Just three seconds remained on the clock when Jill Holdcroft slammed in a rebound for Penn State's lone goal of the game Saturday afternoon against No. 7 Mercyhurst.
Although Mercyhurst (21-5-1, 12-2-0 CHA) had all but wrapped up a victory, scoring four goals by that point, the late marker displayed the team's unfaltering determination.
“I'm proud of the way we finished,” Penn State coach Josh Brandwene said, whose team lost 5-2 on Friday and 4-1 on Saturday.
The late goal was a testament to the team’s “willingness to compete until the final buzzer,” the coach added.
As a whole, the series was a microcosm of the entire season.
From season's start, Brandwene preached that the Nittany Lions' chief objective was to steadily improve so that come playoffs, the team is competing at its highest level.
Losing by a combined score of 12-1 the last time they faced the Lakers at November's end, the Lions narrowed the gap this weekend.
The scoreboard may have reflected a three-goal margin in both games, but the physicality served as a reminder that CHA inter-conference contests are always competitive and rarely docile.
“It's hockey,” freshman forward Jenna Welch said. “It's an emotional game and it gets your adrenaline going.”
The drive to the Mercyhurst goal was not an easy one for puck-carrying Nittany Lions. Many crease-front scrambles resulted in post-whistle altercations. The pushing and shoving kept the Penn State penalty kill unit busy with one of its hardest tests of the season.
“Mercyhurst has one of the top powerplays in the country with some unbelievably talented players,” Brandwene said. None more talented than Lakers captain Christine Bestland, who single-handedly outscored the Lions this weekend, netting a hat trick Friday, followed by a pair of tallies Saturday.
The Mercyhurst blueline corps' were the focus of the powerplay unit, however. Countless one-timers and sizzling slapshots from the point coupled with a maze of legs and sticks in front of the net, left Penn State goaltenders Nicole Paniccia and Celine Whitlinger searching for a clear lane.
“At times, it was pretty hard,” Paniccia said when asked if tracking those point shots was challenging.
But in 13 opportunities on the weekend, the Lakers powerplay only succeeded twice — both times on Friday.
“I'm so proud of our penalty kill,” Brandwene said after Saturday's game. “For us, in between games, to make some really important adjustments, I was impressed.”
Although there was never a point when Penn State was poised to upset the Lakers, every kick save, and every fearless shot block was building toward something. In the box score, Holdcroft's goal won't count for much. But, it was the triumphant end for which the Lions had been striving.
At no point in its inaugural season has Penn State been poised to make a serious playoff run. But, like its last 120 minutes against Mercyhurst, the team is steadily improving.
“Anyone who was here watching knows we gave them a good run,” Paniccia said.
Only time will tell if the Nittany Lions can survive the playoff gauntlet as the unlikely underdog.
But if it’s anything like Saturday’s contest with the nation’s seventh best team, the Lions will be there right to the end.