SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In the one-and-done world of postseason college hockey, the slightest miscue can spell the difference between victory and defeat.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock in Saturday night’s Big Ten semifinal between top-seeded Notre Dame and fourth-seeded Penn State, the game seemed destined to go to overtime.
That was before Jack Jenkins stepped up and delivered his biggest goal of the season with :30.9 seconds left that gave the Fighting Irish a thrilling 3-2 win over the Nittany Lions in front of 4,892 fans at the Compton Family Ice Arena.
Thanks to Dylan Malmquist’s assist, Jenkins’ third goal of the season sent the partisan Fighting Irish crowd into a frenzy. Notre Dame goalie Cale Morris withstood a furious Penn State attack in the final seconds to send coach Jeff Jackson’s squad (24-9-2) to next Saturday night’s championship game at 8 p.m. at the Compton Family Ice Arena against Ohio State (24-8-5), a 3-2 overtime winner over Michigan in Columbus.
“I got into the high slot and Dylan got free and I was yelling as loud as I could for him to get the puck to me,” Jenkins said. “He got it to me and the guy blocked the shot, but it luckily came back to me and I shot it at the net and it fortunately went in. We’re just happy to be going to the finals.”
Coach Guy Gadowsky’s Nittany Lions finish 18-14-5 and wait to see if they will be selected for an at-large bid when the NCAA announces its tournament field next Sunday.
Notre Dame won four regulation games and a shootout win over Penn State.
“They’re a heck of a hockey team,” Jackson said of the Nittany Lions. “They’re a better team today than the last time we played them. I thought their forward depth created some problems for us. (The win) is good for our confidence considering how we finished the regular season. I thought we did a better job than we have (in the past) against them managing the puck, and that’s always a challenge because they pressure the puck so hard.”
Notre Dame outshot Penn State, 47-45, and Jackson credited his squad for finding a way to win down the stretch.
“We came out of our zone with speed, and we had a couple good opportunities,” he said of the winning sequence. “It was the end of a long shift for both lines, although Jenkins had just come off the bench for that next shift. He was the one fresh guy out there, and (Andrew) Oglevie and Malmquist did a good job finding him so it was a great finish to a great game. (This season) has been about our goaltending, our defensive core, and our forwards with timely scoring, and that’s exactly what it was tonight, a combination of those three things that allowed us to win the game.”
Both teams found the back of the net with relative ease in the first period, combining to score four goals.
Notre Dame struck first at the 6:18 mark when Jordan Gross scored his eighth goal of the season off assists from Malmquist and Cal Burke. Penn State responded at the 11:43 mark as Nate Sucese scored his 14th goal of the season off assists from Brandon Biro and Erik Autio.
The Fighting Irish responded with a power-play goal of their own less than three minutes later when Andrew Peeke scored his fifth goal of the season at 14:03 off assists from Joe Wegwerth and Matt Helickson.
The Nittany Lions immediately responded, as Biro scored his ninth goal of the season off assists from Sucese and Erik Autio at the 15:43 mark.
From that point, the game turned into a great defensive battle. Both Morris and Penn State’s Peyton Jones were stellar in goal. Morris finished with 43 saves, while Jones had 44 saves.
“Focus is everything, how you prepare yourself on game day, in between periods, in between shifts, just staying in the moment,” Jackson said. “It was a fast game, it was a playoff game, and it certainly felt like it.”
Jenkins’ goal forced Gadowsky to pull Jones and go with an extra skater. In those final seconds, the Nittany Lions attacked the net hard, but Morris was able to stay focused after Jenkins’ goal and stem Penn State’s final charge.
“I was like a five-year-old celebrating,” Morris said after Jenkins goal. “I was jumping in the air, and it was awesome. It was definitely a roller coaster of emotions there. You were kind of celebrating there, but I was yelling at the guys ‘We still have a job to finish here.’ And we knew they were going to come with everything they had.”
Now Notre Dame gets a chance to earn another trophy in its inaugural season in the Big Ten, but Jackson knows it won’t be easy.
“It’s a one-and-done season right now,” he said. “You have to learn to embrace that. Every game at this time of the year is a championship game; you either win or it ends your chance at playing for a championship.”