It’s rare in the NCAA Tournament for a #2 seed to have perhaps the biggest target on their backs of any team. But that’s precisely the situation for the Denver Pioneers, who are attempting to defend their national championship, have by far the most tournament experience across the board of any team and just made a run through the tournament of the toughest conference in college hockey.
It isn’t crazy, then, that many consider Denver to be the favorite in the Midwest region over #1 seed Ohio State. But before even starting that conversation, Denver is tasked with #3 Penn State Saturday night, who received an at-large bid to the tournament after falling in the Big Ten semifinals to Notre Dame, another #1 seed. The Nittany Lions finished the season fourth in the league, which sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament, with a record of 18-14-5 (9-10-5-2 in conference).
The contest is a rematch of last year’s Midwest Regional final, which Denver won easily, 6-3, to advance to the Frozen Four en route to a national title. Raising the stakes further, Penn State is the host of the region as determined before the season, and should have a large contingent of fans on hand at the PPL Center in Allentown, PA. It will be a de facto road game for the Pioneers.
Penn State as a program is an intriguing story and an admirable model for schools looking to add new Division I programs. After one season as an independent in their first year, 2012-13, PSU joined the Big Ten a year later and has made a steady trajectory upward under coach Guy Gadowski, reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time last season and earning their way back this season.
This year’s Penn State squad was ranked in the preseason polls, but briefly fell out for a three week stretch in November after a streaky start to conference play. But the Nittany Lions swept Ohio State the first weekend of December to earn their way back in and remained ranked the whole rest of the way and finishing in fourth place in the league.
Offensively, Penn State enjoyed a stellar season from Junior Andrew Sturtz, who earned Big Ten Honorable Mention distinction with a 40 point season (14 G, 26 A). Their undisputed top overall player is senior defenseman Trevor Hamilton, who was named First Team all-Big Ten and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year and contributed 29 points from the blue line.
PSU has been consistent as one of the more dangerous offensive teams in the country, finishing the year averaging 3.70 goals per game, second best in the nation behind Minnesota State. Those offensive weapons are also featured on Penn State’s solid power play, which converted at 21.9 percent, good for 15th in the nation.
Denver should expect to see Pennsylvania native Peyton Jones in net for Penn State. The sophomore started 34 games this season, allowing 2.98 goals on average with a .906 save percentage. This goaltender matchup should represent a clear advantage for Denver with the big-game experience of Tanner Jaillet. It was announced Thursday that Jaillet is among five finalists for the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goaltender, an award he won last year as well.
Denver-Penn State will be the primetime matchup for the region, facing off at 7 PM ET after the conclusion of the Princeton-Ohio State semifinal. The game can be seen on ESPN3. With a win, DU would face the winner of the first semifinal Sunday at 6:30 PM ET with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line.