It’s often said that goaltender in ice hockey is simultaneously the most difficult and most important position in sports. Over the course of three days last weekend, Peyton Jones reinforced the latter belief, but did so in seemingly effortless fashion.
In guiding Penn State to its first Big Ten Tournament Championship in program history, the freshman netminder put on a show for those in attendance at Joe Louis Arena. Jones stopped 118 of 123 shots, including 51 of 52 in the Championship game, as the Nittany Lions became the first team to win three tournament games en route to the conference title.
Each of the prior three champions had the benefit of a first-round bye, only having to win twice to clinch the title. Jones and the Nittany Lions had to go the extra mile, playing 240 minutes and 16 seconds — equivalent to just over four games — over a 52-hour period.
By the waning moments of the third game, the Lions appeared to be running on fumes, exhausted by back-to-back double overtime contests. Jones admitted he and his teammates were tired following their 2-1 win over Wisconsin in the championship game.
“Guys were tired. As much as were gonna say we weren't tired, we were tired,” he said after the game.
The Lions remained positive, however, as they faced the same situation not even 24 hours prior, when Erik Autio scored the winner to knock off top-seeded Minnesota.
“That was definitely a little more comforting for us,” Jones said.
While the Lions could have thrown in the towel, having already secured an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament with their first double-overtime win over Minnesota in the semifinals, Jones made sure his team didn’t settle for runner-up in its first appearance in the conference championship.
Through the third period and overtime against the Badgers, Jones stopped 36 of 37 shots, allowing only the tying goal to Matt Ustaski midway through the third period. His counterpart, fellow freshman Jack Berry, faced just 18 shots over the same stretch.
They weren’t just routine saves for Jones, either. With the Badgers needing a win to secure a spot in the National Tournament, they poured it on in the final 46-plus minutes of the game.
During the first overtime, Jones made his most remarkable stop of the night. As the puck was floating over him, he swung his glove hand up to knock it back into the slot, allowing his teammates to clear the puck out of harm’s way.
Early in the second overtime, Jones was forced to test his athletic limits once again. On an odd-man rush for the Badgers, Jones sprawled across the crease and stretched his leg out just enough to get a toe on a one-time chance.
Four minutes later, Liam Folkes etched his name into blue and white lore with his game-winning breakaway goal.
Unsurprisingly, Jones, who stood on his head for many of those 240 minutes, was named the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. His stat line was more than enough to earn him the honor.
It was more than just the extraordinary statistics that made Jones Penn State’s most valuable player as the team looks ahead to the Regionals of the National Tournament.
Four games worth of hockey in under three days would exhaust even the most well-conditioned team. The Lions were depleted of energy even before overtime commenced on Saturday night. During the third period, Guy Gadowsky’s squad was outshot 18-5, a side effect of the strenuous weekend the Lions faced.
Some goaltenders might have grown frustrated with the constant pressure and lost their cool. But Jones remained as calm as ever, casually gloving down point shots and diving out to cover rebounds even in the most intense moments.
Jones’ level-headed demeanor often extended out to the players in front of him. When a defensive breakdown gave the Badgers a scoring chance, Jones was there to knock the puck away or trap it under his glove hand, tipping the ice in Penn State’s favor, if only for a shift or two.
Freezing the puck for a stoppage in play also gave his teammates a few extra moments to rest, a desperately needed commodity during the Lions’ 13th period of action.
It wasn’t just the panel of media and coaches which named Jones the Most Outstanding Player that recognized Jones’ greatness. Badgers’ coach Tony Granato — this season’s Big Ten Coach of the Year — offered some high praise for Jones during his postgame press conference.
“They had a goaltender that is as good a goaltender as I’ve seen all year,” he said.
Having set single-season records in games played (34), wins (22) and saves (840) and having tied the single-season record for shutouts (2), Jones and his teammates have the opportunity to build on his already impressive legacy and an historic season as the Lions head to their first NCAA Tournament game against Union at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
For a program in just its fifth year of existence, simply being among the 16 best teams in the nation will be viewed as a major accomplishment. But for a team looking to affirm its place in college hockey, the Lions have a big, big star to rely on: Mr. Jones.