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Penn State Faces Pivotal Matchup in Opening Round of Big Ten Tournament

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The Nittany Lions head to Detroit in control of their own destiny.

Photo By Heather Weikel

The PSU hockey season may come down to one game in Detroit versus Michigan. It will be broadcast nationally on the Big Ten Network at 8 p.m on Thursday, and will be the only action in college hockey on Thursday night at that time. Hockey eyes will be on the Big Ten, and the Nittany Lions, as teams around the country will have their status impacted by the outcome of the game.

On a weekly basis, the confidence in Penn State’s NCAA Tournament chances seems to alter dramatically. After a road sweep against Wisconsin early in February, it seemed certain that the Nittany Lions would make it to the 16-team tournament—until Minnesota came to Happy Valley and swept the Lions, causing many to doubt the team’s place among those top 16.

That sense went back to the other extreme following a 6-0 win over the Badgers in the final home game of the season, only to shift right back to the more cautious side after the Lions were swept by Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Now, the Lions won’t have a two-game series to secure a spot in the National Tournament. Instead, they must take it day-by-day with the hopes of extending their season beyond this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament, which commences for the Lions with a rematch against the Wolverines Thursday night.

The most direct, but least likely, route to the National Tournament would be to win three games and bring home the program’s first Big Ten Title. Each of the first three Big Ten Champions has received a first-round bye, a luxury the Lions don’t have this year.

Undoubtedly, Thursday’s game carries the most importance in lengthening the Lions’ season past the Big Ten Tournament. Jim Dahl offers each team’s NCAA Tournament chances based on its performance in its respective conference tournaments.

A win for the Lions against the Wolverines should be enough to give Guy Gadowsky’s squad its first at-large bid into the National Tournament. A loss, however, drops the Lions to just a 26 percent chance of making it to the big dance.

The Wolverines have all the momentum ahead of Thursday’s matchup, coming off a sweep of the Lions in the final regular season series for the two teams. Michigan’s wins not only kept the Lions from moving ahead of the Badgers for second place in the conference and one of those coveted first-round byes but also allowed Ohio State to move past the Lions for third place and an easier first-round opponent in Michigan State.

The Wolverines’ sweep is hardly representative of their season as a whole, however. In the first game of the series, they used some fortunate bounces to come back from a one-goal deficit in the third period.

The second game featured the essentials to go in Michigan’s favor: Senior Night, possibly the last home game for legendary coach Red Berenson, and a spectacular goaltending performance by senior Zach Nagelvoort. The Wolverines also were fortunate that night as two Lions’ goals were disallowed.

A one-off contest may favor the Lions, who swept the Wolverines in the first head-to-head way back in early December and who will have more to play for now than last weekend. The Lions can also exact a measure of revenge on the Wolverines, who were the blue and white’s Achilles’ heel last season, knocking them out of the Big Ten Tournament and winning all five contests by a combined score of 33-11.