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Penn State Hockey Post-Season Scenarios Becoming Clearer: Notre Dame Week

Friday night will be a white-out inside the Pegula Ice Arena as the No. 1 Fighting Irish come to town.

Photo by Heather Weikel

After riding an eleven-game unbeaten streak for a couple of months the Lions fell back down to earth with a recent 0-4-1 run. The good news is that Penn State still has ample chance to gain a favorable position for the Big Ten tournament, and to host a three-game series in Hockey Valley for the first round.

On the national level the losing streak hasn’t hurt Penn State as much as one might think. The team is currently in position to gain an NCAA at-large bid for the second straight year, and second time in program history.

With No. 1 Notre Dame coming to town this weekend there is a lot on the line for Guy Gadowsky’s squad. The Irish were undefeated in Big Ten play until a couple of weeks ago when Wisconsin handed them their first loss, then Minnesota added a second loss to their ledger last weekend. While Notre Dame remains in first place in the Big Ten standings as well as the Pairwise Rankings, they are showing signs of imperfection lately.

Anything other than being swept would provide a boost in the Pairwise rankings for Penn State. A result of a split or better for the Lions could spring the team into solid positioning in both national and conference standings.

There is a lot on the line this weekend and it’s nice that the series will unfold in the friendly confines of the Pegula Ice Arena, in front of arguably the best set of fans in all of college hockey. Weekends like this are why you build a stadium such as the Peg, a fan base like the one that fills its seats, and a student section like the Roar Zone.

It’s weekends like this that an all-white backdrop in the stands and deafening noise from above can affect the outcome of a game. No goals will be scored from the stands but from there encouragement will boost the legs of the Penn State team. Summiting a mountain such as this two-game series is for the Lions will be a result of their own hard work and diligence. But it never hurts to have 6000-plus Sherpas, clad in white, helping you out.

NCAA Tournament Positioning

The field for the NCAA tournament is selected using a process mimicked by the Pairwise Rankings. There are six conferences in college hockey and each is awarded an automatic bid for the winner of the conference tournament championship. Once the auto-bids are decided, the remaining slots for the NCAA tournament go to the highest remaining teams in the Pairwise Rankings.

Currently only one conference auto-bid is destined to go to a team outside of the top-16 in the Pairwise Rankings. This means that at least one team will be bumped from consideration, currently No. 16 Michigan sits in the last spot that would not make the tournament. The Lions sit at No. 15, and while that is far from a safe position, it is possible that the team could gain an invitation to the tournament in its current position.

The Atlantic Hockey Conference, led by Canisius, Holy Cross and Mercyhurst, will have an eventual winner that is outside the top-16, since its highest representative in the Pairwise, Mercyhurst, currently sits at 29. From there only the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) is in jeopardy of sending a team from outside the top-16 to the dance. Currently Minnesota State sits at No. 7, but the second and third teams are Bowling Green (17) and Northern Michigan (18).

The beauty of having six separate conference tournaments is that every team has a chance to win its way into the NCAA field. So it is too early to predict which conferences may or may not have a lower-ranked team as the automatic bid. For a team such as Penn State, on the bubble of an at-large bid, it would be better for the eventual conference champions to be already in the top-16. Until all of the teams are awarded the automatic bids, it is uncertain where the cut-off line will be. Typically the top-14 make the tournament, with number 13 being pretty safe and number twelve a virtual, while not statistical, lock.

Here’s a look at the current Pairwise Standings.

You may notice that the entire Big Ten hockey conference other than Michigan State is currently ranked in the top 19. That is an amazing advantage for all of the teams on the fringe of the tournament field that want to move up from the Big Ten. At No. 19, Wisconsin’s hopes of moving into an at-large bid position are not mathematically eliminated, but it would take a miraculous run. Michigan, Penn State, and Minnesota are all on the bubble, with Minnesota being on the clear happy-side of the line and PSU and Michigan hovering on the frowny side.

The good news is that the B1G conference is so strong that it gives each team a chance, with a winning streak, go move upward in the rankings. The lowest team in the rankings is No. 35 Michigan State, which the Lions have two remaining games to play. While wins versus MSU may not help Penn State much in the Pairwise Rankings, it will help in conference positioning.

Big Ten Positioning

Notre Dame has all but clinched the regular-season title and the bye in the first round of the Big Ten tournament that comes with it. If you notice the GP or games played column, the top-two teams in the conference have the advantage of having played two fewer games than teams 3-6. That means unless No. 2 Ohio State went on an immediate nosedive, which is unlikely, it just about has the second seed wrapped up and will host Michigan State in a best-of-three in Columbus on the opening week of the Big Ten tournament.

Seeds three and four are up for grabs with just two points separating four teams. The significance of the third and fourth seed is that they will host best-of-three series on their home ice during the first week of the B1G tournament. Teams 5-7 will travel on the opening week.

Here’s a look at the Big Ten standings.

The Lions have gone 0-4-1 over the past five games. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the team has remained within striking distance in the Pairwise rankings and also the Big Ten standings. If the Lions can put together a solid finish to the season, it could still host a Big Ten tournament opening-round series and also clinch an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

While playing Michigan State twice on the road is not beneficial for the Pairwise Rankings, a pair of wins could be a huge boost in Big Ten standings. There are no gimme games at this level of college hockey, but PSU will be favored to win in East Lansing.

Penn State has the pair of home games with Notre Dame this weekend and then Minnesota to close out its regular-season conference schedule. Wins versus these teams will not only help the team move up in conference standings, but would also go a long way to solidifying Penn State’s Pairwise position.

Outlook

In the coming weeks the picture will become clearer to the point where different scenarios can be explored. The good news is that Penn State is one of a handful of teams that can still casually play itself into an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament. For now the only thing that can be said definitively is that if the Lions went nearly-perfect or without a win the rest of the way in its final six Big Ten games, the outlook would be clear.

Should the Lions go 2-4 or worse the team will have to play on the road in the opening week of the Big Ten tournament and will probably have to win a few games or the entire tournament to get an NCAA bid. With a finish of 4-2 Penn State will likely host a Big Ten tournament series and secure an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

It is crunch time, the series this weekend with Notre Dame is extremely important. The four toughest games remaining during the regular-season will be played in Hockey Valley, in front of a full stadium of supportive students and fans.