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Penn State Hockey: Right Where It Needs To Be At The Midway Point

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With the conference stretch-run is set to begin after the break the Lions are in a great spot.

Photo by Heather Weikel

Following an amazing run through the Big Ten tournament at the end of the season in 2017, Guy Gadowsky’s team made it to the NCAA field of 16 for the first time in program history. It’s easy to forget just how much of an up-and-down struggle the historic season was in real-time.

Through the first half of the 2016-17 season the Lion’s record was 16-2-1. After getting very little attention or credit in the national opinion polls, which mean nothing officially, Penn State reached the No. 1 spot in the USCHO.com poll in early January. The team had been at or near the top in the PairWise Rankings for a couple of months before the voters acknowledged their achievement.

Then the team hit a tough patch, going 2-6-1, including a heart-breaking overtime loss at home on Saturday night of THON. PSU led with seconds to play in regulation before giving up the tying goal to Minnesota. It was a very low point for the team that was able to finish 3-3 to close out the regular season, just enough to keep hopes of staying high enough in the PairWise Rankings to get an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament.

Following a win on opening night of the B1G tournament versus Michigan, Penn State remained on the bubble, on the outside looking in, for the NCAA tournament. It needed a win versus a very tough Minnesota team to grab the at-large bid. It did so and then went on to win the next game versus Wisconsin to clinch the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament that comes with winning the Big Ten.

The Lions were the first, and only, Big Ten team to win three games in the former post-season format. It’s easy to forget the long odds that the team faced to make the NCAA tournament at times last year. It seems as though it was such an easy breeze through the season, looking back. In reality, had the team lost to Minnesota on the second day of the Big Ten tournament, much of what we remember fondly of 2016-17 would not have happened.

Heading into this season there was a feeling that the team would return to the position it achieved a year ago with relative ease. Penn State (11-7-2) is in a slightly better spot than it finished last season but it has not been easy. With struggles in every phase of the game; goal-tending, defense, scoring and special teams, the Lions remain poised to make a run in the second half.

While it is nice to be recognized in the USCHO.com opinion poll, Penn State currently holds the No. 15 spot, only the PairWise Rankings and conference standings will impact the team’s post-season destiny. Here is how the team stacks up.

PairWise Ranking (11)

There are six automatic bids awarded to the NCAA tournament, one for each conference champion. After that, the highest remaining teams in the PairWise Rankings will fill out the field of 16. That means that if a team is in the top-ten after all of the games are played, it is guaranteed a spot in the field. Typically a few conference champions come from teams ranked in the top-ten, so it is normal for the top-12 or so teams in the final rankings to get an invitation.

There is a great deal of hockey to be played but at the moment Penn State is ranked No. 11, in a spot that traditionally gains entrance to the NCAA tournament. It is too early to begin prognosticating or projecting any teams’ finish, but for the Lions, a team that has faced a great deal of adversity this season, it is nice to see that it is on course to make the post-season.

One amazing advantage that Penn State, and the entire Big Ten, have is that all seven teams are currently ranked in the top-27 of the PairWise Rankings. The overall strength of the conference will benefit teams on the bubble at the end of the year. In recent seasons the Lions had trouble putting together a strong schedule and with the B1G facing a few down years, there was no help in-conference. Now the Big Ten is one of the strongest conferences, top to bottom, in the PairWise Rankings.

Penn State is currently ranked ahead of every Hockey East squad in the PairWise Rankings while holding the fourth-highest ranking in the Big Ten. It will be important to remember as the season plays out that maintaining a fourth or better standing in the Big Ten could be a meaningful cut-off point. Not only does it have implications for the NCAA tournament, it also has its advantages during B1G post-season play.

B1G Standings (3rd)

Notre Dame is currently running away with the B1G regular-season title. With a perfect 10-0 start, it would be near impossible for any team to catch the Fighting Irish unless it were to struggle mightily while another team made an improbable run. So until signs of that begin to show themselves it would be safe to assume that Notre Dame will finish in first place, garnering a bye in the first round of the Big Ten post-season.

The B1G post-season format thankfully has changed this year. The first seed will have opening weekend off. The 2-4 seeded teams will host a best-of-three series and the winners will move forward to the semi-finals. The top seed and three winning teams from the first round will play at the two highest-seeded teams’ campus sites. The championship will be held at the home ice of the highest-seeded winner in the semi-finals. Opening weekend will feature a best-of-three format, but the semi-finals and final will be single-elimination.

This changes the calculus of which finishing positions will gain certain advantages. Clearly finishing first and gaining the bye allows a team to move past the first round without the chance of losing, while being allowed to rest. That privilege will go to Notre Dame until further notice.

Spots 2-4 are very desirable as well, and Penn State is currently right in the middle of the battle for a spot to host a post-season series in the first weekend of the tournament. While there is plenty of hockey to be played, it appears that unless one of the two Michigan teams plays better in the second-half, four teams are vying for three home-ice spots in the tournament. It’s too early to predict one way or the other what will unfold but the Lions are sitting pretty, if not in the catbird seat like the Irish.

PSU has already played on the road versus Ohio State, Minnesota, and Notre Dame. That’s six of ten conference games in hostile environments against teams currently ranked higher in the PairWise Rankings. While the second half is no breeze, on paper it is not nearly as difficult.

From the perspective of a fan, the season is just getting started. Not only are the 14 games remaining in the regular-season schedule in-conference, with 8 of 14 coming at the Pegula Ice Arena, but almost every game will be televised. At this point 11 of the final 14 games are set to be on TV, with an additional game likely to be added (Notre Dame Feb. 3.) At least one game from each series will be on the Big Ten Network moving forward.

So the team is in a great position, has a favorable second-half schedule, and the fans will be able to watch almost every game on television. The Skate of the Union for Penn State hockey is strong, my friends, and we will be able to witness the season unfolding without having to search for a video stream or radio broadcast.