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Penn State Hockey Post-Season Positioning: Michigan State Week

Only two weeks remain before post-season play begins.

Photo by Heather Weikel

No. 17 Penn State (13-12-5) is coming off a bye week. It now has four regular-season games remaining, two this weekend versus Michigan State and two at home next weekend facing off with No. 9 Minnesota. While the team is not where it wants to be in the national and conference rankings, there is still time for it to get there. And fans will be able to watch closely, as the next four games will be televised on the Big Ten Network.

Notre Dame clinched first place for the opening round of the Big Ten tournament, gaining a bye. Ohio State is only a point or two away from clinching second place and having home-ice through to the championship game. There are currently four teams vying for the much-desired 3 and 4 positions, which will host three game series at their home ice in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament.

Penn State, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all will be fighting to play at home in the Big Ten tournament but also the teams will likely face one-another in that opening round. Which teams will play and where is still so up in the air that it is not worth speculating. Next weekend the scenarios will be much more clear.

Here is a look at the current Big Ten standings.

With Notre Dame sitting home for the opening week and Ohio State and Michigan State near certain to face-off, the rest is anyone’s guess. Notice that while Penn State trails Wisconsin and Michigan, those teams have played two extra games.

That what makes this weekend so important for the team. While it does not stand to gain much in the Pairwise Rankings with a sweep or series win, the points would help the team in-conference. While the conference standings may not be set until the final game is played, the NCAA tournament positioning will almost certainly come down to the post-season play of teams on the bubble. That’s why playing at home is so important for the Lions. The team would much rather play at home than in Minnesota or Michigan and would be more likely to win.

The national standings aren’t that much more solidified at this point. Here’s a look at the Pairwise Rankings.

If Penn State finishes the season better than Michigan does, it may gain both a home-ice series in the Big Ten tournament and also an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Wolverines play Notre Dame this weekend, which is a great chance for the team to move up with wins. However, if the team does not win this weekend, it has only Arizona State on its schedule after that. ASU currently stands at No. 56 in the Pairwise, so winning those games won’t help much. It could potentially be the break that Penn State needs to get into the position that it wants; home for the Big Ten tournament and in Allentown for the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Quotes From Coach Gadowsky

Approach To The Bye Week

“We try to improve every week, identify what we have to work on.”

“They worked really hard during the week, specifically on Friday. Friday was a really tough day for them, both in the weight room and on the ice. The rest was both well-earned and needed.”

Down The Stretch They Come

(How the team reacted to the Notre Dame series)

“We talked about the specific comparison [to Minnesota last year]. I do remember Minnesota well, but I think we learned a good lesson. I don’t think this was a specific X’s and O’s lesson, but at least confidence that if we play that way that we’re going to be able to play with any team in the country. That’s hockey.”

(On looking ahead to the prospects of playing in the NCAA tournament)

“We don’t. It’s in the background. You can’t ignore it because you have to acknowledge that it’s there. But we don’t talk about it, we talk about Friday night. If you remember last year, it was a very similar situation. In fact, we went into the playoffs last year not in the [NCAA] Tournament. I’m not saying that’s going to be the case. It’s a matter of approaching the next game and that’s it.”

Fast-Tracking Prominence

(On the quick rise to being respected nationally)

“We take it as a compliment that our supporters expect [us] to beat the No. 1 team in the nation. I think that’s fantastic. That’s why you come to Penn State. You don’t come to Penn State because you want to be the underdog your whole life. You come here because you want to be able to be a top quality team and play top quality teams. We welcome that attitude. That’s what we want. It happened a lot sooner that we probably would’ve thought, but that’s why everybody came here. I’m fine with it.”

“I kind of feel like that now. I think after winning the Big Ten [Tournament] no one takes us lightly, by any means. No one looks at the calendar and says, ‘Penn State’s coming. That’s going to be an easy weekend.’ No one in the country is thinking that.”

Injury Updates

Penn State’s defense corps has almost been decimated by injuries this season. Two of the Nittany Lions top four defensemen — Kevin Kerr and Erik Autio — have missed significant time due to a variety of ailments.

While Kerr has appeared in each of the past six games and appears healthy enough to finish out the season in the lineup, Autio’s status has shifted on a daily basis. The senior rearguard has missed two of the past five games, and his availability for this weekend’s series against Michigan State remains questionable.

Gadowsky explained that Autio skated in a non-contact jersey Monday afternoon, placing him on a day-to-day status. Autio has posted nine points in 22 games this season, but has just one assist in his last nine games.

Scoring Slump on the Blue Line

Over the first two-thirds of the season, Penn State’s defense corps was nearly unstoppable on the offensive side of the puck. The blueliners accounted for 15 goals and 70 combined points over the first 23 games of the season, serving as a catalyst for the highest scoring offense in the nation.

Over the past seven games, however, that same defense corps has been rendered almost powerless. The Lions have mustered just one goal and seven points in that span, which has resulted in an uncharacteristically anemic goal output and zero wins to the Lions credit.