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Skate of the Union: Penn State Hockey Playoff Picture

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Jump aboard the Penn State hockey bandwagon for the critical final games of the season.

The No.15 Penn State hockey team has the week off, but the playoff picture will continue to unfold while the Lions rest. Currently in the number three spot in the Big Ten, Guy Gadowsky's squad will have to make a run to finish the season if it wants to earn the program's first ever NCAA Tournament invitation.

Right now, PSU trails Michigan by three points and Minnesota by four points in the conference. The Big Ten Tournament, which starts in four weeks, rewards the top two teams in the standings with a first round bye. The bye is important for obvious reasons – it eliminates the possibility of losing in the first round and teams don't have to play three games in three consecutive days.

There is good chance that Penn State will receive an invitation to the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team if it continues to win, and if the Nittany Lions can win the B1G Tourney, they will receive an automatic bid to the big dance. Here are the possible scenarios for the rest of the year:

Breaking Down The Big Ten Race

Even though it is the Lions' bye week, there is plenty of important hockey happening. Minnesota and Michigan square off in a crucial series on the Gophers' campus inside Mariucci Arena, and both games will be televised on the Big Ten Network.

With only one point separating the teams in the standings, a sweep for either side would put the team in pole position for the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament with four games remaining. The losing team would be left reeling, with Penn State in the rear-view mirror hoping to catch them for the second bye in the conference tournament. Any variation of a split would keep the Lions in the hunt for a top-two finish for the remainder of the season.

Penn State has a pair of two-game series remaining in the regular season. First, the team will head to Madison to take on the Badgers on March 4 and 5. Wisconsin currently sits in last place in the Big Ten and has lost to PSU the last six times the teams have met. The following weekend, the Lions will head to Michigan for a pair of games in Ann Arbor. There is a chance that a bye in the Big Ten Tournament will be on the line for the two teams during this series.

Breaking Down The NCAA Tournament Scenarios

There are two ways to enter the NCAA Tournament's field of 16 teams. The first is straight forward – if Penn State wins the Big Ten Tournament it will earn the automatic bid that each of the six conference winner receives. Sounds easy enough, right?

That leaves 10 at-large bids to hand out to the remaining 54 teams in college hockey. The PairWise rankings are used to emulate the process that the tournament selection committee will use to decide which teams will get the final invitations. The top 16 teams in the PairWise rankings will not all be selected since there will be conference winners that gain automatic bids that are ranked outside the top-16. For each team that gains an auto bid that is outside of the top-16, a team inside the top 16 will be bumped. There are currently two conferences that do not have a team ranked in the top-16, so therefore at least two teams would be bumped if the season ended today.

Penn State is currently rated 15th in the PairWise, and would be the last team out of the tournament if everything held for the remainder of the year. One thing is certain – something will change the tournament picture between now and the end of the postseason. There are many variables that could improve PSU's chances of getting an at-large bid between now and the end of the year. The most obvious would be for the team to continue to win, because if Penn State wins its remaining regular season games it will likely receive an at-large bid regardless of what happens in the Big Ten Tournament. If the team loses one or more of the final four games remaining in the regular season, it will need a strong showing in the Big Ten Tournament or some luck to get an at-large invitation.

Enjoy The Journey

While the playoff scenarios unfold it is important to realize that the team has already accomplished major milestones in only the fourth season of Division I competition. With four games remaining in the season, the Lions are in a position to compete for the Big Ten regular season title and have a shot at becoming an at-large invitee to the NCAA Tournament. There are many established programs that would love to be in Penn State's position right now.

The 19 wins this year are the most the team has won in program history. After losing a majority of the goal scorers from last year's team, it was expected that this campaign would be a step back for the program. Instead the team showed that it can not just replace players like Casey Bailey, but do so with a complete team effort. No longer can teams focus on one player or one line when trying to slow down the Penn State offense, which is currently fifth in the nation in total scoring.

Now opponents have to defend four capable lines of Lion forwards, along with defenders like Vince Pedrie and Luke Juha, who have combined for 15 goals and 27 assists on the year. Last season, no Penn State defender scored more than two goals, so the added scoring contribution from the blue line makes it that much more difficult to slow down the Penn State scoring.

There are many possibilities of how the rest of the season will unfold, some that would mark historic firsts for the program. The fact that the team is in a position to compete for a B1G championship and an NCAA Tournament birth this early in the process is an amazing achievement on its own.