It was an historic weekend for Penn State hockey as the Lions skated their way to the school's first-ever Big Ten title. Not Michigan, nor Minnesota, nor Wisconsin could stand in their way, and now the team is prepping to try for another miracle run through the NCAA tournament.
There are so many things that could be said about the team's performance in Detroit, but here are four things in particular that stood out.
1. Peyton Jones looked every bit like a future NHL goaltender.
Doug already went into some detail on how incredible freshman goalie Peyton Jones was all tournament-long, but I'm going to repeat a few of those numbers, because they're well-worth repeating.
Over the course of three games, including nearly three full periods of overtime, Jones saved 118 or 123 shots on net (.959 save percentage). That included a 51-save performance against Wisconsin in the tournament final, the day after playing in a double overtime game against one of the best teams in the country.
Jones was named the tournament's most valuable player for his efforts, and even that isn't enough to truly reward him for what was easily the most outstanding three-game stretch and single-game goaltender performance in Penn State hockey history.
Hot goalies are the ultimate ace-in-the-hole when it comes to hockey. The only question is whether or not Jones will keep up this scorching pace for the NCAA tournament.
2. Denis Smirnov is ready to show off on a national stage.
Though the team's all-time single season points leader didn't register an assist or a goal in the championship game, it didn't take much to see that the freshman phenom was one of, if not the best skater on the ice. Throughout the entirety of the tournament, Smirnov was dishing beautiful passes, finding space and occupying defenders. After a mid-season lull that saw opponents devote significant energy to stopping the speedy forward, Smirnov got a chance to work the puck this past weekend.
It was his hustle and his needle-threading pass that delivered the assist on Erik Autio's game-winning goal against Minnesota. With Smirnov possibly playing the best hockey of his young college career, a lot of college hockey fans around the country are about to get their introduction to one of the sport's brightest young stars.
3. Postseason drama leads to unlikely heroes.
Yes, Jones and Smirnov are household names for Penn State hockey fans at this point. The two have been starring for Guy Gadowsky's squad all year-long. Someone more under-the-radar who made their presence felt in a massive way during the Big Ten tournament though, was freshman Liam Folkes.
Folkes ended up scoring in the 4-1 win over Michigan, and then put home both goals in the championship game against Wisconsin. It was a storybook performance for the promising freshman, but one that was hardly foreseen.
Folkes got his share of run in the regular season, but totaled just 9 points prior to the tournament. In fact, he was even a healthy scratch for both games in the regular season finale series against Michigan.
No championship is won without surprise contributors, and for Penn State, that surprise contributor was Folkes.
4. This Nittany Lion team looks hungry, and ready to bust up the NCAA bracket.
As I watched Penn State dominate most of every game in the Big Ten tournament, something clicked. Not only were the Nittany Lions back to looking like the team that was once ranked No. 1 in the country, but they were looking like an improved version of that team. The powerplay goals were showing up, the penalty kill was doing its thing, the offense was relentlessly firing pucks on net, and yet there was an added dimension.
When the Lions began sliding in the standings, it was largely due to two main factors: letting up early period goals, and allowing quick retaliation goals. Well, take a look at the time of goals in the semi-final win over Minnesota.
Nikita Pavlychev - 1:05, first period
Alec Marsh - 3:48, second period
Dylan Richard (PP) - 1:00, third period
The mark of a truly great team (and a truly great coaching staff) is being able to adapt as the season goes on. By victimizing one of the best teams in the country with the kinds of goals that were tearing their defense apart just a few months earlier, this Penn State team showed that they've been learning, growing and adapting since then. This is no longer a team that will allow itself to be caught off-guard.
Heading into the Big Ten title game, it seemed like Penn State was going to have to hope for a miracle to come away with the win. The Lions were coming off of a double overtime win against a top-five team in the country, in a game that started at 8:00 p.m. ET, and were going to up against a team that played in the day game, had a first round bye, and was able to win in regulation. No one would have blamed the Nittany Lions for allowing Wisconsin to control the game as they attempted to conserve energy in their legs as much as possible.
Instead, Penn State was flying around the puck from the opening face off in a way that pretty visibly stunned the Badgers. Though Wisconsin actually had more shots on the night, save for a portion of the third period and the first overtime, the Nittany Lions controlled the majority of the game, tired legs and all.
If freshman mistakes and exhaustion can't slow this team down, I'm not sure what can.