Girls On Fire: Newly-Resilient Penn State Finds Upset Bid Just Short

Riley O'Connor scored Penn State's first shorthanded goal in over two years

It's a situation Penn State has seen in more than one game this year: a favored opponent, this time No. 1 Liberty, takes an early lead. The specifics on Friday night in Pegula Ice Arena involved Flames forward Alex Smibert grabbing a stretch pass from defenseman Emily John, splitting the PSU defense and firing past Meg Lydick with 6:08 left in the first period.

It's a situation that, despite the team's unfortunate amount of experience at it, PSU hasn't always handled well. But this time was different, in a lot of ways.

The Lady Ice Lions, with a newfound resilience, kept coming in steel-tipped waves following the Smibert score, a reality made possible by contributions both big and small up and down the lineup, and kept the highly-potent Flames at just the single goal for most of the game, in stark contrast to the snowball effect often seen at other times. Even a bit of somewhat uncharacteristic penalty trouble stemming from increased physicality couldn't threaten the contest's unexpected tightness midway through the second period, thanks in large part to Riley O'Connor.

The junior center scored on a shorthanded breakaway during a checking from behind call to Liz Tuorinsky to tie the game at 1-1 with 8:52 remaining in the middle frame. The goal came roughly 22 minutes of game time after O'Connor had crashed face first into the boards and laid motionless for a couple minutes before leaving the ice under her own power and, ultimately, being cleared to return to action.

It was the first shorthanded goal by the Lady Ice Lions since 2015 graduate Cara Mendelson scored one on a December 5, 2014 visit to, coincidentally, Liberty.

For a moment, Penn State, despite a 3-14-0 record coming into the evening, stood toe to toe with the nation's top-ranked team. And even after the Flames quickly broke the tie through Dana McLeod later in the second, then added goals from Aly Morris and John in the third period to win 4-1, palpable feelings of positivity and optimism existed in the PSU locker room. For maybe the first time this season - possibly even the first time in two seasons - the Lady Ice Lions caught a glimpse of the ACHA's summit and found it attainable.

Others factored heavily, beyond O'Connor, of course. Lydick added 33 more saves to her prodigious 2015-16 total. Katelyn Trask and Tarika Embar came up huge on a couple key second-period penalty kills. Sophie Paolizzi stepped on to the top line to fill in for the injured Darian Dempsey and was fantastic. Kelly Watson and Anna Marcus laid down their typically-understated but extremely effective form of blueline play. Fourth liners Julia DeRose and Dina DuBac each delivered possibly the best game of their young careers.

It takes contributions from everywhere to compete with the best and, in short, that's exactly what Penn State got on Friday evening. And if PSU keeps getting it, starting with a rematch with Liberty on Saturday night at 9:15 p.m., the possibilities are truly exciting.

Box Score

First Period
1. Liberty, Alex Smibert (Emily John, Mackenzie Carroll), 6:08.
Second Period
2. Penn State, Riley O'Connor (unassisted), 8:52 (shorthanded); 3. Liberty, Dana McLeod (Courtney Gilmour), 2:58.
1. Penn State, Kelly Watson (2:00 body checking), 19:15; 2. Penn State, Kate Lombardozzi (2:00 body checking), 11:34; 3. Penn State, Liz Tuorinsky (2:00 checking from behind), 9:04; 4. Penn State, Liz Tuorinsky (10:00 misconduct), 9:04; 5. Liberty, Mackenzie Carroll (2:00 hooking), 8:52.
Third Period
4. Liberty, Aly Morris (Tiana Lisle), 15:51 (power play); 5. Liberty, Emily John (Courtney Gilmour, Mackenzie Carroll), 5:04.
6. Penn State, Kate Lombardozzi (2:00 cross checking), 16:55; 7. Liberty, Alex Smibert (2:00 tripping), 1:42.
Penn State: Meg Lydick: L, 33 saves/37 shots; Liberty: Rosie Kelly: W, 10 saves/11 shots.

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