Penn State’s season ended last year when Denver won 6-3 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. After the game, head coach Guy Gadowsky said, “We’ll remember this team forever, but at the same time, I hope the guys that are returning use it as motivation. We didn’t match up great today. I don’t think we were us and I hope we get another shot at a Denver.” (s/t @SaraCivian)
Well, one year later, Gadowsky has his shot. No. 3 Penn State will face No. 2 Denver in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament at the Midwest Regional in Allentown, Pa. The Nittany Lions revitalized their depth after a slight roster turnover, while the Pioneers return mostly the same team that won the 2016-17 National Championship. Both teams are also playing their best hockey of the season right now; here’s what you can expect when the puck drops at 7 p.m. this Saturday at the PPL Center.
Denver has depth, if not necessarily depth scoring. Three players are over a point-per-game clip while the rest are decently far behind, but those players more than make up for their lack of scoring with their contributions to one of the best defensive teams in the country.
Troy Terry and Henrik Borgstrom are the most dangerous players on the team and are among the most dangerous in the country. They’re part of the reason why Denver fires the second-most shots per game and has the ninth-best scoring offense. In last year’s 6-3 win over Penn State, Borgstrom had three assists and Terry had two...to go with his hat trick. No one has really been able to shut their line down all season, but it is paramount in clinching a win in a playoff game.
There isn’t a discernible weakness on this team, including special teams. The top-end skill up front contributes to its 13th-ranked powerplay, which converts at a .222 clip. Denver also draws about 4.3 penalties a game, so Penn State will have to be wary about minors in addition to the couple major penalties it has taken in recent weeks.
Will Butcher, the first defenseman to win the Hobey Baker since 2009, is thankfully gone, as he’s busy haunting me as a member of the New Jersey Devils this year instead of the Denver Pioneers. Ian Mitchell has filled the scoring void he left behind, while the other five defensemen that usually roll out with him focus more on their play in their own end.
That isn’t to say Mitchell isn’t solid on defense, though. Like Penn State, the same defenseman leads the team in points as well as blocked shots (Trevor Hamilton for the Lions). A blend of ages makes up the Pioneer blue-line, as two freshmen, a sophomore, a junior, and two seniors are used most often.
What they lack in individual stats, the Pioneers make up for in team numbers. They average the third-fewest goals against per game (2.05), the 11th-fewest shots against (26.67), and they sport the eighth-best penalty kill (.847).
All of those defensive stats wouldn’t be possible without the reigning Mike Richter Award winner and current finalist, Tanner Jaillet. He’s 21-8-7 with a .929/1.85 line and has five shutouts. Penn State netted three on him last year, a rare achievement, but it was far from enough.
Jaillet has a packed trophy case from his four years at Denver and he’s looking to add to it over the next few weeks. There’s no getting around it: Jaillet is one of the best players in the country, and Penn State has struggled against elite goalies. He will be the most important player in this game, and if both teams shoot as much as I expect them to, Peyton Jones has his work cut out to keep even with Jaillet.
My, Kaitlyn Dividock’s, and Sara Civian’s full predictions are on our podcast, but we picked an even split -- one PSU win, one DU win, and one overtime toss-up. The arguments in favor of Denver were hopefully made clear above; it doesn’t have any weaknesses and as a legitimate title contender, is widely expected to take care of business in the first round. The arguments for Penn State are that it is elite at home, and this game in Allentown should have a similar atmosphere to Pegula. The Nittany Lions are also playing their best hockey of the season right now; they don’t have Denver’s skill, but they can win on energy. We’ll find out how it plays out Saturday at 7.