BRUNSKILL: For Penn State ice hockey, best yet to come

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
  • Penn State's ice hockey season ended Sunday night with a 6-3 loss to Denver.
  • The Nittany Lions fell one victory short of qualifying for the Frozen Four.
  • At one point this season, Penn State was ranked No. 1 in the nation.

As the Penn State hockey players skated from the ice for the final time this season, they showed the disappointment of falling short of their goals.

Sure it was almost beyond their imaginations when the season began, but after drubbing one of the nation’s best teams in Union the night before 10-3 to move one win away from reaching the Frozen Four, why not dream big?

Penn State's Nikita Pavlychev (13) celebrates his goal on Denver's Tanner Jaillet in the first period during the Midwest Regional final of the NCAA Division I college hockey tournament, Sunday, March 26, 2017, in Cincinnati. Denver won 6-3.

“Obviously it’s always in the back of your mind,” senior forward Ricky DeRosa said Sunday night after the Nittany Lions (25-12-2) fell 6-3 to Denver in the NCAA Midwest Regional Finals. “Going into the game you prepare to win, going into a battle against the No. 1 team in the country, I liked our odds, to be honest with you. Coming off last night we were rolling.”

It was a mix of emotions as the team hit the locker room, but one of the special aspects of the group came out as the players gathered one last time while still in their gear. Nikita Pavlychev, who scored a goal Sunday, spoke on behalf of the freshmen, thanking the seniors for their help and guidance in reaching a spectacular finish to their season.

“We thanked them in the locker room after the game,” freshman defenseman James Gobetz, who netted his first career goal, said of the team gathering. “Couldn’t be more thankful for them. Because of them the program will continue to develop and be better and better.”

It was quite an accomplishment for a program that was in just its fifth season on the NCAA Division I level.

The 28 men in the locker room had been through a long, grueling, emotional season. They went from a question mark to begin the year to the No. 1 team in the nation to the brink of elimination from making the NCAA tournament. Then they put on an astounding display in the Big Ten tournament with back-to-back double-overtime wins.

“I’m sure in a short time the team, especially seniors, will look back on this season with a lot of fondness because they’ve accomplished a great deal,” coach Guy Gadowsky said.

Bond will be hard to break: The bond forged over the last few weeks, months and, for some, four years will be hard to break.

“You can see how much they care about each other,” Gadowsky said. “It’s gratifying and emotional when you look at seniors, because I’m not sure they could have envisioned something this special and to see them have a year like this and be so emotional is hard.”

The fight the team showed over the last month to get to this point made it easy to keep believing, even as they trailed 5-2 heading into the third period Sunday, that anything was possible.

Wanting more: It is especially because of the final stretch of the year — far more than the first half when they rocketed to No. 1 in the nation — that will have this program wanting more, dreaming of taking the big stage of the Frozen Four.

“I hope that we’re not only proud of what happened this year,” Gadowsky said, “but that we use it as motivation. We learned a lot this year.”

There are banners and trophies all over campus, and they picked up their first one last weekend. They left U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati certain there will be more to come.

“With our other athletic programs have all won Big Ten championships, national championships,” DeRosa said. “It’s a short time until a national championship in ice hockey at Penn State. I’m going to be really proud when that day comes.”