Credit where credit is due:
The Irish deserved to win their second conference championship.
Notre Dame beat Penn State 3-2 in a close and exciting Big Ten Championship game from South Bend. Cale Morris and his defensive cohorts were able to keep Penn State from controlling the pace of the game, and keep the Nittany Lions from tying the game in the dying seconds.
The first period was Big Ten hockey at its absolute best. Penn State was able to maintain the majority of zone time and use its speed to threaten Morris and Notre Dame's defense. With Penn State's offensive pressure comes the vulnerabilities on the other end of the ice that we have all come to know and
love hate. Notre Dame was able to twice take the lead in the period after questionable plays by Lion defenders and starting goaltender. Both times Penn State had the answer with Sam Sternschein and Alec Marsh scoring the only goals of the night.
From the start of the second period until the final horn and ensuing celebration, Notre Dame was able to keep the Penn State offense from regaining traction in the offensive zone. Cale Morris in particular came up large on multiple one-on-one attempts in the second period. With a few minutes to go in the second, Notre Dame's Cam Morrison fired a shot that Peyton Jones should have saved.
Notre Dame played in its own end for most of the third period, but time and time again, the Irish were able to block Penn State shots and passes with sticks or bodies. Most of Penn State's chances in the third were one and done in the offensive zone, and when it came time to pull Jones for the extra skater, Notre Dame packed in front of the blue paint even more. A few mad scrambles in front of the net in the dying seconds came up short, and the rest, as they say, was history.
A season of Offensive Power and Defensive headaches
In my mind, this game was the perfect capstone to the problems that have caused Penn State to miss the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame capitalized on Penn State's defensive mistakes, and were only unable to play their game for parts of the first period. During Saturday's championship game and (seemingly) countless times throughout the season, Penn State shot itself in the foot with the combination of being slow on defense and letting in weak goals that deflated momentum. Those mistakes (loses to Arizona State, Michigan State, Princeton, and Wisconsin) added up in the end. Penn State finished 16th in Pairwise, only one spot from a tournament bid.
A lot of good was done this season. The seniors that will never don the Blue and White again should walk away knowing that they were a crucial part of building a top college hockey program faster than anyone could have ever predicted. The late season resiliency and deep run in the Big Ten tournament are a great sign of a team and program that will not roll over. But the thing that sucks about this season, and looking back on it, is that there is no denying that Penn State had a national championship caliber offense. The nations best offense will not be playing for a national championship, and that doesn't sit well with me, because the goal, no matter the team or sport, should be to win a national championship. A team that could score like this Penn State team could score should still be playing, and we, the fans, should keep our eyes on the ultimate prize. (It's not lost on me how unrealistic it is to be saying this days after Penn State finished its seventh D1 season, but I refuse to have anything but the highest hopes for this program. You should have those hopes too.)
So for now, while we watch and wish that it was us playing in Allentown and Buffalo, we'll ask ourselves what needs to change so that the defense and goaltending can be stronger. We'll dream of getting back to the promised land and dream of being the fans that root for the team that doesn't end the season on a loss. But most importantly, we'll ask the question that rings loudest until Pegula is bustling again.