of the inaugural Big Ten men’s hockey tournament looking for a boost, and in classic March fashion, it was the underdog that came away a winner.
Michigan entered the game with nine NCAA titles. Penn State was finishing its second season as a varsity program. The third-seeded Wolverines were looking for a long run at the Xcel Energy Center to improve their chances of making the NCAA tournament after a 22-year streak of appearances was snapped last year.
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And after a 2-1 double-overtime win for Penn State on Thursday, the Nittany Lions at the very least met that goal.
“I think we learned that we have guys with a lot of heart,” PSU coach Guy Gadowsky said. “I really liked the fact that we were playing an excellent game, and we allowed them to tie it up relatively late, and I don’t think our demeanor changed that much.
“I think that’s something we learned. I think it took us a while to sort of understand the mental strength that it takes to play programs like Michigan and the other great programs in the Big Ten.”
Penn State struggled in the inaugural season of Big Ten play, going 3-16-1 during the conference season to finish in last place. But two of those wins came against Michigan, and fittingly, it was an even game the whole way through on Thursday.
The teams split the regular season series, with Penn State winning 4-0 at home and 5-4 in overtime at Yost Arena, and from early on in the first-round playoff game, the Nittany Lions made it clear they weren’t intimidated.
Penn State controlled the first period and scored the first goal of the game on a breakaway by Taylor Holstrom in the final minute of the second period.
“I can’t tell you if there’s anything in particular,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “Maybe they have a special respect for Michigan. I don’t know. I can tell ya, every game we’ve played them has been a hard-fought game.”
Michigan came back and tied the game at 1 in the third and seemed to be the stronger team in overtime. Instead, Penn State got to show it learned a thing or two over the course of the season.
Although the win doesn’t guarantee anything — Penn State has to win the Big Ten tournament to earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament — the Nittany Lions players agreed it was a big step forward for the young program.
“We’ve got goals as a program, and these are the types of games we look to win on a regular basis in the future,” said freshman winger Zach Saar, who scored the winning goal in the second overtime. “It was a good step for us as a team.”
The knowledge of what it takes to win a postseason game should carry over to next season as well — the Lions have just nine upperclassmen, including one senior, on the roster. Winning goaltender Matthew Skoff is a sophomore and made a career-high 52 saves in the win.
“Going forward here, I think that’s gonna be looked at as a huge gain for the program in the future,” Skoff said.