DETROIT – It took three nights of hockey, nearly 180 minutes of play with four overtimes, two key goals by freshman forward Liam Folkes and 118 saves by freshman netminder Peyton Jones and more endurance than they knew they had for the Nittany Lions to capture their first-ever Big Ten playoff championship.
At 6:43 in the second overtime against Wisconsin, Folkes broke away behind the Badgers’ defense and streaked in alone on goaltender Jack Berry, firing five-hole to give Penn State a 2-1 win and the title.
“I’ll tell you what,” said coach Guy Gadowsky, “to play so many periods in three days and to pull it out was – I mean, I know they’re really good players, but, boy, I had no idea they had that much grit and just really proud to be a part of it.”
Folkes’ goal, his second of the game, ended three games of intense hockey by the Nittany Lions. To make it to the championship game, Penn State beat Michigan, 4-1, a week after the Wolverines swept the Nittany Lions in two road games to end the regular season. In semifinal action Friday night, Penn State needed two overtimes to beat No. 1 seed Minnesota, 5-4. In this game, the Nittany Lions were uncharacteristically outshot, 52-35, and looked gassed at many points in both OT periods.
Folkes’ goal began when senior defenseman David Thompson stripped the puck from a Wisconsin player in the Penn State zone and passed it to Brandon Biro. Biro pushed it to Folkes and Folkes took off down the center of the ice, never looking back.
“I don’t know how I got that wide open, and Biro made a really good pass,” said Folkes. “And then I just made the move that I always go to in practice, and it seemed to work out. Happy with that.”
The loss knocked the No. 2 seed Badgers out of the NCAA tournament.
“Obviously we’re disappointed to be on the losing end of it, but like I just said to the players, our guys played their hearts out, had lots of chances,” said first-year coach Tony Granato. “We made good shots, too, they just didn’t find a way in.”
Folkes put the Nittany Lions on the board with his first goal of the night at 15:37 in the first, also assisted by Biro, putting the puck past two Wisconsin defenders and through Berry’s legs.
It took Wisconsin until 11:45 in the third to answer, and they needed a man advantage to beat Jones, who was outstanding throughout the game. Cameron Hughes fished the puck from behind the Penn State net and passed out to Luke Kunin in front of the crease. Kunin shot, Jones stopped the puck but lost sight of it, and Matt Ustaski picked up the easy rebound to tie the game.
Throughout overtime, both teams had their chances, but Jones’ performance earned him Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. Jones said that upsetting Minnesota in two overtimes Friday night gave the Nittany Lions confidence in this game.
“I mean, like the guys were saying in the locker room, we’ve been here before,” said Jones. “And we did, we were there, what, 24 hours ago, and they weren’t. That was definitely a little more comforting for us to know that we were there last night and we ended up pulling out a win, so that was definitely good, a little positive in the locker room.”
Wisconsin finishes the season 20-15-1, an impressive turnaround from a season ago when the Badgers anchored the Big Ten with three conference wins. “It’s a shame,” said Kunin. “The heart and character that we have in that locker room, so tough to go out like this.”
Said Granato, “We played some great hockey. We just came up a little bit short.”
Penn State (24-11-2) finishes ninth in the PairWise Rankings and will make its first appearance in the NCAA tournament.
“Phenomenal,” said Gadowsky. “Phenomenal. It’s great. It’s very special. I know how hard it is to get there and how you have to be really good and you have to be really fortunate, and we’re going to enjoy every minute of it because it’s really hard to do.”