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CINCINNATI — Union and Penn State came to town as the eighth and ninth overall seeds, respectively, but it was the Nittany Lions that put forth a championship-caliber effort Saturday night.
The Big Ten playoff champions and first-time NCAA tournament qualifiers skated to an emphatic, 10-3 win over the Dutchmen in a lopsided affair in the Midwest Regional semifinals.
Penn State broke open a 3-3 game with two goals in the second period and five more in the third, two by Nate Sucese.
It was the first time since 1990 that a team scored 10 goals or more in the NCAA tournament.
For a team that led the nation in shots on goal per game entering the evening, Penn State struggled to generate much offense in the opening minutes outside of an unsuccessful Denis Smirnov breakaway to begin the game.
That was before the halfway mark of the opening frame, however; each squad earned two goals apiece in the final 10 minutes of the first period.
Brandon Biro started the party at 11:05 on a deflection that found its way past Union netminder Alex Sakellaropoulos. Brendon Taylor and Chase Berger traded tallies moments later before Dutchman Hobey Baker Award finalist Spencer Foo registered the equalizer at 13:50, his 25th of the season.
The second frame adhered to a familiar, frenetic pace. Penn State continued to win the small battles in the corners at both ends of the ice — a factor that likely contributed to the shot count.
Kris Myllari tickled twine not two minutes into the period, but Union’s Foo tied it up for a second time a few minutes later on the power play in what turned out to be the last time a Dutchman found the back of the net.
“They capitalized off our turnovers,” Dutchmen coach Rick Bennett said. “When they do that, you play a slower game. You can catch up once, twice, if you’re lucky maybe three times, but eventually they’ll get you. And unfortunately, tonight, they got us.”
Sucese, Nikita Pavlychev, Andrew Sturtz and Smirnov all registered third-period markers — in Sucese’s case, two — to bury the Dutchmen.
For a team that had been questioned by hockey pundits all year about its skill level, tenacity, and overall strength, Penn State (25-11-2) seemed to have an answer for everything Saturday.
Despite the lack of NCAA tournament experience, this is a squad, senior captain David Goodwin explained, that feels like they’ve been here before. This was a team that played over 240 minutes of hockey in a 52-hour window a mere week ago, after all.
“It’s important to remember our last weekend,” Goodwin said, referring to his team’s marathon trek through the Big Ten tournament. “We had three tough games at Joe Louis [Arena], which gave us a lot of experience. I think we used that experience tonight and stuck with it.”
Six Nittany Lions players registered multi-point games, including three points each from Myllari, Berger, Sucese and Sturtz. Penn State shot 30 percent on the evening.
Foo led the Dutchmen (25-10-3) with two points, both goals, but that was where the good news ended for the 2014 national champions.
This season has been anything but normal for Penn State. The Cinderella story that finished the 2016 portion of its schedule with a 13-1-1 record struggled down the stretch, needing a victory in the conference tournament to secure a spot in the big dance.
The Nittany Lions took care of business in Detroit and now, along the banks of the Ohio River, they secured the first NCAA tournament win in program history.
All that stands between them and a ticket to the Frozen Four in Chicago is Denver, a team viewed by many as not only the favorite to make it out of the Midwest but to win it all. For Sucese and company, who they play is meaningless. How they play is all that matters now.
“We’re worried about us,” Sucese said. “That’s been our motto all year: Penn State hockey … whoever our opponent is tomorrow, we’ll be ready for them at 6 o’clock.”