Penn State’s unexpected ascension toward college hockey’s elite culminated on Saturday night when an overtime wrist shot off the stick of freshman Liam Folkes found the back of the net, earning the Nittany Lions their first Big Ten Tournament title in program history.
On the opposite end of the ice during that play stood another freshman, goaltender Peyton Jones, who made a combined 88 saves during a semifinal victory over Minnesota and a triumph over Wisconsin in the final, and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
While the contributions of underclassmen were certainly crucial to the Lions’ miraculous three-day run in Detroit, those performances weren’t much of a deviation from the standard they had set all season.
Denis Smirnov, a freshman, leads the team in points and sophomore Andrew Sturtz is Penn State’s leading goal scorer. More than 58 percent of the Nittany Lions’ total points can be attributed to members of the freshman and sophomore classes.
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But forward isn’t the only spot on the ice where underclassmen have played key roles. Jones has been solid all year in net, and defenseman Vince Pedrie was named first team All-Big Ten.
“The freshmen were unbelievable this year,” senior defenseman David Thompson said. “They came along really quickly. Obviously they were very crucial to our success this entire year and obviously this weekend you saw that shine through, a little more evident and possible on the big stage.”
But while young players have carried much of the load this season, head coach Guy Gadowsky believes that their success is a product of a culture established by the program’s first teams, and maintained by the current group of upperclassmen.
“Work ethic and commitment is something that our team has talked about since day one, not only this season,” Gadowsky said. “We don’t have a lot of slogans or sayings, but that’s one of them. We talk about the foundation with guys like (2016 graduate) Tommy Olczyk, et cetera. That was what we talked about. And they were tasked with building that, a foundation based on work ethic and commitment.”
Presented with the challenge of building a program from the ground up, Gadowksy said constructing that culture of effort and dedication was one of the first items on his checklist.
And, in what can be considered the program’s most important pair of games to date, the extension of that culture to the newest members of the team was evident.
Whether it was Jones’ determination in net to keep his team alive despite playing double overtime games on back-to-back nights, Sturtz and fellow sophomore Alec Marsh playing through obvious pain, or Folkes’ game-winning goal, it was clear that the underclassmen have adopted the mindset that Gadowsky set out to establish.
In just five short years, that attitude of tenacity has brought Penn State hockey to the NCAA tournament faster than almost anyone could have imagined.
Gadowsky said he’s heard from many of the players who contributed to his program’s rapid ascent.
“They’re pumped, they’re absolutely pumped,” Gadowsky said. “And they should be proud too. They’re pumped for the guys in the program but they should be very proud because none of this happens without them doing it the right way and they sure did.”