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Penn State Hockey Post-Season Scenarios: Are You Not Entertained?

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Following a heart-breaking, late loss to Minnesota and another series loss, where does this leave the Lions?

Photo by Heather Weikel

Watching the Penn State hockey team this season has been quite a ride. It is amazing that the fans and team may currently be feeling a little bit let-down following a two-game skid against the No. 4 Gophers. Considering the ups and downs of the game on Saturday night, and how it ended so painfully for the Lions and their fans, it is natural to have a feeling a gloom, even though it is not necessarily fitting. Here are a few upbeat thoughts for those of you who find yourselves still feeling a little Minnesota when thinking about the Penn State hockey team.

Penn State was out-shined by the Gophers once again this weekend. The Lions held the top spot in the country just a matter of weeks ago, and maybe it was a little ahead of schedule, but the team now understands what it is going to take to hold such a position. Minnesota is one of the best programs in the country, it is on its way to winning the Big Ten regular-season title for the fourth consecutive year. There is no shame in losing to a team of their caliber.

It may take a little time to let it soak in, but to borrow a line from Chris Cornell, the Penn State hockey team may be feeling Minnesota, but their NCAA post-season chances are looking California. We fans would be better off reminding ourselves that the team is in excellent position for the stretch run of the season. Never has the program been favored to make the NCAA tournament, as it still currently remains, this late in the season. There is a lot to be thankful for and there is a great deal left to enjoy.

Photo by Heather Weikel

NCAA Tournament Positioning

The team fell to No. 11 in the PairWise rankings following the two losses this weekend. At the end of the season, the six conference champions will gain an automatic invitation to the NCAA tournament. The remaining top teams in the PairWise rankings will fill in the open spots as at-large teams, rounding out the field of 16. Every team that is in the top-ten of the PairWise after all of the games are played nationally in the regular season and conference championships will gain an at-large invitation.

From there, there are no promises, but there are spots that are considered safer than others in the PairWise rankings outside of the top-ten, when hoping for an at-large invitation. All of the conference championships would have to be won by teams outside of the top-ten in order for there to only be 10 at-large invitations offered to the field. That is very improbable and has never happened since the NCAA went to this format. That means the No. 11 team, the current spot held by Penn State, is all but guaranteed an at-large invitation.

As you slide further down the PairWise rankings the probability of making the tournament without an automatic invitation becomes less and less. The No. 12 team has a very solid chance of gaining an at-large invitation, and if the favored teams hold on to win the conference championships, it will get a spot in the final field. When you get to No. 13, that is not a safe position. It is right on the normal cut-off line. Team No. 14 would need, as it stands right now, every conference championship to go to a team ranked ahead of them in order to gain an auto-bid. That is a long-shot, but not one that is impossible.

The winner of the WCHA conference will certainly be outside of the top-16 PairWise spot, which will effectively bump the No. 16 team out of an at-large bid. It is extremely unlikely that the Atlantic Hockey conference champion will be in the top-16 PairWise, although Air Force currently is tied for No. 15. It’s pretty certain to say that the No. 15 team in the PairWise will be bumped from an at-large bid by the winner of the Atlantic Hockey conference tournament.

That would leave 14 spots to go to the rest of the field, four of which will be automatic bids. If the four auto bids go to high-ranked teams, then the top-14 PairWise-ranked teams will receive at-large bids. The probability of this outcome is low but is higher than zero, probably more like 15%-25% if one had to guess. The No. 13 team has right around a 50% chance of making the field, the No. 12 team closer to 75% or higher. These percentages are estimates, even though the past results could be applied, the statistical data is so limited that even those exact numbers would not be reliable without some interpretation.

The long and short of the positioning for Penn State is that the team, with all the recent heart-break, is currently in a spot that all but guarantees it to gain the first NCAA tournament bid in program history. There are six games remaining on the regular-season schedule, and the team will be favored to win each of them. The Lions have to travel to Michigan (No. 42) and Michigan State (No. 50) for two games each and host Wisconsin (No. 20) for the two final games in Hockey Valley this season.

Should the Lions finish the regular season 6-0, it will give the team somewhere close to a 100% probability of making the NCAA tournament as an at-large team. 5-1 would be very safe, especially if two of the wins were versus Wisconsin. A 4-2 finish, with at least one win versus Wisconsin, would likely keep PSU in the field as an at-large team. Anything less than that will likely require a win or two in the Big Ten tournament for a chance at an at-large invitation.

Otherwise there is always a chance that the team could run off three wins in the Big Ten tournament and grab the automatic invitation. It’s easy to forget that the program has never had a team more capable of doing just that than this year’s squad.

Photo by Heather Weikel

Big Ten Positioning

Now that the Lions trail Minnesota by 11 points in the Big Ten standings, barring a complete collapse by Don Lucia’s team, only Wisconsin should be able to challenge Minnesota for first place from this point. That score could be settled this weekend. The teams play in Mariucci Arena on Friday and Saturday night at 8 p.m. Each game will be televised on Fox Sports North. The Gophers have lost one game at home in each of the first four Big Ten seasons of competition, and it has already lost its quota for the year, to Ohio State in the first week of December. If Wisconsin doesn’t avoid the sweep, the Big Ten regular-season title, and the top seed in the Big Ten tournament will be wrapped up by the end of this week.

For Penn State, a 6-0 finish would likely be enough to pass Ohio State and Wisconsin for the second position in Big Ten regular-season standings. That would give the Lions a coveted bye position in the Big Ten tournament first round. With the Badgers playing two with the Gophers and at the Peg for two more the following week, there is still a great deal that can happen.

Anything less than 6-0 would have to involve a certain amount of luck for the Lions to overtake Wisconsin. For instance, if PSU won 5 games and lost one, it would mean that if Wisconsin finished better than 2-4, PSU would be out of a bye position. If the Lions went 4-2, Wisconsin would have to go 1-5 or worse, or the Badgers would remain in second-place. Either way it is not likely the Lions can get to the final bye position with a finish worse than 5-1. Not only would it require Wisconsin to falter, Ohio State would have to finish slightly worse than PSU. If the Lions hope to gain the final bye position, they are going to have to go on a run.

That is why the Badger’s series with Minnesota this weekend is so meaningful for Penn State. If PSU can manage a sweep on the road at Michigan State while Wisconsin is swept in Minnesota, another monumental series at the Pegula Ice Arena will be set up for the following week. It will be the final time the fans will see Penn State perform in Hockey Valley this season. Seniors Dylan Richard, Zach Saar, David Goodwin, David Thompson, and Ricky DeRosa will skate off the ice in the Peg for the final time in twelve days.

Penn State went from 7th place in the PairWise to No. 11 the first time Minnesota swept the team. Following that Penn State swept Wisconsin, bringing its PairWise ranking back to No. 6. After another sweep at the hands of the Gophers, the Lions are back to No. 11. It stands to reason that four consecutive wins for PSU would put it in a solid position for an at-large NCAA bid, probably somewhere in the 6-8 PairWise range, as well as in pole-position for the second bye in the Big Ten tournament. Only two games with Michigan would stand in the way for Guy Gadowsky’s squad at that point.

Are You Not Entertained?

As nice as it would have been for the Lions to hold on to the second game of the Minnesota series, all is not lost. A clear path, one that allows for a couple of losses along the way, remains for Penn State to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team. The Lions could still win the Big Ten tournament as well. It is important to remember that the team is competing at the highest level that college hockey has to offer. While there has been turbulence at this altitude, it is exactly where we would want the program to be at this point.

Even the loss on Saturday, as bad as it hurt, was deeply entertaining. Penn State obtained and held a two-goal lead over one of the best teams in the country. Minnesota tied the game late in the final period, only to have Denis Smirnov get the go-ahead goal on a penalty shot less than a minute later. The atmosphere inside the Peg was off the charts. It was incredible.

We should all remember to enjoy this ride that the team has provided for the fans. There are more than a half-dozen very meaningful games on the horizon. It’s nice not being on the outside, looking in at the NCAA field, with no other hope than a run in the Big Ten tournament for an invitation. Eyes around the country are following Penn State hockey since the outcome of the game may impact their favorite team’s positioning.

And along the way we have all been thoroughly entertained. Part of me expected Peyton Jones, following the disappointing overtime goal on Saturday, to throw his goalie stick into the shocked-silent crowd, knocking over a red-hot fiery laptop in the press box, one which was spewing negativity and ire toward the team as it lay on the ice despondent, having given everything it had to give to one another, the fans, and the university. Sometimes everything you have comes up short. The Lions lost a tough game, a critical series, but there remains a great deal of opportunity in the coming weeks.

The Penn State football team has shown that it is a bunch of fighters in the past. This Penn State hockey team is a bunch of gladiators. There’s plenty of fight left in them. Let’s remind ourselves that we sought out this journey for the entertainment, and while at times the outcome is not what was hoped, seldom does this team fail to give us a spectacle to enjoy.