Ten Nittany Lions took the ice for their final regular season games at Pegula Ice Arena last weekend. Looking back on the success achieved in their four seasons, it may seem strange that instant success wasn’t the first thing on their minds when committing.
Those 2016-17 Nittany Lions were still in their infancy as a program. A Big Ten Championship and NCAA berth weren’t high on the list of reasonable expectations.
“I think everybody, from the start, always said, ‘Eventually. Eventually. Eventually,’”, coach Guy Gadowsky recalled. “They were really the guys that came in and took the eventually away.”
Those Nittany Lions roared out of the gate that season, going 13-1-1 through the end of 2016. Early in 2017, at 16-2-1, Penn State reached No. 1 in the USCHO poll for the first time in program history.
The success went on a hiatus. The Nittany Lions went winless in the ensuing five games and limped to the end of the regular season. The Nittany Lions would need a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
They did one better, winning a pair of double overtime games to capture the tournament title and automatic entry to the national stage.
Virtually every member of this year’s senior class — freshmen at the time — played a key role during that stretch.
Kris Myllari and James Gobetz performed admirably in shutdown roles, as did Nikita Pavlychev as the team’s shutdown center.
Denis Smirnov and Nate Sucese helped pace the nation’s most prolific offense, with Smirnov setting a then-record with 47 points.
Peyton Jones was otherworldly, putting together what Gadowsky attests is “the best three games I’ve ever seen any goalie play in succession.”
Then there’s Brandon Biro and Liam Folkes. Now leaders of a stacked roster, the two then-fourth liners hooked up for what is still the most memorable goal in program history.
The magic wasn’t finished there. In the Nittany Lions first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, they trounced Union to the tune of 10-3, becoming the first tournament team to reach double digits in 27 years and establishing Oct. 3 as an unofficial holiday in State College.
The Nittany Lions may have wanted to save some of those goals for the following afternoon. The Nittany Lions fell to eventual national champion Denver 6-3.
This group has had quite the journey since.
Myllari and Gobetz have grown as defensemen to take a more active role in the offense.
Smirnov’s production has dipped due to injury and illness, while Sucese has been one of the most consistent producers in hockey.
Jones has had his share of hardships. Inconsistency plagued his sophomore and junior seasons. In his senior season, however, he has arguably been Penn State’s most valuable player.
Folkes has continued to terrorize the Badgers — ending their season once more with an overtime goal in the 2018 Big Ten Tournament — while becoming one of Penn State’s go-to weapons alongside Evan Barratt and Alex Limoges.
Biro may have taken the biggest leap of the group. As he was setting up Folkes’ historic breakaway, Biro was the youngest and smallest player to suit up for Penn State. Since then, he’s developed a bit both physically and mentally, gaining roughly a few inches, north of 20 pounds, and one “C” on the front of his jersey.
Not bad for the shy, undersized 18 year old who arrived on campus four years ago.
“I was obviously pretty humbled and honored that the guys in this team would vote me as captain, but I don’t think it’s really changed anything that I’ve done,” Biro said prior to the team’s final regular season series. “There’s a reason that I got chosen from all the teammates, so I didn’t think there’s really much need to change a whole lot.”
Biro is set to become the third player to captain the Nittany Lions to the NCAA Tournament, with their 3-2 win over Minnesota in the regular season finale locking in their spot.
With a Big Ten Tournament title and back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances — with a third on the way — gracing the rafters of Pegula Ice Arena, this year’s seniors have enjoyed the most decorated of Penn State careers. Still, they’re hungry for more.
Depending on how the final weekend of the regular season plays out, another banner may be on the way. With the proper combination of events, the Nittany Lions can claim their first Big Ten regular season title.
“We always had those goals set the day we came in here. At that point, when we came in, one of them was to win the Big Ten Championship, first place in the regular season, NCAA berth, and Frozen Four,” Pavlychev said following the Nittany Lions regular season finale. “So, we still have a few things that we haven’t accomplished, and this could be huge for us if we are able to clinch [the No. 1 seed].”
Back when this senior class arrived on campus, a run at the Frozen Four was still a bit of a fantasy. Now, thanks to their impact, anything less is falling short of expectations.