SOUTH BEND — For one of the teams in Saturday night’s Big Ten Hockey Tournament championship game, there is no tomorrow.
For both No. 17 Penn State and No. 16 Notre Dame, a bid to the upcoming NCAA Tournament comes down to one simple fact: Win and you’re in, lose and you snooze.
“The Big Ten championship is the only thing that matters because the other thing won’t exist if we don’t worry about the one thing that is in front of us,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said as he prepared his team for its second straight championship appearance on the Lefty Smith Rink at the Compton Family Ice Arena.
The game already is a sellout (5,022) with faceoff at 8 p.m.
Unlike last season’s Big Ten title game, won by Notre Dame 3-2 over Ohio State on Cam Morrison’s overtime goal, Saturday’s loser can pack up its gear and put away its pucks.
A season ago, Ohio State and the other two tourney semifinalists — Penn State and Michigan — received NCAA tournament bids along with the champion Irish, and three quarters of the Frozen Four came from the Big Ten — the Irish, Buckeyes and Wolverines.
This season, the Big Ten is expected to fill just two of the 16 slots when the bracket is announced Sunday at 7 p.m. on ESPNU. They will go to Saturday’s winner between Guy Gadowsky’s Nittany Lions (22-14-2) and Jackson’s Irish (21-13-3) and regular-season champion Ohio State (20-10-5), which ran away and left the other six league teams to beat up on each other.
“We’ve pretty much been playing playoff hockey the last month or so,” said Irish All-Big Ten first-team senior defenseman Bobby Nardella, who was on the ice last Saturday night when right wing Michael Graham, one of seven freshmen Jackson sent over the boards, scored a power-play goal 53 seconds into overtime as the Irish eliminated Minnesota, 2-1.
“Our mindset is the same as last season — just be patient and not force anything to try and score; just wait for an opportunity and capitalize on it,” Nardella said.
That mindset had its genesis in last season’s postseason run that included five straight victories in either the last minute or overtime. The run began when current senior forward Jack Jenkins banged home his own rebound with 31 seconds remaining in regulation to beat the Nittany Lions, 3-2, in South Bend.
While the Irish lost seven players from that eventual 28-10-2 team, several key players returned to Shot-Happy Valley — the Nittany Lions lead the nation in per-game shots (40.8) and goals (4.61).
“All four of their lines can score,” said Nardella, who paces the Irish with 31 points on seven goals and a team-high 24 assists.
The Lions’ big line is center Evan Barratt (16-27-43), left wing Alex Limoges (23-27-50) and right wing Liam Folkes (18-24-42). Folkes and Limoges have combined for 10 goals and 19 points this postseason that continued with last Sunday’s 5-1 runaway victory at Ohio State
Penn State has four other forwards with 14 or more goals in Nate Sucese (19), Brandon Biro (16), Chase Berger (14) and 6-foot-8 Nikita Pavlychev (14). The Irish, who got road-killed 9-1 at Penn State in December, have just four players with 10 or more goals, led by Graham’s 12.
But while Penn State goalie Peyton Jones has experienced a nice playoff run, it’s no comparison to the one put together by Irish goalie Cale Morris, who has two shutouts and allowed just one goal in three games for a 0.33 goals-against average and a .988 save percentage.
“Cale is the backbone of our team,” said Jackson, who could earn career-win No. 500 Saturday night. “Starting six weeks ago, we got away from talking about the NCAA tournament. The emphasis (has been) to get to the Big Ten Championship and win a championship. Everything else will take care of itself.”