The worst possible thing that can happen to a young, talented hockey team on the rise is for it to be told how great it is. Too many attaboys can have a team thinking that they are better than they really are. Thankfully the Penn State hockey team doesn’t have to worry about that. While moving to the top spot in the PairWise Rankings over the weekend, the Lions fell two spots in the voter polls.
At the end of the season the six conference champion auto bids and remaining top teams as ranked by the PairWise will make the NCAA tournament field of 16. The field will not be determined or shaped in any way by the hockey opinion polls; the USCHO.com and the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Poll.
That’s good news for the Lions, as the team to this date is getting very little love from the voters. Some may point to the fact that Penn State currently has 6 first-place votes in the USCHO.com poll, the most the program has ever received, and wonder why there’s a feeling of being snubbed. It’s because the team split, on the road, with a top-10 Ohio State team, and moved up one notch to No. 1 in the Pairwise Rankings over the weekend. And yet they fell in the opinion polls.
The Lions also hold the No. 1 spot in the RPI and also the KRACH, the two most-widely referenced computer polls in college hockey. It seems that the voters are not convinced. The most commonly-used reason for the lack of respect for the Lions is the strength of schedule. The team currently has the No. 30-toughest schedule based on the KRACH and is No. 22 in the RPI strength of schedule ratings. Yet Harvard, with three fewer wins than PSU, is ranked No. 2 in the USCHO.com poll, even though the team has a similar strength of schedule at this point and is one spot behind PSU in the PairWise.
The good news is that the voter polls don’t have any effect on the team’s destination. If the Penn State team makes the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history following this season, it will be due to their play on the ice, not someone’s opinion. The Lions have two separate ways to make the field of 16. It could win the Big Ten tournament, securing the automatic bid, or finish in the top 13 or so of the PairWise rankings, and receive an at-large bid. The reason I use the ‘top 13’ in the rankings is due to the fact that the six conference winners receive an auto bid. That typically bumps a couple of teams that are in the top 16 out of the field, as a few conference winners may not be in the top 16 of the PairWise. The No. 13 spot is pretty safe, year-to-year. If PSU were to finish the season in the top 10 of the PairWise, it would be a statistical lock to make the field. At this point the team could lose half of its remaining games and still hold a tournament at-large position.
At the moment PSU is ranked No. 1 in the PairWise Rankings, perceived warts and all that come with the lower strength of schedule. They are also ranked No. 1 in the KRACH and RPI rankings. The computers continue to place the Lions atop the rankings but the voters, most of whom have not seen PSU play, continue to hold their nose and place the team lower than they deserve. That’s fair. It’s an opinion. Thankfully their opinions are meant to be taken as entertainment, they will not effect the field of 16 teams at the NCAA tournament.
Other Big Ten teams fare better in the opinion polls. Minnesota is currently ranked No. 9 by the voters while holding the 11th spot in the PairWise. Ohio State is ranked No. 10 by the voters while holding the 13th spot in the PairWise. At this point in the season it’s not worth getting all huffy and puffy about the general lack of enthusiasm by the voters for the Penn State squad.
As the season wears on the Lions will have plenty of opportunities to prove their mettle. Ten of the 17 regular-season games remaining will come against teams currently in the top 24 of the PairWise Rankings. That will easily bring the Lion’s strength of schedule down from the 30 and 22 spots that it currently holds in the KRACH and RPI, respectively. One thing that voters may be overlooking is the fact that the Lions have already played 6 games versus top 16 PairWise teams, four of the games coming on the road.
Another factor that should make the Lions a better team heading into the home stretch is the arrival of Brett Murray, who joined the team for the spring semester. Murray is a 2016 Buffalo Sabres draft pick. The hulking, 6’5” 222 pound forward turned 18 this summer, making him the second-youngest player to ever join the PSU team. It may take a couple of weeks for the youngster to get his skates underneath him at this level, but when he does, watch out. The Lion’s top scoring team in the nation could get even better.
So thank you opinion poll voters, for reminding PSU hockey that you are never as bad as you think you are when you lose, and not as good as you think when you win. There’s a lot of work to do, a lot of exciting hockey for fans to enjoy, before the PairWise Rankings come in to play in March.
If there is a perception of disappointment in my writing, there shouldn’t be. I’m not mad. Seriously. I’m not. Dead serious. For real. Those broken pencils scattered on the floor around my desk chair were there long before the opinion poll standings were released earlier today. I always snap pencils between my fingers, even when I’m not angry. Seriously. It’s soothing. There’s no feeling of being the USCHO.com’s jilted lover. No jilt at all. Honestly. No kidding. In fact, I needed more golf pencils, so this whole thing worked out perfectly.
In the words of former PSU football player and composer Mike Reid: