Penn State hockey outside of the club level was but a pipe dream for the longest time. That all changed with PSU alumnus Terry Pegula though.
The billionaire invested a good chunk of change and made a once interesting club hockey team a full-fledged NCAA program starting in the 2012-13 season. It was an ambitious ask, going from pure club to D1 hockey overnight.
Many wondered if Penn State would be anything but a doormat for the rest of the D1 programs out there, as even the best of the ACHA club programs are nowhere near the level needed to compete at the D1 level.
Penn State was literally asking to create a D1 hockey program out of whole cloth.
It not only had to find players capable of playing at the highest level, but willing to start from the ground floor. There was a new arena to be built, 6,000 seats to try and pack and a fervor for hockey to establish in the Penn State community.
However, as Penn State looks forward to its fifth season of D1 hockey and fourth as a full member of the Big Ten it is hard not to notice the crazy ride Penn State has had towards the top of the college hockey world already.
After two seasons of losing hockey, Penn State put together its first winning season in 2014-15 by finishing 18-15-4 overall and 10-9-1 in B1G hockey play. It followed that season up with a 21-13-4 season in 2015-16 and again finished with a 10-9-1 record in conference play.
For a program just forming, having half of its life as a D1 hockey program on the positive side of the ledger is certainly impressive, it also indicates that Pegula’s big investment in the sport in State College, Pa. has paid off in spades.
Now the march to a first-ever NCAA hockey tournament appearance is the next hurdle, as is proving that head coach Guy Gadawosky can be a hit on the recruiting trail as well. After all, those players who started this program from scratch are all gone by now.
The only remaining question is if Penn State can become a long-term player in college hockey. If so, the Big Ten goes from a questionable league to one of the strongest in college hockey with four out of six programs drawing attention in the college hockey world.
Add in Notre Dame in 2017 and you have a lot of firepower for the league as whole. The addition of Penn State could hardly have gone better for the Big Ten conference, who added the sport in direct relation to PSU adding the game as well.
What was a once crazy idea has become a thing of dreams come true for Pegula and for plenty of those hockey crazy Penn Staters who have packed Pegula Ice Arena the last four seasons.
2017 NCAA Hockey Tournament: A Big Ten Primer
Can the Big Ten represent well after a great regular season showing for the conference?
If the 2016-17 season has taught us anything, it is that it appears Big Ten hockey is alive and well. Three teams are in the 2017 NCAA tournament, including the once upstart Penn State Nittany Lions.
Penn State earned their way in thanks to a victory in the Big Ten tournament finale, one that PSU didn’t necessarily have to win to get in, but one that made their tournament appearance a lock.
As the tournament draws near, let’s take a look at the details for the three Big Ten teams in the tournament.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Seed: No. 1 seed in Northeast Regional (No. 4 overall seed)
1st Round Matchup: vs. Notre Dame
When: Saturday, March 25; 3:30p.m. ET
Other Teams in Regional: Cornell and UMass Lowell
Regional Championship: Sunday, March 26; 3:30p.m. ET (ESPNU/watchESPN)
You would think the Big Ten regular season champion would get some more love. However, off to New Hampshire are the Gophers. No matter, because there isn’t a more dedicated group of hockey fans in the country (sorry, not sorry, North Dakota). There’s also the fact that Minnesota is the last of the No. 1 seeds in the tournament. You aren’t going to get your choice of places to play in that scenario.
That said, the Gophers are also in the second-most loaded regional in the tournament. Blue blood names like Notre Dame and Cornell is bad enough, but UMass Lowell are quickly becoming a powerhouse and a mainstay in the NCAA tournament over the past 6-7 years.
Getting out of this group likely makes the winner a favorite to take home the national championship.
As for the Gophers’ chances, well they haven’t seen any of the teams in its regional yet this season. They are 7-4-1 against fellow NCAA tournament teams though, while first round opponent Notre Dame is just 7-6-1 and come out of the equally loaded Hockey East. However, the Golden Domers come in to the tournament having gone 5-1-2 over the last 11 games of the regular season before dropping a game to UMass Lowell in the Hockey East semi-finals.
It will also be a matchup of future Big Ten teams, and one that will likely come down style of play. Minnesota and Notre Dame are both averaging over three goals a game and come in with top 25 defenses as well. Something is going to have to give and it could be the most intriguing of the first round matchups in this year’s tournament.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Seed: No. 4 in West Regional
1st Round Matchup: vs. No. 1 Minnesota Duluth (25-6-7 overall record)
When: Friday, March 24; 6:30p.m.
Where: Fargo, North Dakota; Scheels Arena
Other Teams in Regional: Boston University vs. North Dakota
Regional Championship: Saturday, March 25, 6 p.m. ET, ESPNU/watchESPN
When you are one of the last at-large bids, draws like Ohio State got are what will happen. Being unable to play in Cincinnati was a big blow, but there wasn’t a whole lot of choice for the selection committee.
As a result, the Buckeyes are off to the hostile confines in Fargo, where they must face UMD. Get past that and there’s a likely date with home-state UND in the following round. To say the deck is stacked against the Buckeyes in this regional isn’t an understatement.
Minnesota-Duluth is battle-tested this season, winning a rough NCHC tournament title and coming in at No. 3 in the latest USCHO.com national poll. Oh, and that NCHC title? It came over fellow West regional squad North Dakota.
Ohio State loves to bang and loves to score goals, but this is going to be a tough regional to get through. In fact, it is arguably the toughest quartet to predict a winner out of.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Seed: No. 3 seed in Midwest Regional
1st Round Matchup: vs. No. 2 seed Union
When: Saturday, March 25; 4:30p.m. ET
Other Teams in Regional: Denver and Michigan Tech
Regional Championship: Sunday, March 26; 6p.m. ET (ESPNU/watchESPN)
Penn State didn’t need the Big Ten tournament title win, but it got it. Sure, it took two games of double-overtime to achieve it, but here are the Nittany Lions as Big Ten title holders in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
Unfortunately it will happen in a regional with the No. 1 overall seed and against a team that historically hasn’t been kind to the Nittany Lions. Union is 4-0-0 all-time against Penn State, but they haven’t met since the 2013-14 season.
Let’s just say the Nittany Lions are no longer a building program like they were back then, while Union is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since winning the national championship that same season.
Penn State comes in to this tournament as one of the best offensive teams in the country. The team is tied for second nationally, averaging 3.97 goals per game. Defensively the team is just 22nd and gives up 2.68 goals per game as well. Union features a Hoby Baker Award finalist in Mike Vecchione, and he too can score — notching 29 goals alone this season.
Doubting the upstarts has been a bad idea most of this season, but this is one of the harshest spots the Nittany Lions could find themselves in. Can they make a run like they did last weekend and rep the Big Ten in Chicago for the Frozen Four? That certainly will be interesting.
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