March 18, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

One Giant Leap

Euro Import Autio's 2 OT Goal Gives Penn State Its Biggest Win Yet

by Tim Rappleye/CHN Reporter

Ever since Guy Gadowsky won the most coveted job in college hockey six years ago, he has been on a recruiting rampage in Happy Valley. He began by tapping into his tried and true Western Canada pipeline, players like current senior Dylan Richard from Gadowsky’s old stomping grounds in Sherwood Park, Alberta.

Three years ago, the Nittany Lions expanded their web to Finland, bringing in junior blue liner Erik Autio. And last year Gadowsky’s bloodhounds found gold in Russia, bringing in two blue chippers from Moscow and beyond: little sniper Denis Smirnov, and gigantic centerman Nikita Pavlychev, north by the Volga River.

On Friday night, all three of those northern Europeans played a starring role in the Nittany Lions' stirring 4-3 double overtime victory over powerhouse Minnesota in the Big Ten semifinals at Joe Louis Arena.

The program is just five years old, and to say this is the biggest win in program history is hardly an overstatement. It also sets up the possibility for more, with a chance for a Big Ten championship Saturday against Wisconsin, and the prospects of playing in its first NCAA tournament next weekend now all but assured.

After a lot of ups and downs and doubters, that's a big deal.

Barely a minute into this gripping contest, the 6-foot-7 Pavlychev stormed the Gophers' net and the displayed surprising agility to get two whacks at a rebound off a Trevor Hamilton blast from the point, burying his fourth goal of the year.

But it was in the fifth period that Gadowsky’s other Slavic snipers did their part. At the 13:33 mark of the second overtime, Smirnov corralled a puck deep in the Minnesota zone and got his head up. That’s when Autio followed his instincts and jumped into the attacking zone.

“I saw Denis had the puck, so I know that’s when you go to the net,” Autio said. “He’s good with the puck and has great vision. He made an unreal play, and I put it in.”

Autio drove the puck into the back of the net, and for all intents and purposes, drove the Nittany Lions into their first NCAA berth. In the 2000s, Gadowsky worked miracles at Princeton to get the Tigers into two consecutive NCAA tournaments. Back then he relied heavily on recruits from Western Canada. One of those, Richard, sniped his ninth goal early in the third period to give PSU a short-lived lead.

But Gadowsky has had to expand his recruiting horizons to compete nationally in today’s global age.

And he recruiting led the way from day one, thanks to a beautiful new facility, strong coaching staff, and a built-in passionate fan base.

“We try and get the best student athletes anywhere,” Gadowsky said, “and Penn State is a world class university with a great brand name that people know about, whether it’s in Russia or Finland.”

For Finnish late-night hero Autio, his visit to Happy Valley was just that.

“I started looking into playing college hockey when I was in high school, and I got an opportunity to visit Penn State,” said Autio. “It’s just an unbelievable place, unbelievable hockey program and great coaches.”

Smirnov is PSU’s leading scorer, and the lanky Pavlychev is rapidly becoming the new big man on campus at State College. Gadowsky has somehow made inroads in a tricky but rewarding landscape. It begs the question, has he or his staff ever set foot in Mother Russia?

“No,” he said with a laugh, “not yet, not yet.”

With such vital production from freshmen Smirnov and Pavlychev this season, it would surprise no one if the enterprising Gadowsky will be mastering the Cyrillic alphabet in the very near future.

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