Penn State hockey is currently tied for the No. 12 PairWise slot heading into the final weekend of the season before the NCAA tournament. The Big Ten tournament and five other conference championships will be played this week. The 16-team field for the NCAA tournament will be revealed on ESPNU at noon on Sunday.
We should try to remember that prior to this year the Lions had never, at any point in the season, been ranked high enough in the PairWise to qualify for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. At this moment the team is teetering on the edge of the projected field. While it is natural for fans to have a feeling that the team has slid into a precarious position heading into the final weekend of the season, we should remember that this is the first time in program history that the team is so close to a post-season invitation.
Penn State was not supposed to be in this position so soon. With a team that gets 50% of its scoring from freshmen, and is led by a rookie goalie, there should be no surprise that its performance has lacked consistency. That is a typical trait for young teams. Another is having to learn how to close opponents out late in the game. The Lions had a half-dozen chances to win just one additional time along the way this season, losing a lead to Minnesota with 3.5 seconds on the clock is just one example. The sloppy final period versus Princeton is another instance which the team had all but won and then let its foot off the accelerator.
And yet for those looking to change just one loss into a win, giving the Lions a spot in the tournament already, we could just as easily remind ourselves that there were many great wins that brought the team to this point as well. In the midst of a five-game skid once reaching No. 1 in the PairWise and voter polls, the Lions went to Madison to take on one of the hottest teams in the nation at the time. Penn State left Wisconsin with a series sweep. The turnaround showed the grit and determination seen as a reflection of their coaching staff, led by head coach Guy Gadowsky. A week later they dropped the spirit-crushing game to Minnesota in overtime, on Saturday night of THON weekend and on national television. Many fans were inconsolable following the game, we can just imagine what the young players on the team were going through.
The next week PSU rebounded with a sweep on the road versus Michigan State. Those were wins that the team had to have in order to remain in the hunt for an NCAA bid, and the squad took care of business. The mental fortitude once again was evident to those watching the Lions.
A split with Wisconsin the following week left the Lions needing just one win in the final three games to give it a solid shot at an NCAA tournament at-large invitation. PSU lost twice to Michigan over the weekend, leaving just one more chance to get a win, this Thursday in the Big Ten tournament.
What PSU Needs For An NCAA Invitation
There are still too many variables yet to unfold that will determine what the Lions need to do in order to make the NCAA tournament. It is possible, yet not very likely, that the team could lose on Thursday and still get to the NCAA’s. That is a very, very slim chance and would require a great deal of losing in the standings from the teams directly behind the Lions. Don’t hold your breath on that one. If PSU loses on Thursday it will linger in agonizing, helpless limbo, a hockey version of purgatory, until late Saturday night.
That’s actually the best-case scenario for the team if it loses on Thursday night. The other is to be eliminated by the results of the games on Friday. So why not just go ahead and win the game, right?
It is more likely that PSU will need to win the first game of the Big Ten tournament, versus Michigan on Thursday night at 8 p.m. on the Big Ten Network, to maintain a spot in the field. Two wins, which would include one versus Minnesota on Friday, would certainly be enough for an at-large bid. A third B1G Conference tournament win would garner the automatic bid that comes with winning the conference tournament.
There are five other conference tournaments happening this weekend. The only way PSU will have certainty that it will be invited to the NCAA tournament prior to Saturday morning is to win two games. On Friday night, the semifinal games in other conferences will begin to unfold. At this moment there are several teams alive in the conference tournament brackets that are outside of the top-16 in the PairWise rankings. Until those teams are eliminated, there is the chance that the automatic bids will go to teams ranked lower than PSU.
That is what makes the game on Thursday so important. There are teams around the country that need to win their way into the field. All but a couple teams, PSU being one, need to run the table for their conference automatic bid. The Lions need to win, but thankfully they do not need three or more consecutive wins like some other teams. One will likely be enough, two will for sure get the team its first NCAA appearance.
Bought And Paid For
Heading into the season it was uncertain how the program would regroup after losing two very capable goalies and a host of senior leaders. The new players that the team was bringing in had a reputation that preceded them, but few people thought that they would provide such a spark in the first year.
Following a 12-1-1 start to the season, expectations grew to levels never seen before surrounding the program. It was early yet, some said, but the potential was there. The voters held out for a couple of months before they relented and gave the Lions the No. 1 spot in mid-January. The PairWise, KRACH, RPI, and eyeball test all indicated that Penn State was being drastically under-rated by the human opinion polls during November and December. Unfortunately the voters don’t often benefit from the knowledge gained by the eyeball test, as few watch the games and vote with only reputation and box scores to guide them.
On January 16 the USCHO.com poll gave the Lions 30 first-place votes out of a possible 50. The Lions were in the top-5 in the PairWise for ten weeks leading up to the No. 1 nod by the voters. Up until that point we were told that it was too early, the stats were incomplete; Penn State was a statistical apparition that would come and go without notice once the season unfolded.
Two months later the team has weathered a tumultuous second-half, one that sent waves of adversity over the bow of the ship guided by Gadowsky, a vessel making its maiden voyage in the sea of college hockey supremacy, manned by a crew of greenhorns; they manage the expectations of the fans, the emotions in their young hearts, and the adversity of learning on the fly as they compete with teams that have done all of this with regularity, who are led by grizzled veterans with peg legs, eye-patches, and scars obtained in recent battles.
And yet the PairWise rankings have no heart or soul, no feelings; they are an emotionless, harsh mistress. The selection committee will use a formula that is well-known, awarding the at-large bids that are available once the conference tournament automatic bids are decided on Saturday night. Fate or science, whichever you are inclined to lean upon, will determine the number of at-large bids available to the teams that are ranked numbers 11-16.
Remembering the highs and lows that have been experienced while following the team this season, it is nice to remind ourselves that we do this for entertainment. We are in the final act of what has been a very satisfying performance of college hockey. It appeared that the hero was simply going to ride into the sunset ahead of everyone else when Penn State was atop the rankings. Then came the fall, the return to the struggle that they have always known; uphill and with only the support of local media and fans.
And now we will be able to see, on the Big Ten Network at 8 p.m. on Thursday night, what plays out next. Will it be the end of the season for the team, one that will linger for a couple of days before it becomes official? Or will it be a new chapter, possibly just the midway point of the story that is the 2016-17 Penn State hockey season?