ALLENTOWN, Pa. There is only so much you can mask, a reality Penn State hockey learned on Saturday evening as the Nittany Lions fell 5-1 to Denver in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Denver on paper and on the ice was the better team. The Pioneers boast an Olympian, future NHL players and the expectation that they can win the entire tournament. It's their 11th straight appearance in the postseason, the longest streak in college hockey and a testament to what the program has become.
So there was never an easy road for Penn State to the second round. Things like familiarity, having played Denver last season, and a hot streak heading into the tournament were helpful, but they were never the answer.
Those things weren't the answer to a Denver team that can move the puck and skate as well as anyone playing hockey at any level.
They weren't the answer when an odd bounce and timely slap of the stick as Kohen Olischefski put Denver ahead 1-0. Or when Terry picked up his sixth point against Penn State in four periods not long after. A 2-0 lead after 20 minutes coupled with Penn State managing just nine shots on goal and few, if any, of note.
Those things also weren't the answer to what this Penn State team has generally been for much of the season. A team prone to defensive lapses, penalties at inopportune moments and on some level still learning the edge and chip on the shoulder that made the Nittany Lions so formidable just a year ago. For as admirable as the late season push to make the tournament was, it also served only as a partial masking of a team that probably would have understood why it missed the postseason if those final four games had gone differently.
So the second period was generally more of the same. Denver never looked threatened, or even overly concerned and Penn State continued to look befuddled by maybe the best team it has seen two years in a row. The shot totals never racked up into the near half century mark and the goal chances, short of Evan Barratt hitting the bar, never hit two hands after 40 minutes of play.
The third, more of the same. Liam Folkes' goal midway through the period a false hope, but a reason for just shy of 8,000 fans to cheer.
There is probably a knee-jerk reaction to be had in Saturday night's performance. In a sense it is a missed opportunity. Penn State could have beaten Ohio State, and has already this year. A packed-in Penn State crowd wanted a reason to cheer, but never got it and went home feeling like it only got half the experience it really wanted. There was a Frozen Four trip to be had this weekend in Allentown, but Penn State won't be taking it.
Which, is in the end fair. The Nittany Lions are a program six years old and if Saturday was an indication, would have beaten Denver by virtue of the Pioneers own indifference rather than the Nittany Lions' own quality.
That aside, Penn State is still a work in progress, and to hold the program to the same standard as Denver would be a gross over simplification of two teams in very different places. The Nittany Lions will still have to learn how to win against the elite and win in games where scoring is the product of a skilled game rather than hockey predicated on overwhelming shot totals. They will need talent and experience to do it, and neither of those things can happen overnight.
In short, Saturday shouldn't have been a surprise on paper, and while it's a statement of where the Nittany Lions stand as a program, it shouldn't be an indictment where they stand either.