ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The Saturday setting at the PPL Center seemingly could not have been better. Picture a crowd of 7,491 passionate Penn State fans packed into their seats with the same enthusiasm they've had all season long.
It was the outcome though, that could not have been further from what the Nittany Lions were anticipating in their second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
"To be able to come here, to look around and be able to hear everybody, that's why I think I am just so disappointed," Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky said. "I've been to a lot of regionals, whether working them with the NCAA or as a participant and I can tell you, I haven't seen an atmosphere at a regional like this. It was blue and white and it was great and it was awesome. I just feel like when I saw them it was set up to do really well and that's probably why I feel so bad."
Speaking softly in a somber tone, Gadowsky was direct when asked postgame about what went wrong, giving credit to Denver where credit was due.
"They are excellent, they are skilled and I think they are excellent in their work ethic," Gadowsky said. "I give them a ton of credit, I think they really got to our net and we didn't get to theirs. I don't know enough yet to say if it was just what we didn't prepare for, or that we didn't do what we do well enough, or that they were that much better and it's because of what they did. I don't know."
The Pioneers led from start to finish Saturday night, opening the scoring with a goal off an untimely bounce with 7:41 left in the first period. As quickly as the blare of the fog horn faded, the mostly Penn State crowd responded with a resounding "We Are" chant.
No more than a moment later, the Nittany Lions saw one of their prime scoring opportunities swept away as sophomore Liam Folkes went horizontal on a breakaway, giving Penn State its first power play chance of the night. Still, it was Denver controlling the second half of the first period, striking again near the end of the frame, with the delayed penalty goal confirmed after a lengthy review.
That would hardly be the end of the Nittany Lions though, as Penn State picked up the pace and looked to spark some offensive momentum midway through the second period to the tune of audible gasps of near excitement from the crowd among the flurry of offensive opportunities.
"I think they obviously had a lot of momentum over the first period but I think when we were down four nothing, it kind of shifted over the last five minutes in the second period and going into the third, really I think we played how we should have played the entire game," Folkes said.
As Folkes noted, the Nittany Lions wouldn't give in, as Penn State finally broke through with its first goal of the night in the third period. It was Folkes who beat Denver net minder Tanner Jaillet to shave the deficit to three, 4-1, with 7:39 left to play.
Gadowsky's message to the team between periods was simple and true to Penn State's philosophy - shots on net.
"I think tonight we forgot a little bit about what we did really well," Gadowsky said. "I don't think that we did what we do well enough. I think possibly we knew what to expect a little bit more and prepared for what they did, and I think what we lacked, at least in my mind, was a better commitment and execution in what makes us really good."
Denver's lethal leading line proved too strong for the Nittany Lions, as Jarid Lukosevicius sent his second goal of the night past Jones with nearly eight minutes left to play to send the Pioneers ahead 5-1.
"Our line, we've played a lot of good players all year and they're no doubt, arguably the best we've played," senior James Robinson said when asked about Denver's top line. "That's no excuse. It doesn't matter who you are playing, you need to come ready to match their intensity and outwork them and our team did not do that and it's disappointing."
A season-ending loss in the NCAA Tournament in one that brings a certain kind of bitter feeling. It's not this loss though that senior James Robinson will reflect on when he looks back at his time at Penn State.
"I feel like the seniors on this team as well as every guy in that dressing room has made this program better than it was at the start of the season," Robinson said. "With our senior class, we couldn't be more proud of this school, this organization, this program and we just can't wait to see where this program goes in the future."
The future is exactly where the Nittany Lions will now look toward, with something always present to build on.
"We can build off of getting into the tournament," Gadowsky said. "You look at the program's that aren't in the tournament this year and you look at the programs that haven't been in the tournament two years in a row and there are some great ones. We can look at that and feel very, very good and be proud."
For Robinson, it's taken everyone to get the Nittany Lions to where they are now, but it's all those individuals who will also be responsible for continuing to carry on the legacy and tradition carefully set in place.
"We have a very bright future ahead of us and unfortunately both [Erik] Autio and I and the rest of the seniors aren't going to be a part of it but we feel it's in great hands and we can't wait to see what this program does," Robinson said.
Among those hands is Folkes, who has only gratitude when it comes to the impact the senior class has left upon the team.
"They've been the best of the best, that's for sure," Folkes said. "I'm going to miss all of them, they've paved the way for where Penn State is where it is now. I have to thank James Robinson especially because was my mentor when I first got here and he's been the best teammate and the best friend for the two years that I've been here, so I have to thank Jim."