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Penn State Heads to Cincinnati for First NCAA Tournament Appearance

The Nittany Lions will take on Union in the opening round of the Midwest Regional.

Carlos Osorio-AP

When Guy Gadowsky first accepted the job as the head coach of the men’s hockey team, he didn’t have a timeline of how far and how quickly he wanted the team to progress. What he did have was a checklist of things he and the team wanted to accomplish.

“The only thing that we concentrated on was setting a great foundation,” he said Monday.

That foundation was set rapidly, just as Gadowsky wanted. He referenced players like Tommy Olczyk, Patrick Koudys and David Glen — the first three captains in the program’s history — who helped enormously in setting the program up well for the future.

That future will commence Saturday evening as Penn State heads to Cincinnati for its first NCAA Tournament appearance, opening Saturday afternoon against Union in the first round of the Midwest Regional.

With the accomplishment ready to be checked off the list, a question has been on Gadowksy’s mind: How should the Nittany Lions approach this opportunity?

The National Tournament isn’t something that Gadowsky is very familiar with, having been there only twice — in 2008 and 2009 with Princeton — in his prior 16 years in college hockey. Both times, his Tigers were knocked out in the first round of Regional play.

Gadowsky explained Monday that he hadn’t had a conversation with the team about what to expect in its first experience on the national scale, but believes there’s two approaches he and his squad can take: either make the most of the opportunity or simply enjoy being among the nation’s best teams and use it as a learning experience, no matter how it performs, going forward.

In a perfect world, both would take place once the puck drops on Saturday.

The Lions have the talent to make some noise in the National Tournament. Gadowsky had some good news on Monday, as he announced that forward Andrew Sturtz would be ready to go this weekend.

Sturtz, who left the Lions game against Michigan and appeared labored through the rest of the Big Ten Tournament, has recorded the second-highest single season goal total this season at 21 and serves as the heart of the Lions squad, regularly giving the team a spark of life with a nifty toe drag or a sharp-angle snipe.

While the Lions will have Sturtz at their disposal, fellow sophomore Alec Marsh may not be available. Marsh, who has missed 11 games this season, was injured at the end of regulation against the Badgers. Although he returned to the game, Gadowsky said his status was unclear.

If either player is not at 100 percent, the Lions can still rely on their second line of Denis Smirnov, Nate Sucese and David Goodwin. All three members of the line have exceeded 30 points this season, with Smirnov leading the three — and all NCAA freshmen — with 45 points.

As is the case with many postseason teams, the Lions’ most important performer will be in net, as Peyton Jones will look to carry over his stellar play from the Big Ten Tournament. The freshman goaltender stopped 118 of 123 shots over three games, and saved his best efforts for the Lions’ back-to-back double overtime wins in the semifinal against Minnesota and the championship against Wisconsin.

Jones may not be able to do it alone, however, as the Lions face a difficult road as they hope to advance to the Frozen Four in Chicago April 6-8.

Scouting the Midwest Regional

Union — While the Lions will be getting their first taste of the NCAA Tournament, the Dutchmen feature six players who were freshmen when they won the 2014 National Championship, including their top point producer (Mike Vecchione), top defenseman (Jeff Taylor) and starting netminder (Alex Sakellaropoulos)

Vecchione also forms half of one of the most dynamic duos in college hockey along with Spencer Foo. The two lead the team in scoring and ranked in the top five in the nation with 62 and 59 points, respectively.

A dangerous match-up when playing on the same line, the two have become a more difficult test since being separated late in the season. The Lions have become accustomed to facing dynamic duos, however, squaring off against Tyler Sheehy and Justin Kloos of the Golden Gophers and Luke Kunin and Trent Frederic of the Badgers.

As the visiting team, Gadowsky will not have the benefit of the last change on faceoffs, meaning he will have to be especially cautious with which unit he sends out on draws, particularly in the defensive zone.

While David Thompson and James Gobetz have formed a formidable shutdown pair, Trevor Hamilton and Kris Myllari have a similar defensive skill set with a better ability to get the puck out of the zone with a quick breakout pass.

Denver — The Pioneers enter the NCAA Tournament as the top ranked team overall, sporting a record of 29-7-4. While the Dutchmen and Lions may rely on a high-powered offense, the Pioneers will be led by a stifling defense.

Jim Montgomery’s squad allowed the fewest goals against per game at 1.80 and were one of just two teams -- Bemidji State being the other -- to allow fewer than two goals per game.

Anchoring the defense corps is senior Will Butcher, a Colorado Avalanche draft pick who has gathered a slew of awards and honors. The Pioneers’ captain led his team’s defensemen with 35 points in 39 games.

Pioneers’ goalie Tanner Jaillet has also posted a strong campaign with 24 wins and a goals against average and save percentage that rank in the top-six in the nation.

While defense is the Pioneers’ strength, they also feature a strong one-two punch on their top line in Henrik Borgström and Troy Terry, who have combined for 40 goals and over 70 points.

Michigan Tech — The Huskies, the lowest-ranked team in the PairWise rankings, qualified for the NCAA Tournament by winning the WCHA Championship over Bowling Green in a double-overtime contest.

While the Huskies’ offense ranks in the middle of the pack at just under three goals per game, the team’s defense is in the top-five at 2.16 goals against per game. Goalie Agnus Redmond posted the second-best goals against average at 1.76 and will need a stellar performance to top the Pioneers and either the Lions or Dutchmen.

The Huskies’ offense may be getting hot at the perfect time, however; they have 4.33 goals per game during the month of March.