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No. 1 Penn State Hockey Is Enjoying The Holiday Season

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The Lions are gaining ground while on a long break. Could this hockey season be going any better?

Photo by Heather Weikel

No. 1 Penn State (13-1-1) has been on break for 18 days following a series sweep at home versus the Michigan Wolverines. The team will not play its next game for another 17 days, so this is the halfway point in the long break between semesters. This is the longest stretch between games for the Lions since the team joined Division 1 competition in 2012. In past seasons the team has participated in the Three Rivers Classic during the break but this year coach Guy Gadowsky opted to take the time off.

Since playing two weeks ago Penn State has climbed in the rankings. The two voter polls, the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine, have Penn State ranked No. 3. The voter polls have no impact on the final placement of the teams at the end of the season in regards to the NCAA tournament.

The PairWise Rankings mimic the exact formula used to select the 16-team field for the NCAA tournament. Penn State has climbed from No. 3 to its current spot atop the rankings since playing Michigan two weeks ago. The cause of the gain for PSU had to do with its former opponents winning games rather than the teams above them losing ground. That’s good news for the Lions, as their strength of schedule is the only weak spot that the team has, statistically, at this point.

Hockey nerds will talk about the RPI ranking, which is an indicator of a teams’ strength and trends. Penn State ranks No. 1 in the RPI. Even nerdier nerds reference the KRACH rankings, which are mathematical computations of a teams’ strength based on logistic regression; judging teams based on their wins and losses versus one another. Penn State ranks No. 1 in the KRACH as well. Since there is a tournament at the end of the season, with 16 teams gaining a shot to win their way to a title, these stats and rankings are meant to amuse hockey fans along the way. The final rankings will be settled on the ice and no human voter or computer will have any impact on the final outcome.

Setting The Table For The Post-Holiday Feast

It’s nice to have the Lions riding so high with a few weeks off, allowing it all to soak in. One wonderful conversation that was bouncing around in hockey circles a few weeks ago was whether Penn State deserved to be considered a top-5 team. Imagine that, Penn State hockey was considered overrated! A couple of years ago the team was ecstatic just to be ranked for the first time. The voters had the team ranked around No. 10 while the computer rankings, in all forms, had the team ranked in the top-3. Time has shown that it was the human voters that were yet to make the proper adjustment, not the emotionally unbiased computer models. Now no one questions Penn State’s claim as one of the top teams in the nation at this point in the season.

That is an amazing feat for the team, to have reached this point so early in its existence. Gadowsky and his team are also sure to understand that it is not very important how well you were doing midway through the season, that it is how a team finishes the season that is most important. The glory for the high rankings in December will fade as the season continues, but the record, 13-1-1, will set the table for the remainder of the way.

The Lions are in a position, with the strength of the Big Ten and a strong non-conference record, to be able to finish around .500 in conference play and still make the NCAA tournament. That takes a great deal of pressure off the team. While it would be nice to continue to win nearly every game, the Big Ten conference season is long, there are difficult venues, and any record at or above .500 is still enough to maintain the taste of winning. There’s a lot of hockey to be played between now and when the NCAA field will be selected, exactly three months from today. Penn State is one of a handful of teams that played so well in the first half of the season that they can afford some missteps in the second half while still staying in playoff contention.

Strength Of Schedule Is Not A Weakness

As mentioned before, Penn State has gained two spots in the PairWise since playing its last game. The one negative issue in the rankings for PSU is the strength of schedule, which will improve this year as the season unfolds due to the B1G having a strong season. The other way that the SOS can improve is by having the Lions’ former opponents do well in their games. Right now that is what is happening.

St. Lawrence (14) and Notre Dame (13) have done well to stay in position for the NCAA tournament. PSU played four games versus the two teams, which represent the team’s most challenging non-conference games. PSU went 2-1-1, which should be considered a success. The Lions have one more non-conference game remaining with Princeton (30), and the Tigers are playing much better than expected at this point of the season.

On the flip side PSU has also played 4 games in the non-conference schedule versus the two bottom teams in the PairWise Rankings; Niagara and Alaska-Anchorage. The saving grace for the Lions is that even with this dragging on their strength of schedule, they are still in first place. One surprise so far for the Lions’ former opponents has been the performance of Arizona State. The Sun Devils, the newest addition to D1 hockey playing in just their second season, were supposed to be a bad mark on the Lions’ schedule, as they were projected to be one of the worst teams in the country. That hasn’t been the case, as ASU has a respectable 7-13 record and a PairWise ranking of 46 right now, a dozen or so spots ahead of where the team was projected.

As important as it is for the top teams that PSU has played to remain in high positions, it is also just as critical for teams like ASU, Canisius (43) and Mercyhurst (47) to keep themselves out of the cellar. They are doing just that at this point, working against preseason predictions. This is helping the Lions overcome what was considered a weak non-conference schedule.

PSU Players And The NHL

The Lions currently have just one player on the roster that has been drafted by an NHL team. 6’7” freshman center Nikita Pavlychev was taken by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the seventh round in 2015. Pavlychev was the fifth player to join PSU with NHL-ties, the others were Eamon McAdam, Patrick Koudys, Mike Williamson and Max Gardiner.

Brett Murray, a monstrous 6’4”, 216-pound 18 year-old offensive machine from Bolton, Ontario, will join the team next season. Murray was taken in the fourth round by Terry Pegula’s Buffalo Sabres in the 2016 NHL draft.

While Pavlychev and Murray are the only two Penn State players that were drafted by the NHL that are set to be on the team next season at this point, that is likely to change between now and when the 2017 NHL draft takes place this spring. It is speculation on my part, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see three or four Penn State players get drafted. Likely candidates are Trevor Hamilton, Denis Smirnov, Peyton Jones, and Andrew Sturtz. Vince Pedrie could also have an outside shot at getting drafted this year.

A week ago I caught the Boston College/Notre Dame game on television. The teams have 17 combined players that have been drafted by NHL teams. The crazy thing about it is, for top-20 caliber teams, this is not rare. To reverse-engineer this thought, if Penn State continues to play as it has in recent seasons, and continues to recruit as it has, we should expect the team to have anywhere from 5-8 players at all times on the team that have NHL affiliations.

The only former-PSU player to reach the ice at the NHL level has been Casey Bailey. He did so following the 2015 season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, playing 6 games at the end of the season. In 2015-16 Bailey did not make it to the NHL, as he spent the entire year in the minor leagues. It wasn’t clear until recently whether or not he would get a second shot in The Show.

Bailey recently got the call up to the NHL with his current team, the Ottawa Senators. He played roughly ten minutes per game versus the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders this week. It’s nice to see a Nittany Lion competing at the highest level, getting a nice paycheck for playing a game that was only available at the club level at Penn State just five years ago. Here’s a brief interview with Bailey prior to his debut with the Senators a couple of days ago.