SOUTH BEND — Sometimes in hockey, it’s not how you start but how you finish.
Sunday in the opening game of the postseason Big Ten Tournament against No. 5 seed Penn State at the Compton Family Ice Arena, No. 4 seed Notre Dame, like the month of March can sometimes be, started like a lion and ended up being the lamb.
Coach Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish, hoping to use a strong showing to influence the NCAA selection committee for one of the berths in the 16-team field which will be announced this Sunday, scored twice in the first 2:41. But Gus Gadowsky’s Nittany Lions, who were swept 12-3 in two Irish victories last weekend on the same Lefty Smith Rink, found themselves with five unanswered goals on the way to a 6-3 triumph.
The victory by the Nittany Lions (10-11-0) puts them into Monday’s first semifinal at Compton against No. 1 seed Wisconsin (19-8-1) at 4:30 p.m. The loss by the Irish (14-13-2) leaves the Irish season in limbo until the final word comes down from the NCAA selection committee. Monday’s second semifinal at 8:30 will match No. 2 Minnesota, a 2-1 overtime winner over Michigan State, against No. 3 seed Michigan, which ousted No. 6 seed Ohio State 4-0 in Sunday’s late game. The semifinal winners meet Tuesday night for the league’s championship and automatic NCAA berth.
“Winning today would have been a real boost for that, but we’ll wait and see,” said Jackson, whose team will be keeping its fingers crossed the next six days to see if it gets a fifth straight bid. “There’s still a chance, and as long as there is a chance until next Sunday, we’ll just wait and see.”
Penn State, which went 34 days after a Jan. 29 overtime loss to Notre Dame at home without playing because of COVID-19 issues, was a much different team than the one the Irish saw last weekend in 5-2 and 7-1 losses here. Even though they were outshot 8-0 early by the Irish, Gadowsky’s team was standing on its bench throughout, banging the boards with the sticks and encouraging each other, a sign that things changed when the Nittany Lions arrived back in Hockey Valley late March 6 from South Bend.
“You have to admire their composure, because the way we went down, it couldn’t have been a worse start,” Gadowsky said of his team. “We had a too-many-men penalty, they score on the power play, they score one after, and then we score a goal that gets taken back. Really, that’s probably the worst start you could even get. But the way the guys were composed and battled back, you really have to give them a lot of credit.”
The Nittany Lions got two goals from sophomore Connor McMenamin in a three-goal second period that wiped out a 2-1 Irish first-period lead and then got a pair of goals from freshman Chase McLane in the third period, the second into an empty net to quell any Irish comeback hopes. Penn State rallied from that 8-0 shot deficit to outshoot the Irish 39-36 as goalie Oskar Autio, under siege last weekend by Notre Dame, turned away 33 shots, the same as his Notre Dame counterpart Dylan St. Cyr.
The Irish came out flying, and with the help of an early Penn State penalty for too many men on the ice, grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first 2:41. The first goal came on the resulting power play when senior Colin Theisen found a rebound of Alex Steeves’ shot at his feet in a scramble in front of the Penn State net and batted it past Autio at 2:10
Then after the faceoff, sophomore left wing Jesse Lansdell came off the far boards with feeds from defenseman Matt Hellickson and Max Ellis, skated into the slot and beat Autio with a backhander at 2:41.
The Nittany Lions thought they had cut the lead in half at 8:20 when captain Alex Limoges’ goal was wiped out when he and Tim Doherty were ruled offsides before the goal.
Penn State eventually caught up with the Irish with shots and got on the scoreboard at 18:52 when Christian Sarlo took a feed from Limoges and beat St. Cyr from the right faceoff circle high over the goalie’s right shoulder. The puck came in and out of the net so quickly that a review was needed and confirmed the score that left the game 2-1 after the first period.
McMenamin then scored twice, both on assists from right wing Kevin Wall, first at 3:19 and then at 10:10 on a breakaway, to give Penn State a 3-2 lead and the Nittany Lions tacked on a third goal when an unguarded Doherty took a pass from Limoges and beat St. Cyr at 14:55 on a power play for a 4-2 lead heading into the third period.
“You probably heard that a 2-0 lead is the worst lead in hockey because there’s always a sense of urgency from the opposing team, especially coming off last weekend,” Jackson said. “I think we relaxed a little bit and then they got some momentum even with their disallowed goal. When they scored the first goal the tide started changing. We turned the puck over too many times against a team that transition as well as Penn State does.”
When McLane scored his first goal to make it 5-2 at 8:20 of the third period, the Nittany Lions were in the midst of an 11-3 shot advantage in the first 10 minutes. Freshman Ryder Rolston scored his first Notre Dame goal at 12:56 with St. Cyr pulled for the first time to give the Irish a 6-4 skater advantage on a power play.
Jackson pulled St. Cyr again with 3:21 left to play but the Irish couldn’t get any closer as Autio made four tops before McLane’s dagger at 19:28.
The Irish coach is hoping that Notre Dame’s combined record of 4-7-1 against No. 4 Minnesota, No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 6 Michigan will keep their season going into the NCAA tournament.
“We played three of the best teams in the country 12 times and I can’t say that’s anywhere close to anybody else on the bubble,” Jackson said. “There has to be some recognition of that.”
He and Notre Dame will find out if there is next Sunday.
PENN STATE 6, NOTRE DAME 3
At Lefty Smith Rink in Compton Family Ice Arena, South Bend
Penn State 1 3 1—6
Notre Dame 2 0 1—3
First Period—Scoring: 1. Notre Dame, Colin Theisen 8 (Alex Steeves, Landon Slaggert) PPG 2:10. 2. Notre Dame, Jesse Lansdell 3 (Matt Hellickson, Max Ellis) EV 2:41. 3. Penn State, Christian Sarlo 5 (Alex Limoges) EV 18:52. Penalties: Penn State 1-2, Notre Dame 0-0.
Second Period—Scoring: 4. Penn State, Connor McMenamin 5 (Kevin Wall) EV 3:19. 5. Penn State, Connor McMenamin 6 (Kevin Wall) EV 10:10. 6. Penn State, Tim Doherty 6 (Alex Limoges, Connor MacEachern) PPG 14:55. Penalties (total): Penn State 1-2 (2-4), Notre Dame 2-4 (2-4).
Third Period—Scoring: 7. Penn State, Chase McLane 2 (Mason Snell, Connor MacEachern) EV 8:20. 8. Notre Dame, Ryder Rolston 1 (Jake Pivonka) PPG 12:56. 9. Penn State, Chase McLane 3 (Jared Westcott) EV 19:28. Penalties (total): Penn State 1-2 (3-6), Notre Dame 1-2 (3-6).
Shots on goal—Penn State 39 (12-14-13), Notre Dame 36 (13-14-9). Goalie saves—Penn State, Oskar Autio 33 (11-14-8), Notre Dame, Dylan St. Cyr 33 (11-11-11). Power-play opportunities—Penn State 1 of 3, Notre Dame 2 of 3. Faceoffs won—Penn State 20 (7-8-5), Notre Dame 43 (14-15-14). Blocked shots—Penn State 14 (4-6-4), Notre Dame 17 (2-6-9). Referees—Colin Kronforst and Jonathon Sitarski. Linesmen—Sam Shikowsky and Nick Bradshaw.
Records—Penn State 10-11-0, Notre Dame 14-13-2.
• Minnesota 2, Michigan State 1: Junior left wing Sampo Ranta, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound native of Finland, wristed home his 17th goal of the season from the slot at 10:35 of overtime to spoil the upset bid of the seventh-seeded Spartans (7-18-2) and advance Bob Motzko’s Gophers (21-6).
Michigan State, ranked 50th out of 51 in scoring with 1.50 goals a game this season and 49th in power-play goals with just four, led 1-0 on defenseman Dennis Cesana’s first-period power play goal at 10:39.
But the Gophers, fourth in scoring at 3.81 goals a game, tied it at 15:01 of the third period when sophomore right wing Bryce Brodzinski wheeled entering the offensive zone and fired the puck past freshman goalie Pierce Charleson.
Charleson finished with 48 saves, 12 in the extra session, while Minnesota’s Jack LaFontaine, who had five shutouts during the regular season and is a candidate for the Mike Richter Goalie of the Year Award with his 1.68 goals-against average, stopped just 19 shots.