STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It felt like “The Moment” for Penn State hockey.
Denis Smirnov skated in alone for a penalty shot and scored a pretty goal Saturday night to give the Nittany Lions the lead against Minnesota with 1:26 remaining in the third period, and it was pandemonium at a sold-out Pegula Arena.
Penn State, which began a hockey program from scratch less than seven years ago, was about to topple one of the sport’s premier powers in incredibly dramatic fashion and remain in the hunt for its first Big Ten title.
This was the school of Herb Brooks and Phil Kessel and five national championships. The one with five straight regular-season conference titles, including all three awarded since the inception of the Big Ten hockey conference.
For 83 seconds of game time, the party at Pegula raged.
“I’ve felt shaken a number of times here in Pegula,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “That was certainly one of them. It was just unbelievable.”
Denis Smirnov's penalty shot goal that gave the Nittany Lions the lead late. pic.twitter.com/C1F3zAn1vG
— TDC Men's Hockey (@TDC_MHockey) February 19, 2017
Then with less than 4 seconds left, the Golden Gophers served up a reminder that there are still lessons to be learned for Penn State’s youthful but emerging hockey power.
The No. 5-ranked Gophers prevailed in overtime to complete a four-game season sweep of the Nittany Lions, and all but ended any Penn State hope of chasing down Minnesota for the regular-season title.
This season, the fifth as a Division I program, has still been a great success for Penn State. The Nittany Lions rocketed to No. 1 in the national rankings for the first time in the program’s brief history. Despite losses in six of their past eight games, they are still very much in contention for a bid to the 16-team NCAA hockey tournament.
In just five seasons of Division I hockey, Gadowsky and his staff have built Penn State into a formidable program on the recruiting trail and the fruits of that have made the Nittany Lions one of the top teams in the nation in 2016-17.
“I think they’ve done an outstanding job,” said Danton Cole, a former Michigan State star who is the coach of the United States National Team Development Program U-17 team. “Guy knows what he’s doing, and he’s built up some programs before. He’s a very good coach, and I think he’s doing a really good job getting on the road and being on top of the recruiting. It’s been very impressive.”
College hockey was stuck at 58 programs for years, and speculating which school might start a new one was a typical part of any conversation about helping to grow the sport. Penn State always seemed like a logical candidate, with its huge athletic department and location.
‘Penn State athletics — they don’t do anything average’
Before Terry and Kim Pegula became the owners of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres, they became the benefactors of the Penn State hockey program. A $102 million gift in 2010 set everything in motion.
Penn State built a new on-campus hockey facility, and Pegula Arena quickly became one of the best in the nation. The Nittany Lions hired Gadowsky, who built winning programs at Alaska-Fairbanks and Princeton, in 2011. He spent a year coaching the club hockey team and preparing for the jump to Division I in 2012-13.
The addition of Penn State also led to the formation of a Big Ten hockey conference. The other five conference schools already playing hockey were split up in two different leagues, but the Nittany Lions helped bring everyone together.
Penn State’s first year in the Big Ten produced a lot of growing pains. Progress was made during the past two seasons, but 2016-17 has been the program’s proverbial coming-out party.
“Yeah, I did,” senior captain David Goodwin said when asked if he thought this level of success was attainable earlier in his career. “But if it wasn’t happening, I’d be saying, ‘Oh, no. I didn’t expect us to get that far.’ The coaches have done such a great job bringing in great players. Anytime you have great players and a great coaching staff and a great goalie, anything can really happen.”
Gadowsky and his staff are armed with plenty of positives when they try to lure players to State College and combat programs with far more tradition. They have resources, whether it is the arena, other on-campus facilities or an alumni base, that few hockey-playing schools can match.
“They have had to travel a lot of miles and beat a lot of bushes,” said Cary Eades, the coach of the Fargo Force in the United States Hockey League. “They’ve recruited a lot of talent and got a culture started. They’ve got it started pretty good. It’s the opportunity to play, the tradition of the school, the respect for the coaching staff and probably some of them want to be in on the ground floor. That’s exciting.”
Smirnov played for Eades last season. Cole and Eades are among the coaches around the country who are responsible for helping prospects make decisions about where to play college hockey.
The USNTDP program is located in Ann Arbor, Mich., and becomes a year-round home for about two dozen of the best hockey players in America in their age group. Penn State has a commitment from a player on Cole’s U-17 team, Jake Goldowski, and one from Evan Barratt, on the U-18 team.
“The visibility is certainly there. Most of our kids are already committed, but when they are talking in the locker room there are bragging rights for the teams that are doing well,” Cole said. “No one is making fun of Jake for going to Penn State, that’s for sure. They’ve got a very good program. It’s a testament to what they’ve built there.”
When Gadowsky and his staff took on this project, they made a checklist of goals to accomplish. There was no timeline, but it includes simple tasks like “win a road game” and “first Big Ten win,” which have already been checked off.
The program has already produced an NHL player, and Casey Bailey was in the lineup Tuesday night for the Ottawa Senators. There are two players on the roster who have been drafted by NHL teams, and Smirnov, who leads all freshmen in the country in scoring, is likely to join them in June.
“We are proud of where we’re at, but we didn’t think we’d get here this quickly,” Gadowsky said. “There’s certainly pressure because of all the support you get here to build a really good program. I don’t think there was pressure to do it quickly, but there was pressure to do it right. Penn State athletics — they don’t do anything average. Nothing. So there is absolutely pressure for sure.”
If Smirnov’s goal wasn’t “The Moment” for Penn State, there is still time in this season to produce it. The Nittany Lions have six games — three weekend series — left before the Big Ten tournament in Detroit.
Penn State is currently No. 11 in the PairWise rankings, which is like the RPI in basketball only with more influence. Remaining at No. 11 or moving back into the top 10 will almost certainly guarantee the Nittany Lions their first NCAA tournament berth.
“It’s really special anytime you have a chance to leave your mark in such a magnified way,” Goodwin said. “What we do is going to echo into the future here for a very long time. It’s something we seniors do not take lightly.”
‘We’ve got an opportunity now’
Gadowsky spoke Monday about lessons to be learned from that crushing loss to Minnesota, but he wasn’t talking about 2018 or 2019 for his young team. He also admitted the coaching staff didn’t see making the NCAA tournament as a realistic goal before the season because Penn State has 13 new players on the roster.
Freshmen, most notably Smirnov and goaltender Peyton Jones, have made a huge impact and could help make Penn State a top team for years to come. They want to be a top team right now, and to do so that means finding success at Michigan State and Michigan and at home against Wisconsin in the next three weeks.
“That’s why we want to learn the lessons from Saturday now,” Gadowsky said. “There are some great programs who have not made the tournament the last few years. To be in a position to make the tournament is not a given. If the freshmen and sophomores sit back and say, ‘Yeah, we’ll learn these lessons and apply them down the road …’
“No, we’ve got an opportunity now. We want to take advantage of this now.”
Gadowsky left a comfortable situation at Princeton for a largely unknown challenge. As Eades pointed out, there weren’t any recent examples of NCAA schools starting a hockey program from scratch, so putting a timeline on expectations for Penn State from outside State College was tough.
Now that the Nittany Lions have become a competent team with the potential to be great, everyone in the college hockey community is hoping other big-time football schools will follow the lead of Penn State and Arizona State and kick-start their own programs.
The Nittany Lions play an exciting brand of hockey and lead the nation in goals and shots per game. Pegula Arena has been sold out for every game this season.
There have been teaching points along the way — dealing with the distractions of a No. 1 ranking earlier this season was a good example. Whether or not Penn State reaches the NCAA tournament in 2017, Gadowsky’s first five years have been an incredible success story.
He’s already had his “Moment” too — when he knew “Hockey Valley” was the place for him.
“As soon as I saw the Roar Zone (student section) the first night, I knew this was a good move,” Gadowsky said. “It’s something I really value. The passion from the students, the passion from the alumni, the Penn State supporters, that’s something I was really attracted to, and once we saw the first night here at Pegula, there were no questions.
“I had huge expectations about the support from Penn Staters for the program and huge expectations for the atmosphere of this building. That being the case, I’m blown away by how amazing it is. I don’t think I’m being biased. I think this is by far the best atmosphere I’ve ever seen.”