Liam Folkes will forever be a Penn State hockey hero.
With his team battling exhaustion and aching legs Saturday night, freshman Brandon Biro sprung the puck free from along the boards to his classmate sprinting alone down the ice. Folkes bore in on Wisconsin goalie Jack Berry, tapping the puck left and right with his stick, before slipping it between the goalie’s pads.
The Nittany Lion bench exploded in celebration, mobbing the freshman from Scaborough, Ontario, after his game-winning goal 6:43 into the second overtime gave them a 2-1 win over Wisconsin and their first Big Ten championship.
“To win the Big Ten is unbelievably special,” coach Guy Gadowsky told the media in Detroit. “You look at the iconic college programs that we had to go through to get here — Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin — that’s unbelievable.”
The title, a few hours after Penn State captured another wrestling team national title and five individual crowns, also delivered the Nittany Lions an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament — the first appearance for the program in its short five-year Division I history.
“This is only (my) third time, and I know how hard it is to get there,” Gadowsky said. “You have to be really good, and you have to be really fortunate. We’re going to enjoy every minute of it.”
The outcome also likely denied the Badgers a chance at the tournament. The NCAA bracket will be revealed at noon Sunday (ESPNU TV).
When the Nittany Lions watch the announcement, they will no doubt still be tired from the 240:16 of game action they had played over the course of the last three days, with Saturday’s win following Friday’s 4-3 double-overtime stunner against Minnesota.
“To play so many periods in three days and to pull it out was — I know they’re really good players but, boy, I had no idea they had that much grit,” Gadowsky said. “Just really proud to be a part of it.”
Another main reason for Penn State’s survival was the spectacular play of goalie Peyton Jones, who finished with a career-high 51 saves, one short of Matt Skoff’s team record.
“Your goaltender is your best defensive player, often your most important for sure, and he was tremendous all three games,” Gadowsky said of the freshman who made 118 saves on 123 shots against him in Detroit.
For Folkes, the winner was a moment he will remember.
“I don’t know how I got that wide open,” he said. “Biro made a great pass, and then I just made the move I always make in practice and it seemed to work out.”
Folkes also scored in the first period for Penn State (24-11-2), picking up a rebound in the slot with his back to the net, spinning around and beating Berry.
Matt Ustaski’s goal for the Badgers (20-15-1) with 8:15 left in regulation forced the extended session.
As the Nittany Lions were inching closer and closer to the shutout in the final period, Luke Kunin slipped the puck toward the net from the boards behind the net that was stopped by Jones, but the freshman goalie lost the puck and Ustaski pounced on the rebound.
It was the rare mistake for Jones, who otherwise had a number of big denials.
He was part of a duel between freshman goaltenders, with Berry equally impressive with 33 saves.
“It’s always cool playing against a freshman, someone who’s in your shoes in your same position,” Jones said. “A tight game like that, it’s definitely a goalie duel and it’s nice to come out on top.”
Penn State was fortunate it was the only goal allowed in the third. The tired Lions were outshot 18-5 in the period, and the Badgers kept a constant pressure throughout the 20 minutes.
“The guys were just in survival mode,” Gadowsky said of the period. “Everybody was trying to play defense, doing what you can to survive.”
David Goodwin thought for a few seconds he had the winner with 5:59 left in the first overtime when he swiped at a rebound. But Berry and another Badger defender had the puck trapped between their legs right on the line, and it never crossed the goalline.
Trent Frederic nearly gave Wisconsin the win in the first overtime as well, with his shot from the high slot hitting the crossbar during a power play that tested the weary Lions even more.
“We never wanted to get down,” Folkes said of the team fighting fatigue. “Of course we’re tired to play 13 periods, but we knew if we just play our game, got the puck deep, good things would happen.”
The NCAA’s 16-team field will be broken into four regionals, with games set for Providence, R.I.; Manchester, N.H.; Cincinnati and Fargo, N.D., starting Friday. The Frozen Four will be at Chicago’s United Center on April 6 and 8.