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Big Ten Hockey Tournament: A bubble burst, a program growing

Although Thursday afternoon's double overtime game brought the best from both teams, Penn State's biggest win came at the expense of a Michigan must-win.

Penn State's Tommy Olczyk (14) celebrating Zach Saar's game winning goal Thursday
Penn State's Tommy Olczyk (14) celebrating Zach Saar's game winning goal Thursday
Matt Christians

Michigan head coach Red Berenson didn't say it exactly, however, his reaction went beyond words. The best chance for an NCAA Tournament berth went out the window when Penn State Zach Saar scored his fifth goal of the season 12:47 into the second overtime period Thursday afternoon.

After the game he looked like a man resigned to his fate.

"No, no. I'm not even looking at that," he said when asked about the Wolverines being on the NCAA Tournament bubble. "Some people look at it right now and they'll saw we've fallen down to wherever we've fallen. I'm not one of those."

Single game elimination tournaments are exciting. It's why America treats March Madness like a national exercise in communal sick days. Everything is on the line for one game although, as Berenson himself noted Tuesday during the Big Ten Hockey Conference Tournament conference call, that doesn't always mean the best team wins.

Upsets are what we live for this time of year. Well everyone except those upset in more ways than one.

The Wolverines were on the verge of punching its ticket next weekend with a win against PSU. Millimeters in fact. An Andrew Copp shot in the first overtime hit the post, spun on the goal line before being kicked away by Penn State forward Eric Scheid in a moment where he knew goaltender Matthew Skoff was out of position and that he would be unable to use his stick. A split second later and Michigan's fate looks much clearer.

"I didn't know who it was," said Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky. "It all happened pretty quickly. Some of the defensemen said that Scheid was unbelievable. I went to hear what he had to say about it, asked him if he played soccer.

"He said 'no never.' I said that he should."

Regardless of what happened (or what U-M wasn't looking at), Michigan had a 95% chance of making the NCAA Tournament with a win yesterday. A loss dropped those odds to 22% and needing help.

Berenson's team knew that going into the game, along with the fact two of the Nittany Lions' three wins in 2014 came against them. To get by would require some form of desperation, some form of energy even before the contest reached its fourth and fifth periods. Controlling play helps. But, along with desperation, it is not always the antidote in a single elimination game.

"It's tough, playing basically two games in overtime. It's a pretty big thing," said Michigan forward Cristoval "Boo" Nieves, who set up the team's lone goal. "We can't wait for them to score a goal and then for us to come back. We have to play desperate the full 60. We didn't do that. That's how we lost the game."

Still, there are two sides to every upset. Penn State may ended Michigan's dreams yet it simultaneously earned the biggest win in the two year-old D1 program on a play that hadn't previously worked.

"It's funny because we probably ran that kind of scheme on the faceoff countless times and I've never gotten it," Saar, the goalscorer, said about the goal. "Coach always has the faith in us to keep doing it. Sure enough, tonight it goes in.

"We're very happy."

For a guy like Scheid, a Blaine, MN native who grew up playing at Xcel Energy Center in the Minnesota State High School Tournament, the distance between winning and losing is miles. Forget the save. Penn State may have entered St. Paul with house money, but the team and program have more on its mind than playing Michigan's spoiler.

Nothing is taken for granted.

"I think it's a big step for us. A lot of people .. .we didn't have the greatest year, ups and downs, and people were counting us out," he said. "Not many people picked us to win this one.

"I think this is big for our program to build. A lot of kids are going to see this and recruiting, it's going to go up from here. All around it's only going to help us."

That's the beauty of upsets. There's another side of the coin. A millimeter the other way and Zach Nagelvoort's 63 saves get talked about in a new light. Instead, it's the 64th and 65th which put Penn State in one. The young team is the one not resigned to its fate Friday.

"We'll wait and see on Sunday where everything ends up," Berenson said. "When you lose a game like this, you can't expect to move up."


Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter --