Penn State ice hockey team returning to NCAA tournament, learns first-round opponent

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
  • Penn State has earned a bid to the NCAA Division I ice hockey playoffs.
  • The Nittany Lions will face Denver in a first-round game.
  • The contest is set for 7 p.m. Saturday at the PPL Center in Allentown.

The wait and wondering are finally over for the Penn State men’s hockey team and its fans. The Nittany Lions are in the NCAA Division I tournament — officially.

In this Jan. 5, 2018 photo Penn State University men's hockey team takes the ice for an NCAA hockey game against the University of Wisconsin in State College.

The opponent will be a very familiar one.

Penn State will meet defending national champion Denver in the first round of the Midwest Regional at 7 p.m. Saturday at the PPL Center in Allentown. The Nittany Lions (18-14-5) finished No. 11 in the PairWise Rankings, while the Pioneers (22-9-8) were fifth.

The other regional game in Allentown has Ohio State meeting Princeton. Saturday’s winners advance to Sunday’s regional final at 3:30 or 6 p.m. The survivor of Sunday’s game gets a ticket to the Frozen Four at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minn., on April 5.

The invitation marks the second straight NCAA berth for a Penn State program in just its sixth season at the Division I level. Penn State defeated Union in last year’s first round before falling to Denver 6-3 in the regional final.

The Nittany Lions, with the nation’s fourth-best offense in goal-scoring, finished fourth in the Big Ten and were one of four conference teams to make the field. Their opponents are the NCHC tournament champions after finishing second in the league in the regular season. The Pioneers lost several of their leaders from their title team a year ago but surged late in the season and boast Division I’s No. 3 scoring defense.

The Big Ten also is sending Notre Dame and Michigan to the tournament, with the Fighting Irish the No. 2 overall seed and the Buckeyes fourth overall. Minnesota also appeared set to make the field, but a combination of scenarios from Saturday’s six conference championship games broke against the Golden Gophers to leave them on the wrong side of the bubble Saturday night.

Penn State will have essentially a home-ice advantage for the weekend. The program is the official host for the regional in Allentown, and will be again in 2019, so the Lions knew if they earned their way into the 16-team field, they would be guaranteed to have a bus ride of less than three hours to get to the regional.

“It was definitely exciting at the beginning of the year when we found out we were hosting,” forward Brandon Biro said Tuesday during a session with the media as the team waited to learn its fate. “It was something that we wanted to work towards. Playing in front of you home fans makes a big difference.”

They won’t be the only “local” team, however, with Princeton’s campus less than two hours away in New Jersey.

The atmosphere at the 8,420-seat arena may not be the same as at Pegula Ice Arena during games, but the location should help draw plenty of fans both from State College and eastern Pennsylvania.

“It will be huge,” defenseman Trevor Hamilton said Tuesday. “It will definitely be a very cool atmosphere and very cool place to play.”