Through the first two periods of Saturday’s contest, it seemed Penn State and Union were destined for extra hockey. The two teams traded goals with regularity; the first four goals of the game were scored in a span of 2:45, with Spencer Foo tying the game at two just 26 seconds after Chase Berger gave the Nittany Lions a 2-1 lead.
The quick-strike offense was hardly a surprise, considering the Lions and Dutchmen ranked No. 3 and 4, respectively, in goals per game. After two periods, the Dutchmen were still within striking distance of the Lions, trailing 5-3.
An early third period goal by Nate Sucese changed the tone of the contest, however.
After the freshman forward knocked in the rebound of a David Goodwin shot, the flood gates started to open. Following a laser by Denis Smirnov that found the top corner of the net, Dutchmen coach Rick Bennett gave starter Alex Sakellaropoulos the hook, replacing him with Jake Kupsky.
The change didn’t faze the Lions, who pumped three more goals past Kupsky on just eight shots to become the first team to score 10 goals in an NCAA Tournament game since Lake Superior State did so in 1990.
Sucese had a simple explanation for the Lions dominance in the third period, one that has become common in weekly and post-game press conferences.
“Going into the third we knew we just wanted to play Penn State hockey like we have all year. Being up two goals there and being lucky enough to go up three goals was huge,” Sucese said. “I think we really got rolling there after that sixth one. It was a blast.”
The Lions hope to carry the confidence into Sunday’s game against top-seeded Denver, a team coming off its own dominant performance, having beaten Michigan Tech 5-2. The Pioneers scored the game’s first five goals to take a 5-0 lead early in the second before the Huskies cut into the lead with a pair of goals later in the middle frame.
While Guy Gadowsky will hope for a similar offensive performance, he explained that the score of Saturday’s game isn’t what’s motivating the team, it’s being able to play on Sunday.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 10-3 or 1-0. It’s the win and the fact that we get to play tomorrow,” he said. “I don’t know if the score motivates us at all, but the fact that we get to play again is really motivating.”
Union’s Dynamic Duo
Much of the hype heading into Saturday’s contest centered on Union’s one-two punch of Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo. The two combined for 122 points heading into the NCAA Tournament, and both are among the top ten finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the most outstanding player in college hockey.
The Nittany Lions have faced dynamic duos throughout the season, notably the combination of Tyler Sheehy and Justin Kloos in Minnesota and Luke Kunin and Trent Frederic of Wisconsin.
Vecchione and Foo posed a greater challenge, however. Unlike the duos in the Big Ten, the Dutchmen duo play on separate lines, which made defensive matchups all the more important Saturday evening.
While Foo picked up a pair of goals and Vecchione an assist, the Lions successfully held the two in check for most of the game, a task that became easier as the Lions continued piling on goals of their own during the third period.
Foo was limited to just three shots, while Vecchione registered just two. A pair of defensive breakdowns, one of which occurred while shorthanded, was what allowed Foo to pot his 25th and 26th goals of the season.
Those breakdowns didn’t persist after Foo’s second goal midway through the second period. With the Lions on cruise control after Nate Sucese made it a three-goal game early in the third period, the focus shifted to defense.
The Lions shut off passing lanes for the Dutchmen and limited many high-quality chances against Peyton Jones, who finished the game with 22 saves on 25 shots, including all 11 he faced in the third period.
While the Lions will want to have a similar offensive effort — they scored their 10 goals on just 33 shots — their defensive effort will have to be virtually flawless against top-seeded Denver. The Pioneers feature a wealth of NHL-caliber talent, led by Henrik Borgström, Troy Terry and Will Butcher.
Borgström and Terry have both averaged over a point per game this season, while Butcher, the Pioneers’ captain, has established himself as a two-way force from the blue line.
Gadowsky didn’t seem concerned about the challenge the Pioneers face. In fact, the fifth-year head coach may not have been fully aware who his team’s next opponent could be heading into the Midwest Regional.
"We didn't mention who else was in the bracket," he said.
Gadowsky’s Checklist Shortens
Earlier this week, Guy Gadowsky said he had no timeline for Penn State’s ascension in college hockey. He simply had a checklist of accomplishments he wanted to reach at some point during his tenure with the Nittany Lions.
When David Goodwin first committed to play for the Lions, the team’s current home, Pegula Ice Arena, was still just a blueprint. Following the team’s 10-3 win over Union in its first NCAA Tournament appearance, Goodwin couldn’t contain his joy.
"It's very special,” the senior captain said. “It’s something I've dreamt about to be honest.”
Goodwin picked up a pair of assists, both during the Lions’ five-goal third period that turned a potential barn burner into a blowout. Even while he was celebrating the historic win in Penn State history, Goodwin looked ahead to Sunday’s contest against the No. 1 team in the nation.
“It'll feel a lot better with a win against Denver tomorrow," he said.