Music City Upset: Penn State 6, No. 6 North Dakota 4

By Doug Leeson on October 31, 2021 at 1:21 pm
PSU/UND in Nashville
Doug Leeson/RLR

First of all, who knew North Dakota traveled so well?

North Dakota crowd

Before we get into the game recap, imagine this.

Like, two years ago when this game was announced, you got tickets to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game, Penn State vs. North Dakota, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. What do you expect to see at that game? There I was thinking it'd be a half-full stadium with a good split of PSU/UND fans. Nope. A sold-out crowd, and no exaggeration, I really think it was 99 percent NoDak folks. This technically went in the books as a Nittany Lion home game, but it was an overwhelmingly hostile crowd (and I don't say that as an indictment on PSU fans not showing up – this was a destination game for a rabid Fighting Hawks fanbase and I think most of the Lions' fans were wrapped up in something else at the time).

It was a fascinating, very different setting than what we're used to for college hockey. But, a game happened too! Let's get on to that. Cue Penn State hockey with the highlights:

Obviously, North Dakota is stacked year-in and year-out, and who knows how many future NHL players are on its roster. Penn State is unranked and North Dakota came into the game at No. 6. A hot start was crucial for the Lions, who gave senior goalie Oskar Autio the nod. The Hawks were able to get an early odd-man rush, but when Autio turned the chance aside, Penn State stormed back with a 3-on-1 chance. Danny Dzhaniyev made a cross-ice pass to Tyler Gratton, who took advantage of the open net four minutes into the game.

Not long after, Penn State started its strong night on the powerplay with a Clayton Phillips goal to double the score. North Dakota answered by the end of the period, but Guy Gadowsky's team accomplished what must have been one of its main goals: Take the early lead and hold it into the first intermission. 

The offenses kept rolling as the game seesawed between a one- and two-goal lead for Penn State, but North Dakota never pulled even. Connor MacEachern gave Penn State a 3-1 lead with another powerplay tally, but the Hawks' Ethan Frisch answered almost immediately. Phillips scored his second of the night with five minutes left in the frame, then the Hawks' Jake Schmaltz scored a goal with 10 seconds left that was confirmed after a long review for offsides. It was 4-3 Penn State after two periods.

The ice was tilted at, like, 70 degrees towards Autio's net in the first 15 minutes of the third period. All the momentum in the building was with North Dakota, but a collapsing Penn State defense seemed to block a hundred shots for every one it let through. Autio stood tall and finally, with five minutes to go, a stretch pass found MacEachern who bought some insurance in the form of a 5-3 lead. North Dakota pulled its goalie early and scored once, but senior and recent transfer Ben Copeland scored an empty-netter to post the 6-4 final.

Phillips, MacEachern, and Copeland paced the box score with two points apiece, while Autio saved 24/28 shots (.857 save percentage). As far as the old eye-test goes, Christian Sarlo was flying out there, Kevin Wall was his usual standout self, and Dyck, Dowd Jr., and Mack seemed to be involved in the play a lot of the time. Shout out to Chase McLane, too, a Predators draft pick who got to play on his future team's ice. 

If I have to get a take off about this game, which I feel entitled to as a blogger who watched this game from the 200-section while frantically checking the score of a football game, it would be this: North Dakota was a much more skilled team and overall (though with plenty of individual exceptions) a better skating team. Penn State was able to play its tougher game, relying on rebounds, screened goalies, and defensive lapses to earn this win. What makes that even more encouraging is that there's now concrete evidence that the Lions can win these kinds of games against these kinds of teams this season. The Big Ten schedule is up next, and with so many teams built in North Dakota's image – namely, Notre Dame, Minnesota, and absolutely Michigan – Penn State has its work cut out for it to compete for a conference title. But if it can beat this loaded Hawks team in front of a hostile crowd of almost 20,000, why can't a special season be in store in Hockey Valley?

Up next is a road trip to Columbus for Nov. 5 and 6 games against Ohio State, followed by a return to Pegula the following weekend for a series with Michigan.