The Penn State men's ice hockey team came full circle Saturday afternoon. Finishing off the regular season how they began it, the Nittany Lions used a four-goal outburst to secure a victory at Pegula Ice Arena, defeating Ohio State, 4-2.
The first game at Pegula was a 4-1 win against Army on Oct. 11. Just as in that game, Nate Jensen got things started by scoring the Lions' first goal. In his second game back after missing eight games due to a concussion, Jensen scored a power play goal just under three minutes into the first period, snapping a strong wrist shot past Ohio State goalie Matt Tomkins.
"I was pretty pumped, trying to get the crowd going with that celebration. I was pretty excited," Jensen said.
And about getting both "first" goals in the bookend victories? "I wasn't really thinking [about that] at the time," Jensen said. "I was just thinking about winning the game. But now looking back, I feel it is a pretty special moment."
Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said it was a fitting ending for the team, especially for Mike McDonagh, the lone senior being honored on senior day.
McDonagh admitted he had trouble keeping the tears away during the pregame ceremony.
"It was emotional. I didn't want to look at my parents because I knew I would cry," he said. "Hugging all my best friends with 6,000 people watching was an incredible experience."
Leading by two goals with less than a minute remaining, the team tried to get McDonagh an empty-net goal, but it didn't happen.
After getting on the scoreboard quickly, the Nittany Lions then jumped out to a two-goal lead off of Cutis Loik's stick. At 6:59 in the first period, Loik pushed through a scrum in front of the net, and the puck trickled past Tomkins.
Gadowsky said he thought Loik's goal was the turning point in the game. "It was a huge goal, gave us a little breather and confidence," he said.
Even in victory, penalties continued to pose problems for the Nittany Lions (7-25-2, 3-16-1-0 Big Ten), as they committed three in the first period. Ohio State's Curtis Gedig capitalized on the second one, firing a strong wrist shot from the top of the zone at 9:44 in the first to cut the Lions' lead in half. Penn State goalie Matthew Skoff didn't have a chance with the pace of the puck.
Captain Tommy Olczyk increased the Nittany Lions' lead to two goals before the end of the period, as he snuck one past Tomkins with 1:17 remaining.
"To be honest, I was just trying to put the puck on net," he said. "Jonathan Milley had his big body in front of the net and didn't give the goalie a chance to see it. If he wasn't standing there causing a ruckus, the puck definitely wasn't going in."
The Buckeyes (16-13-5, 6-9-5-4) scored the only goal of the second period, as Anthony Greco pushed the puck past Skoff after a scramble in front of the net.
Penn State scored its security goal at 6:55 in the third period, as Taylor Holstrom redirected Jensen's shot from the top of the key. It was the second power play goal of the game for the Nittany Lions and it marked the first time since Dec. 27 that they scored more than one power play goal in a game.
Buckeyes head coach Steve Rohlik said the Lions did everything they needed to do to win, adding that he was not surprised by their strong performance. "They have 14 or 15 one-goal games," Rohlik said. "They have proven they are as good as anybody this year."
Gadowsky said it was appropriate for Skoff to get the win, as he has been in net for the Lions in all their conference victories this season.
"He has always been A+, and it's certainly nice to see him going into the tournament on a high note," Gadowksy said.
Penn State will face Michigan in the first round of the inaugural Big Ten tournament. The game will take place at either 3 or 8 p.m. Thursday in Saint Paul, Minn. The Nittany Lions split the season series with the Wolverines, 2-2.