Penn State’s season was all about beating the odds. The Nittany Lions were expected to have a down season in 2016-17. Head coach Guy Gadowsky even thought this would be a rebuilding year for the Lions, who featured 11 freshmen and eight sophomores to just four juniors and five seniors.
But when the Lions began piling on wins early in the season, their confidence began to grow. What should have been a down year quickly turned into one with aspirations of the program’s first berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The Lions built the best record in college hockey by a mile by the time Big Ten play opened. Aided by an admittedly weak level of competition, the Lions had a .885 winning percentage through their first 15 games. The next closest team, Minnesota Duluth, had a winning percentage of .792.
The confidence carried over into the start of conference play. The Lions swept their first Big Ten series over Michigan by a combined score of 11-2. At the time, Wolverines coach Red Berenson called the Lions “as good as the best team we’ve seen.”
The Lions carried their momentum through the next two weekends, winning three out of four games against Ohio State and Michigan State, with their only loss coming in a 3-0 shutout for the Buckeyes.
Just two days after sweeping the Spartans, the Lions found themselves on top of the college hockey world, being voted the No. 1 team in the USCHO.com poll for the first time in program history.
The weeks that followed suggested that the No. 1 ranking was a fluke and that the Lions benefited from a weak schedule.
A few days after the ranking came out, the Lions faced the Buckeyes on home ice, with virtually every eye in college hockey watching Hockey Valley. The pressure seemed too much for the Lions, who tied and lost to the Buckeyes, leading to an iconic moment when the final horn sounded.
Ohio State leaves the ice, tosses a broom on the ice. Imagine that won't be forgotten. pic.twitter.com/OUwEZlo4rY— Ben Jones (@Ben_Jones88) January 22, 2017
The Lions went on to lose five of their next seven games, and were beaten four times in four tries by Minnesota. Along with splitting the season series with Michigan, Gadowsky’s squad beat Wisconsin three times in four tries and swept Michigan State, the weakest conference opponent this season.
Finishing one game over .500 in conference play landed the Lions in the fourth seed for the Big Ten Tournament. Winning three games en route to the Championship was considered impossible — none of the three prior Champions had to win three games, benefiting from a first-round bye.
The difficulty of that challenge increased dramatically with back-to-back double overtime games in the semifinal against the Golden Gophers and the Championship against the Badgers.
Despite playing the equivalent of four games in three days, the Lions emerged victorious both times, aided by unlikely heroes and an elite performance by goaltender Peyton Jones, winning their first Big Ten Championship and securing an automatic bid into their first NCAA Tournament.
The Lions were underdogs in their first appearance in the National Tournament against Union, which featured two Hobey Baker Award finalists and five members of its 2014 National Champion team.
The Lions pulled off the upset in fashion, scoring five goals in the third period to rout the Dutchmen 10-3, setting up a date with No. 1 overall Denver for a shot at the Frozen Four. While the Lions matched up evenly with the Pioneers for half the game, Jim Montgomery’s squad pulled away through the final 30 minutes to win 6-3, led by a hat trick and five-point game from Troy Terry.
While both opposing coaches complimented the Lions’ performance, Dutchmen coach Rick Bennett summed up the Lions best:
“They are a team that had a lot of freshman, so they are going to be a powerhouse for years to come.”
The young squad that acquired a career’s worth of experience in a matter of two weeks is expected to return all but six players: the five seniors and sophomore defenseman Vince Pedrie, who forwent his final two years of eligibility to sign with the New York Rangers.
A return to the NCAA Tournament isn’t a guarantee. But after the unlikely, historic season the Lions had, it should be the expectation.
The Lions developed extraordinary chemistry and got lucky bounces at the right time to get through the Big Ten Tournament and to within one win of a Frozen Four berth. They will also enter next season needing to fill some key holes left behind by the likes of Pedrie, Ricky DeRosa and team captain and all-time leading scorer David Goodwin.
But this team should have plenty of confidence next season. They will still have a deep defense that will only improve once Alex Stevens and Cole Hults arrive in Hockey Valley.
Up front, Andrew Sturtz has planted himself as one of the better goal scorers in college hockey, while Denis Smirnov is fresh off leading all NCAA freshmen with 47 points. Sophomore Chase Berger and freshman Nate Sucese form a dynamic one-two punch at center, while players like Brandon Biro and Liam Folkes will serve as reliable role players.
And let’s not forget the game’s most important position.
Jones set numerous team records this season and saved his most impressive performances for the most important moments, and could plant himself as one of the top goaltenders in the nation next season, just his second year of college hockey.
"We feel good about that position,” Gadowsky said at the team’s season-closing press conference on Tuesday.
The chemistry and confidence should carry the Lions far enough, but this squad also has an invaluable asset: it’s hungry. Gadowsky expressed his desire to get back to work right away to improve on next season, a feeling new to him during his coaching tenure.
"I don't think I've felt this way before."
The players shared Gadowsky’s eagerness to return to the ice as soon as possible.
"We don't want to just play the No. 1 team,” Jones said. “We want to beat the No. 1 team and move on."
Sturtz made it clear that another run to the NCAA Tournament that falls short of the Frozen Four may not feel like a major accomplishment next season.
"I don't think anyone in that locker room is necessarily satisfied with last weekend,” Sturtz said. “We're ready to make that jump."