Photo credit: John Minchillo/AP
The NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament is finally upon us. One year removed from winning their eighth national title, Denver is matched up with a familiar opponent, Penn State, in the Midwest regional semifinal…known in layman’s terms as the “first round”. The game is Saturday evening in Allentown, PA and LetsGoDU will be attending the watch-party at The Pioneers (details to come).
Penn State is still a fairly young program, joining the Division I ranks ahead of the 2012-2013 season and Denver fans still may not know much about the team Denver beat to get back to the Frozen Four a year ago. As a result, I decided to replicate what we’ve done over the past few years with our good Boston-based friends at BC Interruption: a Q&A…but, you know, with someone who covers Penn State.
Ben Jones is the sports editor for StateCollege.com, a publication covering all things State College, PA. He covers football, basketball, and, of course, hockey for the site and is a great source for all things Penn State Athletics. What I’m trying to say is go follow him on Twitter: @Ben_Jones88. Then read my Q&A with him about this weekend’s DU-PSU matchup just below:
Nick Tremaroli: Penn State once again has one of the highest scoring offenses in the country. What has worked well this year that’s allowed the Nittany Lions to pick up where they left off last year and keep lighting up the scoreboard?
Ben Jones: Really the biggest thing is that this team isn’t afraid to shoot the puck. Penn State is probably more talented than it was last year, but at the end of the day is still a team that likes to shoot the puck, create chaos in front of goal and make the most of it. I think their ability to match increased skill with that same willingness to get the puck on net has kept the goals coming. I think a lot of people are under the impression Penn State’s shot totals are inflated at home, but I’m sure Denver fans will see on Saturday that really this is a team that just shoots and shoots and shoots. Maybe it’s a cheap way to do it, but the puck is going in, and in the end, that’s all that matters.
NT: While the offense has been good, the results have been kind of mixed with a 9-10-5 record in the B1G and an 18-14-5 record overall. What has held Penn State back from taking that leap to the top of the conference this year?
BJ: Notre Dame was clearly the best in the Big Ten this year but really the gap between Penn State and everyone else wasn’t all that much. The biggest thing was really consistency and learning how to win. This team has a lot of the same faces as last season, but it has a lot of new ones as well. Penn State blew a few leads it normally doesn’t, and frankly, wherever you might rank the Big Ten as a conference, there aren’t easy weekends. So some of it is Penn State, but I also think Penn State has played better hockey for the most part than its record indicates. I think also Penn State has struggled a bit against good defensive teams because they’re able to limit the number of genuinely good chances Penn State can create. The talent is there, but Penn State’s offense is still partially predicated on being able to create rebounds and good bounces. The fewer of those there are the fewer goals Penn State usually scores. You could say that about most teams though.
NT: Offensive force and Colorado Avalanche draftee Denis Smirnov missed some games due to illness earlier this year. Who picked up the slack in his absence and who should Denver fans pay attention to this weekend?
BJ: Really the guys who have turned Penn State’s tournament chances around: Nate Sucese, Brandon Biro and Evan Barratt (Blackhawks draft choice). Those three found themselves late in the year and gave Penn State a lot more scoring depth. Denis has 27 points in 29 games, so I can’t say that he has played poorly, but he has a tendency to disappear for stretches. I imagine he will show up on Saturday, but Penn State’s late push to actually making the tournament is the result of those three as much as anyone else. Barratt is probably the most skilled of the three, but all of them are figuring out ways to make the most of their chances and simply be in the right place at the right time. Plus don’t forget Andrew Sturtz, who has 40 points in 36 games, 26 of those coming by way of assist. Sturtz is one of the guys who saw how good Denver was last year and realized the strides he and everyone else had to make to take that next step.
NT: It’s safe to say Penn State has come a long way since its inception as a program six years ago. How would you evaluate the progress of the program to this point? Are Penn State fans satisfied with how things have gone?
BJ: I think two NCAA appearances in six years kinds of speaks for itself. When Penn State hit 20 wins a few years ago I think that started a trend towards fans seeing the program as something more than a novelty and something they were expecting results from. State College is a unique place because it’s crammed between a bunch of NHL teams and Penn State became the one everyone could agree on. There’s still a fair amount of understanding that there is work left to be done, but fans are enjoying what they have so far. And frankly it’s hard to blame them, Penn State isn’t Denver or North Dakota or [Insert here] but I’d put Pegula’s crowd and Penn State’s style of play up against anyone when it comes to a hockey experience that’s enjoyable. I don’t know what fans expect this weekend, but I imagine sooner rather than later postseason expectations will go from simply getting in, to moving on and on.
NT: What has to happen if Penn State is going to pull off the upset on Saturday?
BJ: Penn State just can’t beat itself. I think at face value Penn State matches up well against Denver in terms of general talent and ability, but this team has a tendency to shoot itself in the foot after 55 minutes of its best hockey. It will be hard enough already without those kinds of mistakes. More in the hockey sense, if Payton Jones plays well in net, and Penn State can get something from the guys mentioned above there isn’t any reason Penn State can’t win. I realize that it’s an upset, but I don’t see Penn State’s “To Do List” being longer than any normal game. And sort of obvious but [Troy] Terry can’t have a hat trick again.
NT: The Big Ten-NCHC “rivalry” has kind of come to a head this year with the B1G placing four teams in the Tournament compared to the NCHC’s three. I’m going to ask you the unfair question: In your eyes, which conference is better?
BJ: That is tough, partially because I think there is an argument both ways. On the one hand, the NCHC probably has more teams that could win the whole thing, I think Notre Dame is the Big Ten’s best chance followed maybe by Michigan. So in that light, if your postseason teams are better, then it stands to reason that the conference is. At the same time, I think maybe the Big Ten is a harder conference because it’s so compact and generally speaking there aren’t any easy wins. In the end, it’s a dumb argument because you can really say the same thing about both conferences. Gun to my head I’ll say NCHC on the merits of having more title potential and Minnesota being in a bit of a mess, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me the Big Ten is miles behind.
NT: Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s game?
BJ: I mean it’s hard to pick against Denver. That being said last year Penn State was playing the best team in the country as its fifth game in 11 days. Denver was more talented, no question at all, but Penn State had just played 770 minutes of hockey in a week with two double OT games. So if nothing else you’re going to get a fresh team this weekend. Couple that an Allentown crowd that is going to be very pro-Penn State and this ought to be a much closer game. Denver has the better stars, more experience, etc etc. I think Denver wins, but I think Penn State has a much better chance in this game than it’s getting credit for. It would be an upset, but I wouldn’t confuse that with Penn State not deserving to be here.
A big thank you to Ben for taking the time in the middle of spring football and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament to answer these questions. Again, be sure to go follow him on Twitter @Ben_Jones88 and then tune in to the game on ESPN3 on Saturday night (yes, come to The Pio…again, details to come). The puck drops at the PPL Center at 5:30 pm MT.