No. 11 Penn State (16-6-2) is currently in a very awkward position. After gaining the top spot nationally in both the PairWise Rankings and the voter polls, the team has failed to win for five consecutive games. The result is a team that is in the midst of the toughest stretch of conference games, trying to regain the success it had earlier in the season.
On the horizon is a very important series on the road versus No. 15 Wisconsin. It’s hard to emphasize just how huge the pair of games is this weekend. The only tools I have at my disposal are repetition and font, so let me say this one more time. The games this weekend are as pivotal of a series as the team has faced since joining Division 1 hockey. Tell you what, let me take that line and pull quote it to the margin over here just to the right so that it stands out a little bit. I’m serious. The games this weekend are important.
In the bigger scheme of things there is nothing that can be clinched or lost at the end of the weekend; there will be more important games and series as the season continues. The Lions need to win a game, and if they do, it could be the signaling of a correction in the Penn State locker room. The winless streak has been tough on everyone affiliated with the team, no one more so than the captains and leaders.
Coach Guy Gadowsky was asked whether the recent streak has tested the leadership on the team and how he feels it has responded.
Absolutely. I don’t know yet. I absolutely think it tests the leadership on the team. It’s easy to lead when things are going well. And maybe not easy to lead when you went through things like we did. We had a lot of attention on us, both positive and negative. When you achieve things that people aren’t sure you should, you get a lot more attention both positive and negative. That’s just the way the world works now. So I don’t think I can answer that question yet because we haven’t come out of it yet.
This is what Gadowsky had to say when asked about the future of the season, and whether the team is cognizant of its position in terms of the conference and NCAA post-season.
To us the message is that we have to continue to do what we need to do to get better. I don’t think we are going to concentrate on where we’re at and what it means. We are going to concentrate on fixing our mistakes.
That’s a good idea, coach. The team and coaches can continue to work on the areas of concern. We in the media, who have nothing but time on our hands between games, can run through the different scenarios that may unfold in the next six weeks.
Here are four paths that the Penn State hockey team may take between now and the conclusion of the Big Ten tournament at the end of March. Some are more likely than others, some are more pleasant. Let’s start with the least likely.
The Team Will Not Win Another Game
It’s preposterous to project any team to lose 11 games in a row, much less one that was rated in the top 5 of the PairWise Rankings for three months. That’s what it would take for Penn State to finish with a losing record. Were that to happen the season would have begun with such promise and then ended in a form of disappointing horror, much like this version of Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ when for some reason Petty thought it would be a good idea to ask Axl Rose to help out with the vocals. My head hurts thinking about the possibility of the Lions failing to win another game. It’s just not going to happen.
If Penn State wins or ties one more game it will avoid a losing season. Just one game. Considering the team is 0-4-1 in the past five games, it would be a case where the Lions would go from being the No. 1 team in the PairWise and voter polls, then fail to win another game in the final 16 games.
It would be amazing, but not in a good way, if Penn State didn’t win another game this year. The reason for pointing out such a non-lofty goal such as winning just one more game for the remainder of the season is to point out that with even just that, the lowest amount of success possible, Guy Gadowsky’s team will finish above .500 for the third consecutive season. Even with the amazing, statistically improbable 1-14-1 finish, the team would still have a winning record.
It would be incredibly painful to watch the team go on an unprecedented losing streak after reaching the top of the national standings. Something not very much better would be to see the team continue to play uninspired hockey for the remainder of the season. A more likely, and similarly unpleasant scenario could unfold that would have Lions fans watch a slow, painful end to the season. One where it continues to drop games it could have won and misses the NCAA tournament.
Death By A Thousand Cuts
The most likely scenario that would result with Penn State missing the NCAA tournament would be if the team was unable to finish the final ten regular season games with at least five additional wins. It’s hard to say how many wins it will take for an at-large bid, but it’s almost impossible to think that Penn State can afford to win fewer than it loses, fail to win the Big Ten tournament and automatic bid that comes with it, then still get an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament.
It’s not impossible at this point to imagine, if the team was unable to pull out of the current downward spiral that it is on, that it could win just 3 or 4 more games, tie a couple, and miss the NCAA tournament. While it is not pleasant to imagine such a case, losing to Wisconsin and Minnesota nearly a half-dozen times, it could happen. It’s not likely, but it could happen. Add to that a lackluster finish versus Michigan and Michigan State in the four total games it plays with those teams, and a sad, limp-to-the-finish 4-6 record or worse is what we would get.
It would be a bit pessimistic to envision this outcome, but not unrealistic. That is probably the most likely scenario for what the remainder of the season will entail should the Lions fail to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team or better. It will involve a tremendous amount of losing and sad nights for Penn State fans, a fabulously dreadful finish to the season.
I say that not to celebrate the potential downfall of this year’s team, or to scare the children, but to point out that there is still a risk, a realistic risk, that watching the rest of this Penn State hockey season could result in disappointing times for the fans. If any team in the current projected NCAA field loses more games than it wins for the remainder of the season, it risks missing the tournament. It’s the risk you take while watching a team that is on the cusp of greatness. There is reward for success, and heartbreak comes with failure. No such emotions are evoked while watching a mediocre or worse team play out its season. We should appreciate even the adversity that the team endures. If the Lions weren’t so darn talented, it would be easier to watch them falter. It would be expected. Now our expectations have been tilted to the positive side.
For many fans that have been following the team for a few years or more, it is a welcome chance that we will take. The team is way ahead of schedule in terms of being a contender on the national level. Should it falter, and miss the NCAA tournament, the team and fan base will come back strong in the fall. If the Lions find a way to make the tournament, an unprecedented amount of joy will come the way of those people who have followed the team’s rise. Let’s explore some happy outcomes that may unfold in the next few weeks.
One possibility that remains for the team is to get back on track, and return to its winning ways from not too long ago. It would be a heroic effort should the team run off a string of 8 or more wins to close out the regular season, and continue on to win the Big Ten tournament. Just a few weeks ago, this scenario may have seemed more likely. Now it may sound like a fairy tale.
Just about any way that the Lions could win the Big Ten regular-season title would also come with it a guaranteed spot as an at-large team in the NCAA tournament. If the Lions finish in a bye position by gaining one of the top two regular-season Big Ten spots and go on to win the Big Ten tournament, it is likely to produce the same outcome for Penn State in the NCAA tournament if the team were to finish first during the regular season and win the Big Ten tourney. Either way the team would be in contention for one of the four top seeds in the NCAA tournament.
There is very little chance that the Lions would find themselves playing as a #1 seed in the tournament and have to then travel to Fargo, North Dakota where the West regional is being held. It is more likely that PSU, having won the Big Ten tournament and having finished in the top-two during the regular season, would go to one of the three regional locations that are anywhere from 6 to 7 hours from State College; Providence, Cincinnati, or Manchester, New Hampshire.
There are no gimmes, for any team, in the NCAA tournament. However, the first two seeds may find themselves squaring off with teams that qualified by winning their conference championship, and who may not be in the top 20, or even 30, of the PairWise Rankings. Either way, that team would be on a winning streak, and it’s hockey, a sport that just about any team within the top 16 could win on any night. The puck bounces in funny ways sometimes. The top three or so seeds in the NCAA tournament will face a lower-ranked team, and that will be the only real advantage that any of the 16 NCAA qualifiers will receive.
So while it would be nice for Penn State to turn things around and get back to winning nearly every game, the final destination of this team could be the same, with a slightly different path, if the team isn’t able to win the Big Ten automatic bid but is able to garner an at-large invitation. Every team in the tournament will have a chance to win four consecutive games and a national championship.
Who Cares, We Made The NCAA Tournament
The quickest path, regardless how the regular-season unfolds, that Penn State could take to the NCAA tournament is to win the Big Ten tournament. There is no shorter path to an automatic bid in college hockey than to win the Big Ten tournament. The top two teams will have a bye in the first round, thus needing just two wins for the automatic bid. The remaining four teams will have to play three games to gain the auto bid. In that scenario it is premature to count any team out, much less one that has played as well as any in the country for the first half of the season as has Penn State.
The Lions will head to Detroit, regardless of how it finishes the regular season, with a chance of leaving with the Big Ten tournament title. That won’t be known until the third week of March. There is a less-ambitious path that the team could take, one that it could wrap up an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament without winning the Big Ten tournament.
With six games remaining versus Wisconsin (4) and Minnesota (2), Penn State has a half-dozen chances to face teams that are currently included in the NCAA tournament projected field. If it can win more than it loses in those games, and win both series versus Michigan and Michigan State, the team should be in line for an automatic bid prior to the start of the Big Ten tournament.
If the Lions split or slightly worse with Wisconsin and Minnesota, do well versus the Michiganders, and win a game or two in the Big Ten tournament, there is still a very good chance to that team will make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team.
The best part of all the speculation is that by the final weekend of the season, the few scenarios that can unfold will be very concrete and known. There won’t be as much uncertainty, fewer variables, but still we will have to wait until all of the games are completed around the country to know which teams are in the final field of 16.
Enjoy The Journey
For those of us who have been following the team this season it has been incredibly rewarding, even with the recent struggles. Whether the team reaches the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history or not, there will be a lot of entertainment had by all from this point forward. It is extremely unlikely that the Lions will not remain in the hunt for an at-large bid, or at least with a puncher’s chance of winning the Big Ten tournament, for the next month and a half.
The next five games will be available free of charge via BTN2Go for Big Ten television subscribers. Following this weekend the next three games will be televised on the Big Ten Network. It’s never been easier to follow the hockey team, nor has there been so much potential reward.
There is no clear destination for this team at this point but it appears that the next ten games and the Big Ten tournament, whether it goes well for the Lions or not, will be as entertaining as any stretch of Penn State hockey in the five years of Division 1 competition. Buckle up your seat belt, or install one to your couch if you don’t already have one there, and enjoy the ride.