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For the past few weeks, it seems every game has been a must-win game for Penn State, while anything less than a series split would have been a disappointment and possibly could have doomed the Nittany Lions’ hopes of making the NCAA Tournament.
A 6-0 win in the last home game of the season has relieved much of the outside pressure on the Lions. Now, the Lions are a virtual lock to make their first appearance at the national tournament. It’s just a matter of where the Lions will be seeded in the big dance.
The Lions final regular season series against Michigan may do little to affect where they will be seeded come late March. It can, however, impact the landscape of the Big Ten Tournament next weekend.
While the Lions can’t pass Minnesota for the top spot in the conference, a sweep over the Wolverines — and some help from Ohio State, which faces Wisconsin in Madison this weekend — can vault Guy Gadowsky’s squad over the Badgers for the second spot.
That jump could make a substantial difference in the Lions’ pursuit of their first Big Ten Title and an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. Earning one of the top two seeds in the conference provides those teams with a first-round bye.
Each of the first three tournament champions — Wisconsin in 2014, Minnesota in 2015 and Michigan last season — has received that first-round bye.
The Wolverines present an unusual challenge to the Lions. While weekend series against other Big Ten opponents were separated by two or three weeks, the Lions and Wolverines haven’t faced each other since early December 2016. Gadowsky expects a different Wolverines squad to show up than the one the Lions swept by scores of 6-1 and 5-1.
“I don’t really think there’s a lot that we can take from that series,” he said. “But I think we’re different too. So there’s no advantage to either team.”
The first time the two teams faced off, the Lions were concluding an exceptional start to their season. The two wins over the Wolverines gave the Lions 13 in their first 15 games. Since then, the Lions have been a .500 team, going 8-8-1.
The Wolverines were a game over .500 coming into that first series, but have won just five of 20 games since then. A chance to spoil the Lions’ hopes of a first-round bye — and a special weekend for a legendary head coach — may give the Wolverines a spark they were clearly lacking the first time these two teams squared off.
While this weekend may become just another series for the Lions, it could be the last regular season series Red Berenson coaches for the Wolverines. Berenson has stood behind the bench for 32 seasons for the Wolverines, leading the team to 11 Frozen Four appearances and National Titles in 1996 and 1998.
Gadowsky is well aware of the impact the legendary coach has created with the maize and blue. While he always seems eager to discuss Berenson’s legacy, his answer may have grown repetitive over the years.
“I’ve been asked about it for four years in a row,” Gadowsky joked. “It truly is an honor to be across the benches from him.”