Denver Hockey Regional Semifinal Preview: Penn State

Photo courtesy of CentreDaily.com

The Denver Pioneers enter the NCAA Tournament as NCHC Champs against the Penn State Nittany Lions

After an impressive 4-1 win against the St. Cloud State Huskies last Saturday, the Denver Pioneers were crowned NCHC Conference champions.  With goals from Kohen Olischefski, Jake Durflinger, Ryan Barrow, and Dylan Gambrell, the Pioneers showed that their depth played a major role in the game.  But the bigger picture win is that the Pioneers beat a team who they shared the #1 USCHO ranking with all season in their own barn.  That added confidence is a huge boost to the Pioneers going into the NCAA Tournament.

The Pios are set to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions who lost to Notre Dame in the Big Ten semifinals.  They are a fast team that puts a ton of shots on net, similar to how the Pioneers play.  Although they don’t have the same amount of high-profile NHL prospects, they have proven that they aren’t afraid to play anybody.

On Tuesday, head coach Jim Montgomery addressed the media about the Pioneers draw in the Frozen Four playoffs and Penn State.

“We’re going to have the face the adversity of playing a team in their home area.  It’s going to be all Nittany Lion fans, but that’s going to be a good challenge for us.  

“Every journey is different.  How you come together and when you come together is always going to be different… This year we’ve been very young.  We’re young with leadership and with 11 freshmen on our roster.  It just took a little bit longer, but I like where we’re at.  I like our mentality, our toughness, and the way we’re attacking games.”

Looking at some of Penn State’s statistics, a few numbers stick out.  The Nittany Lions are averaging 40.5 shots a game compared to Denver’s 35.1.  They play an up and down, transition style game much like the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.  They shoot a lot and have the ability to score from anywhere, noting that Penn State has four players who have 100 or more shots this season.  It’s safe to say you may want to bet the over in a game between these two teams.

Another number to consider is Penn State’s record at home.  They are 11-5-3 on home ice and with Allentown being just 165 miles from State College, the Nittany Lions will make Allentown feel like home.

Going into this game, Penn State goaltender Peyton Jones will need to be at his best. Penn State averages 4.6 penalties per game and being down a man against Denver isn’t much fun.  Jim Montgomery will put a big emphasis on scoring early to take the crowd out of the game for the Nittany Lions and the best deflator is a power play goal.  Jones stood tall against a heavy Notre Dame team but was scored on in the final minute of the game.  He will have a fierce matchup with the Pioneers going up against NCHC goaltender of the year Tanner Jaillet.

Last time these two teams met, the Pioneers sent the Nittany Lions home in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament on their way to winning the NCAA title.  Both teams are a lot different this time around which will make for a great rematch.  For the Pioneers, their success will continue to be about great team play.  Look for them to keep possession of the puck and force the Nittany Lions to defend in their own end.

Who to Watch

#16 – F – Andrew Sturtz – 14G, 26A

#10 – F- Brandon Biro – 9G, 22A

#14 – F – Nate Sucese – 14G, 15A

#25 – F – Denis Smirnov – 15G, 12A (2017 COL 6th)

#11 – D – Trevor Hamilton – 6G, 23A, 104 blocks

#31 – G – Peyton Jones – 17-12-4, 2.98 GAA, .906 SV%

Twitter Follow – @PennStateMHKY

Where to Watch

Saturday in Allentown, PA at the PPL Center – 5:00pm MT, ESPN3

Interview with David Eckert, Sports Editor for the Daily Collegian

What would you say is Penn State’s identity and style of hockey?

Penn State plays fast, fast, fast. The Nittany Lions thrive on the rush and have a really hard time when teams take those opportunities away from them.  Penn State has proven recently that it isn’t afraid to get physical either, which I think is a pretty unique trait for a team that plays in transition as much as it does. Guy Gadowsky’s offense is predicated on taking advantage of rebounds, which is why the Nittany Lions lead the nation averaging over 40 shots per game.

In what situations do the Nittany Lions excel, and also struggle?

Penn State is really good when it plays with speed. When teams are disciplined defensively and force Penn State to dump and chase, it causes problems.  Notre Dame, for example, does a really good job limiting rush chances and made it hard for the Nittany Lions to enter their offensive zone.  Penn State went 0-4-1 against them this year. If you’re open to a little bit of recency bias here, Penn State’s power play has looked really, really good lately as well. They’re 5-12 on power-play chances in their last three games.

For DU fans who aren’t familiar with this year’s Penn State team, who are the players they will need to watch out for?

It’s tough for me to give a concise answer for this question because I’d make the case that this team really doesn’t have a true star, more so a collection of very good players. Andrew Sturtz is Penn State’s most dangerous player on offense and he has a habit making something out of nothing. Defenseman Trevor Hamilton is the nation’s leading shot blocker by a wide margin and contributes offensively too with 29 points. Denis Smirnov is an Avalanche draft pick and can score from anywhere on the ice. The line of Evan Barratt, Alex Limoges and Liam Folkes has come on of late and basically willed Penn State to its four wins over Minnesota, so that’s a group to keep an eye on as well.

The Nittany Lions had quite a battle with the University of Minnesota at the end of the season.  Talk about the atmosphere at those home games and why the Nittany Lions were successful.

Penn State was more intense than Minnesota in those games and was more physical, and that’s why it won all four of them. Pegula Ice Arena was rocking as usual in the first two with the students around, but they were actually on spring break for the two Big Ten playoff games and the atmosphere suffered. It didn’t really matter. Penn State was playing for its season (turned out Minnesota was too, but they didn’t know it at the time), and it showed. That Barratt line I touched on before scored nine of the Nittany Lions’ 21 goals across the four Minnesota games. They were really the difference.

Guy Gadowsky has meant a lot to your hockey program.  Talk about his style and how he’s been able to develop players.  

Guy Gadowsky was the perfect hire to start this program. His high-flying style helped generate fan interest right from the beginning and has also, in my opinion, allowed Penn State to be competitive far earlier than most expected. Like I said, the Nittany Lions rely on their forecheck and rebounds to score a good portion of their goals. You don’t need elite level talent to get that done if your team buys in. Throw in some really good puck movers on the blue line, and you get a team that averages 3.7 goals per game like Penn State does.

Penn State’s season was ended last year by the Pioneers in a 6-3 game.  How could it be different this time around? 

The Nittany Lions really need a good showing from Peyton Jones between the pipes to win this game. Penn State needs to establish itself physically, too, but Denver’s 13th-ranked power play could make the Nittany Lions pay for that. With the talented forwards Denver has, Penn State really needs a disciplined effort from its defensemen and has to be safe with the puck in the d-zone and neutral zone. That isn’t always possible with the Nittany Lions constantly looking to spring their forwards down the ice, but that’s what it’s going to take for them to win.

What is your prediction for the game?

Obviously, anything can happen in one game, but I think this is really the worst possible matchup for Penn State among the No. 2 seeds. I like Denver in a high-scoring affair. I just don’t think Penn State’s defense is equipped to handle players like Henrik Borgstrom and Troy Terry.

You can read David’s stories here and follow him on Twitter at @DavidEckert98

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