|Friday/Saturday 7 p.m.||Munn Ice Arena, East Lansing, MI||Friday-Big Ten Network||Sat-BTN Plus|
Prior the turn of the calendar year, it seemed like a sure bet that Penn State had locked in an at-large spot in the NCAA Tournament. Some predictions even placed the Nittany Lions as a No. 1 seed in the 16-team field in January.
A favorable non-conference schedule and just three out of 15 games away from Pegula Ice Arena allowed the Lions to rack up the wins. Through 15 games, the Lions won 13, losing only to then-No. 16 St. Lawrence and tying then-No. 3 Notre Dame in South Bend.
Since then, it’s been a different story for the Lions.
After winning just five of 13 games in 2017, the Lions’ chances of receiving a spot in the National Tournament, regardless of how they perform in the Big Ten Tournament, have dwindled. The Lions are currently projected to be in the NCAA tournament field, but the margin of error is next to nothing for Guy Gadowsky’s squad.
Penn State is tied for No. 10 in the PairWise, so perhaps the easiest way to secure a spot come late March will be to win at least five of their remaining six regular-season games, which will be easier said than done.
That challenge begins Friday night as the Lions travel to East Lansing, Michigan, for a series with Michigan State. Potentially the easiest of the three remaining opponents — the Spartans have just six wins this season — the match-up may not provide an opportunity for the Lions to move up in the PairWise rankings.
The series can still benefit the Lions if they can re-establish the habits that resulted in the first 13 wins earlier this season. With the consistent scoring punch the Lions have had this year, the key area to shore up is on the defensive side of the puck.
The focus on offense, especially from the team’s defensemen, has allowed opponents to expose the Lions for odd-man rushes and a relatively frequent breakaway, placing a heavier load on the shoulders of freshman goalie Peyton Jones. That extra burden seems to be getting to the netminder, who has allowed three or more goals in nine of his 12 starts in 2017.
The task of improving the defensive side of play took a major hit on Monday when coach Guy Gadowsky announced that one of the team’s steadiest defensemen, sophomore Kevin Kerr, would be out for the remainder of the season with a lower-body injury.
Kerr formed the second defensive pairing with Trevor Hamilton for most of the season. The duo has combined for 38 points this season, and seemed to form the perfect complementary pair. Kerr, the more stable of the two, could settle the play by carrying the puck out of the defensive zone or with a quick outlet pass, while Hamilton provided an offensive punch and also a penchant for throwing a big hit nearly every game.
Hamilton will now have to form new chemistry with stay-at-home defenseman Kris Myllari. The freshman defenseman has become a shot-blocking machine who has developed a knack for scoring clutch goals. The new-formed pair, along with the top pairing of Erik Autio and Vince Pedrie, will likely see a boost in playing time as Gadowsky’s most trustworthy defenders.
While this series is the least important left in terms of moving up the PairWise rankings and solidifying Penn State’s standing as an at-large team, there is a great deal on the line should MSU find a way to steal a game or the series. Let’s see if PSU can win and also hold the Spartans’ offense in check.