By Arielle Sargent, GoPSUSports.com
CINCINNATI, Ohio - When head coach Guy Gadowsky assumed responsibilities as Penn State hockey's head coach, he didn't arrive with a timeline for program milestones and accomplishments in mind. Rather, Gadowsky and his staff have a checklist, having decided to focus first, on forging a foundation built on the principles of work ethic and commitment.
On Sunday night, third-seeded Penn State's 2016-17 season officially came to a close in the NCAA regional finals, as top-seeded Denver emerged with 6-3 decision.
Regardless of the bitter end, there's no denying that the 2016-17 season saw plenty of list-checking worthy moments that filled loyal fans with a palpable sense of pride, leaving enough excitement to pique even the interest of the most skeptical critics.
First there was the program's rise to a No. 1 national ranking, which came January 16th following a pair of wins against Michigan State. Next, a thrilling marathon run through the Big Ten Tournament, culminating in the program's first conference title, a feat that Gadowsky noted postgame, he and the staff didn't think possible so soon.
Just days later, the Nittany Lions earned their first NCAA Tournament berth in program history, making a striking debut with a record-setting 10-3 win against Union before arriving in the regional finals, facing Penn State's toughest test all year long.
"This season can be a very important one," Gadowsky said. "I don't think anyone will forget this season, it was magical."
The Pioneers opened the scoring with a goal 3:17 into the first period before widening the advantage to two, sending a laser through traffic and past Penn State goaltender Peyton Jones at the 7:19 mark.
Nikita Pavlychev's shorthanded goal shaved the deficit to one as the freshmen dished to Ricky DeRosa, who sent it right back just in time for a finish. At 2:02 in the second period, it was fellow freshman Denis Smirnov who scored to tie the game, 2-2, striking up the pulse of the Nittany Lion fans in the stands at U.S. Bank Arena.
Penn State couldn't find its rhythm to settle into though as Denver scored again to recapture the two-goal lead before adding a power-play goal with 1:18 left in second period, stretching the gap to three, 5-2.
"I don't think we were necessarily us, but you have to give them a lot of credit for making us not us," Gadowsky said.
Although facing a daunting deficit, as DeRosa noted postgame, there was no panic on the bench headed toward the final period of play.
"We have a saying, don't panic just manage," DeRosa said. "We posted five goals in the third period yesterday so that was the mindset in the locker room, just chip away at it."
Penn State did make every attempt to do just that, as James Gobetz fired a shot from up near the blue line to for his first goal of the year to bring the Nittany Lions back within two, 5-3, at 12:40 in the third period.
The Nittany Lions wouldn't pull any closer though as Denver continued to stifle the offense, turning away a variety of seemingly promising opportunities with Pioneer goalie Tanner Jaillet finishing with 24 saves. Denver added an empty net goal late in the frame to make it 6-3 before the final blare of the horn.
As the scoreboard illuminated with zeros, Penn State retired to the locker room with the sting of the season-ending loss setting in.
"I believe it was Nikita Pavlychev who said thank you on behalf of the freshmen, and James Robinson thanked everyone else," Gobetz said. "Everyone was pretty emotional, kind of consoling each other. I mean, we are brothers. It is obviously a tough loss, but we will bounce back and we are thankful for the seniors for sure."
In early March, Penn State honored a group of five seniors on senior night at Pegula Ice Arena. A group of Nittany Lions who committed to a program in its early beginnings, unknowing of the future or what to expect, they proudly helped shaped an already special legacy from the moment they said yes to Hockey Valley. Seeing everything from the first game in Pegula Ice Arena to their last game, which came in Penn State's first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history, it's a journey that features unprecedented achievement.
"The seniors have really taught me a lot," Gobetz said. "I think we have a lot of freshmen here, and we are all very thankful for what they have done. Without them, we would not be here, that is for sure. They built this program and we thanked them in the locker room after the game and obviously, we could not be more thankful for them."
Strengthened by the 2016-17 seniors and for all those who have come before and for those who are still yet to come, the future for Penn State hockey is undoubtedly bright.
Among the blazing outlook, Penn State returns 11 from its standout group of freshmen, including Smirnov, who netted the second period equalizer, setting a single-season Penn State freshman record with his 19th goal of the season, breaking Andrew Sturtz's record (18) from last year."We'll remember this team forever, but at the same time, I hope the guys that are returning use it as motivation," Gadowsky said. "We didn't match up great today. I don't think we were us and I hope we get another shot at a Denver. I'm proud of what happened this year, but we use it as motivation. We learned a lot this year, as a program, as coaches, and as individuals as well. It's tough right now, but we'll definitely use is as motivation."