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In the end, it took something no one expected to end the longest game in Big Ten history – a whistle.
After what had been a nearly anything-goes overtime period, Minnesota’s Leon Bristedt was whistled for a holding penalty at 12:25 of the second extra frame. On the ensuing power play, Erik Autio scored to give Penn State a 4-3 win and send the Nittany Lions to their first-ever Big Ten championship game.
The emotion was evident as the two jumped into each others arms and then were mobbed by teammates on the Joe Louis Arena ice, and it was just as clear as the Nittany Lions discussed the win that likely clinched the first NCAA tourney bid in the program’s short history.
“A lot of schools have a lot of history,” Penn State goalie Peyton Jones said. “This program hasn’t been around very long, so all the things we’re accomplishing right now are history for the school. It’s the first time it’s been done. It’s pretty exciting for us.”
Autio had the easy part on the game-winning goal when he drove Penn State’s 63rd shot on goal of the night past Minnesota goalie Eric Schierhorn at 13:33 of the second OT. Denis Smirnov won the puck along the right-wing wall – as Gophers Ryan Zuhlsdorf and Darian Romenko lost track of it – and skated in on goal before teeing up the onrushing Autio with a cross-crease feed.
“I saw Denis had the puck, so I know that’s when you go to the net,” Autio said. “He’s pretty good with the puck and has great vision. He made an unreal play and I just put it in.”
Nikita Pavlychev, Alec Marsh and Dylan Richard also scored for fourth-seeded Penn State(22-11-2), Alex Sturtz added three assists, and Jones had 37 saves. None was bigger than a higway-robbery glove save of Minnesota’s Mike Szmatula midway through the first OT in which Jones moved right to left to snag a shot that appeared ticketed for the top corner.
“I love Carey Price and Braden Holtby,” Jones said. “I watch them all the time, and they make those fancy glove saves. I went over and read and reacted to the play and made a nice save.”
On the other side, Big Ten regular-season champion Minnesota was the hard-luck loser in the instant classic. Rem Pitlick, Justin Kloos and Jack Sadek scored for the Golden Gophers (23-10-3) while Schierhorn was nothing short of terrific with a career-high 59 saves.
“It was a classic college hockey game,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “There was never more than a goal separation. They got an opportunity on the power play in overtime and made a good play coming out of the corner, and we let the guy in the back door. The goalies played well. I’m really happy with how Eric played.”
As Lucia said, the teams were never separated by more than a goal, and things began at a frenetic pace. Just 1:05 into the game, Penn State defenseman Trevor Hamilton drilled a shot from the point that Schierhorn kicked to Pavlychev to knock home.
Minnesota’s response was fast and furious with a pair of pretty one-timers. Romenko fed Pitlick from south of the red line for a bang-bang goal at 7:20, and 2:55 later, Kloos wired one past Jones from the high slot on a feed from Tyler Sheehy on the power play.
Penn State’s Chase Berger made the Nittany Lions’ answer happen early in the second, playing the puck off the back boards to himself before flipping a backhander toward the net that deflected in off Marsh at the short-side post.
The third period was just as even. Penn State made it 3-2 on a well-worked power-play goal just 1:00 into the period, as all five Nittany Lions touched the puck consecutively before Richard buried a no-look, backhanded feed from Sturtz.
It didn’t take long for Minnesota to tie it, with Vinni Lettieri winning a faceoff at the right dot back to Sadek, who ripped a shot through a screen and past Jones over the far shoulder.
That was the last goal for 49:51 of game play, and the level of play didn’t dip much even as the minutes piled up. In the end, Penn State had the breakthrough both on the night and perhaps in the history of the program.
“I’m extremely happy,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “I thought it was a tremendous hockey game to watch and obviously a great game to win. It’s a first (for the program) and a big night.”