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Column: NHL game at Pegula highlights looming next steps for PSU hockey

Towering over the cameras and recorders during his postgame media scrum, Buffalo Sabres forward Tage Thompson looked out at Penn State hockey’s expensive weight room with a clear view.

In one corner, superstar forward Jack Eichel performed his cool down exercises on one of the workout machines. Other players stretched with bands. Some hopped on cardio machines.

That, in a scene, is what’s attractive about Penn State. Thompson, Eichel and the rest of the Sabres experienced the ice palace that is Pegula Ice Arena in-full, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-4 in overtime.

“Awesome atmosphere,” Thompson, a former UConn Husky said. “I played college hockey for two years, so it was kind of nice to be back in that atmosphere. What an unbelievable facility — I mean the gym, the locker rooms are state-of-the-art.”

 Buffalo defeated Pittsburgh 5-4 in overtime Monday night.
Buffalo defeated Pittsburgh 5-4 in overtime Monday night.

Penn State has translated those resources into two NCAA Tournament appearances and a Big Ten title. It has not, however, produced a player to stick in the NHL ranks, with Casey Bailey’s 13-game NHL cup of coffee as the only hook where the program can hang its hat in that department.

That’s one of the rungs on the ladder between where Penn State is and where it wants to go. Both teams in last season’s national title game featured top-100 NHL prospects according to The Athletic’s rankings, with Cale Makar representing UMass and Dylan Samberg helping lead Minnesota-Duluth to a title.

Makar stepped right into the Colorado Avalanche’s lineup in the NHL playoffs after the season, Samberg will return to help spearhead the Bulldogs' bid for a three-peat.

It’s a simple equation: The better your players, the better your odds of winning games. You still have to make the pieces fit, which NHL factories like Boston College and Boston University often fail to do, but skill isn’t optional in college hockey.

Talented players work for you in many ways. First and foremost, they win you games. Then, if everything goes right, they become ambassadors for your program — examples of where it can get you.

With a crop of talent in minor leagues in the United States and abroad, Penn State doesn’t have that — at least not yet.

Eighteen of the active players in Monday’s exhibition spent at least one season with a college program.

Pittsburgh’s bizarre and tone-deaf decision not to send PSU alumnus Chase Berger aside, Penn State’s lack of representation in the game — and, on a wider scale, the league — is a reminder that, as fast as this Nittany Lion program has grown up, there are still boxes left to check.

Maybe the motion is already underway.

Blackhawks draft pick Evan Barratt certainly owns the skill profile to succeed at the next level. Last year’s NCAA points leader Alex Limoges will likely tempt more than a handful of NHL general managers if he can repeat his performance. There are other players on Penn State’s roster with NHL potential, too.

State College is a blooming hockey town — events like Monday’s prove that much — and the Nittany Lions have shown themselves to be more than a worthy vehicle for that enthusiasm.

“College fans are crazy,” said Dylan Cozens, the baby-faced seventh overall pick in this year’s draft, fresh off his first taste of NHL action.

Even in a preseason game, there can be little doubt about that. It’s part of the reason why the NHL keeps coming back.

Just wait until those fans see one of their own making his return.