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Penn State Aiming High After First NCAA Run
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It seemed inevitable. A premature ending.
Sure, Penn State proved itself to be a team capable of a run to the Frozen Four with its regular season and conference tournament performances. All year long, the upstart Nittany Lions and their brand of straight-line, shoot 'em up hockey tormented opponents' defenses.
There were some rough patches. No one can score like PSU did for the season's first few months forever, especially when names like Mercyhurst, Canisius and Niagara turn into Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
A 16-2-1 start became a 9-10-1 finish, which formally ended Sunday night — one game short of the Frozen Four — with a 6-3 loss to Denver in the Midwest Regional final of the NCAA tournament.
Twenty-four hours earlier, PSU earned its first-ever NCAA tournament win by doing the very thing that had the Nittany Lions in the field of 16 even if they hadn't won their first Big Ten championship last week.
Saturday afternoon, the Nittany Lions scored. And then they scored again. They scored 10 times in total and annihilated a Union team that featured two of the nation's top four scorers. It finished 10-3.
The emphatic win matched the bold start Penn State has had to its college hockey history.
Everything about this program has been seen, heard and covered since Day 1. A giant investment from a wealthy alumnus, poaching an established, young coach, forcing a shift in the alignment of college hockey and quickly rising to prominence without apologies or regard for the traditions Penn State's detractors loved so dearly.
The Nittany Lions started some traditions of their own. Their first Big Ten class saw its time with the program end in the loss.
"I believe it was Nikita Pavlychev who said thank you on behalf of the freshmen, and James Robinson thanked everyone else," freshman David Gobetz said. "Everyone was pretty emotional, kind of consoling each other. I mean, we are brothers. It is obviously a tough loss. But we will bounce back, and we are thankful for the seniors for sure."
Penn State was plainly overmatched in its loss to Denver — the likely favorite to win a national championship. The way PSU plays means its always in a game. Even when that game is against Denver, and even when that means a three-goal deficit must be erased after a two-goal shortfall already came and went.
Six PSU players finished the 2016-17 season with at least 30 points. Another three closed the campaign at or north of 20. The Nittany Lions led the nation in shots on goal and did so by a margin of 293 (1719 to, oddly, Denver's 1426). They were the best corsi team in the country at 59 percent.
They generate offense with a mix of discipline on the attack, remarkable adherence to Gadowsky's instructions and plain old-fashioned talent. They can get back into any game. However, they can also take themselves out of them when facing an opponent as well-structured, talented and brilliantly prepared as Denver always is. Traits Gadowsky expects to see in his own club down the road.
"Denver played an excellent game," Gadowsky said. "I don't think we were necessarily us, but you have to give them a lot of credit for making us not us. I thought they were a very quick team and won a lot of races. It's easy to see why they’re the No. 1-ranked team in the nation. I thought they played a great game.
"They're extremely well-coached, and they play consistently. They definitely have an identity, and their tempo is excellent. They really do jump on pucks very quickly, both in the offensive and defensive zones, which is something we would like to do. They did it a lot better than us today, but that’s something we would like to have as a part of our arsenal as well."
The first deficit PSU had to overcome was 2-0 hole, which seemed to come out of nowhere. The Pioneers scored on two of their first shots in the game, leading by a pair after just 7:19. The Nittany Lions would erase that lead at 2:02 of the second period after Denis Smirnov's goal.
The Nittany Lions haven't seen an opponent quite like Denver in 2016-17. Even with some big names on their schedule, the Pioneers were among the nation's best from wire to wire this season. Coming back from one multi-goal deficit against the Pioneers is one thing. Doing it twice is another entirely. DU scored the next three goals in a 12:12 span to head into the third period with a 5-2 lead.
Gobetz would bring PSU back within two with 7:20 to play. It never got closer.
The season ends with 25 wins. A four-win improvement from last year's 21, which was a three-win improvement from 2014-15, which was a 10-win improvement from PSU's maiden Big Ten season in 2013-14.
Sunday afternoon, Penn State went down. It ran into the most complete team it faced all season and simply dug itself one too many holes from which it had to escape. The situation in newly dubbed Hockey Valley is a special one, though. Few programs in college hockey have more reason to be excited about what next season and the future as a whole can bring.
All three goal scorers were freshmen.
"This season can be a very important one," Gadowsky said. "I don't think anyone will forget this season. It was magical. To win a Big Ten championship is something we're extremely proud of, and it's something we didn't think was possible this early. We'll remember this team forever, but, at the same time, I hope the guys that are returning use it as motivation.
"I hope we get another shot at a Denver. I'm proud of what happened this year, but we use it as motivation. We learned a lot this year, as a program, as coaches, and as individuals as well. It's tough right now, but we'll definitely use is as motivation."
This weekend was a good indication of where Penn State needs to improve. It showed the nation just how far the Nittany Lions have come.
"It's a short time until a national championship is in ice hockey at Penn State," senior Ricky DeRosa said. "And I'm going to be really proud when that day comes."
Most importantly, it showed the college hockey world exactly where Penn State plans to go.