Chase Berger remembers the feeling he and his teammates had after the hockey season ended last year.
“We just still wanted to be in the tournament,” the Penn State junior forward said Tuesday. “We’re watching the (Frozen) Four games, and we were like, ‘Wow, we were so close.’”
It didn’t matter that the Nittany Lions had already surpassed what should have been expected of such a young program. They are high-achieving athletes not used to being satisfied with anything less than the best, even if the program was a newcomer to the NCAA tournament.
“We thought they were a really good team, but we just wanted to keep playing,” Berger said. “We wanted to get to the Frozen Four. It doesn’t really matter who we were going to play this weekend. We just want to win.”
As it happens, the opponent is the same one they lost to a year ago. Penn State will get an NCAA tournament first-round rematch with defending national champion Denver at 7 p.m. Saturday at the PPL Center in Allentown.
Ohio State and Princeton meet in the first game of the day at 3:30 p.m. in the Midwest regional, and the winners tangle at 6:30 p.m. Sunday for a spot in the Frozen Four.
While the rematch may come with a little irony, it also delivers an opportunity to see how they measure up in a more broad sense. After all, the Penn State program is still just in its sixth season.
“We want to see if we’ve improved,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “We matched up against them last year and we’d like to think we learned lessons from them and from that experience. Now we get to find out if that’s true.”
Both rosters are different, like any college program year to year, but many of the key players remain. The Nittany Lions also will have fresher legs. Last year, Penn State made a huge run in the Big Ten tournament, winning three games in three days, the last two each going to double overtime. A week later they were in Cincinnati, beating Union 10-3 for an opening-round statement.
But with just about 23 hours from the end of the win over the Dutchmen to the puck dropping against the Pioneers, the exhausted Lions had little time to prepare for talent-laden Denver.
“We just had nothing left,” Gadowsky said. “It is a little bit different (this year) in terms of preparation, for sure. I also think the bigger factor is we’ve been on the ice with them once, we’ve seen it and we’re excited.”
Penn State did get to see up close one of the nation’s top collegiate players in Troy Terry.
The junior forward is a fifth-round draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks, led the U.S. with four goals and three assists at the World Junior Championships last year while helping the team win a gold medal, and then led Team USA again with five assists at the Olympics last month in South Korea. He was one of just four college players on the U.S. roster. He has 13 goals and 31 assists this season with Denver, as part of one of the nation’s most prolific lines. He is flanked by Henrik Borgstrom (22 goals, 28 assists) and Jarid Lukosevicius (19 goals, 13 assists), but the Lions can’t be caught watching their show.
“The big thing is not giving them the opportunity to beat us,” junior forward Andrew Sturtz said. “Last year, there were a couple plays that resulted in odd-man rushes. You give guys like Troy Terry, Henrik Borgstrom an odd-man rush, they’re going to probably capitalize seven, eight, nine times out of 10.”
They also know their best chance to win is if their best defense is an offense that keeps the puck at the other end of the rink.
“We can’t sit back and wait for this game to come to us,” Sturtz said. “We have to make them play our game.”
As long as the Nittany Lions stay on their toes defensively and play their game on offense, they will see how they measure up and have improved over the course of a year.
It could help Penn State keep playing more hockey, and not have to watch games on TV.
“They’re the defending champs,” Berger said. “We get a chance right away to kind of send a message here, say, ‘We’re here to say, we’re going to come.’ We’ve got a great opportunity.”
NCAA men's hockey championships
Who: Penn State (18-14-5) vs. Denver (22-9-8)
What: First round
Where: PPL Center, Allentown
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
First game: Ohio State vs. Princeton, 3:30 p.m.
TV: online only ESPN3, WatchESPN App. Sunday’s regional final on ESPNU.
Radio: WAPY 103.1 FM
Scoring leaders: PSU—Andrew Sturtz (14 goals, 26 assists), Brandon Biro (9 G, 22 A), Trevor Hamilton (6 G, 23 A), Denis Smirnov (15 G, 12 A), Nate Sucese (14 G, 15 A), Chase Berger (11 G, 16 A). UD—Henrik Borgstrom (22 G, 28 A), Troy Terry (13 G, 31 A), Dylan Gambrell (13 G, 29 A), Jarid Lukosevicius 19 G, 13 A), Ian Mitchell (2 G, 24 A)