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Can’t Lose For Tying: Penn State Hockey Post-Season Positioning

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Avoiding a loss is as important as winning for the Lions coming down the home stretch.

Photo by Heather Weikel

Penn State played well enough to win its last four games but came away 0-2-2 instead. The Lions’ late-season slide now stands at 0-5-2 heading into the bye week. The puck drops in East Lansing for the start of the team’s next series nearly two weeks from now and it will have been 35 days since the the last win for Guy Gadowsky’s squad.

There are many reasons why the team has had trouble during this stretch. There is also reason to believe that it can pull out of this funk cleanly and still have a positive run in the post-season.

When looking at the current Pairwise Rankings it is encouraging to see the Lions hanging in there at No. 16 even with the recent adversity. The saying can’t win for losing would describe the beginning of the seven-game winless streak; many bad things led to losses and it’s hard to win if bad things are happening.

Recently the team tied Wisconsin in the second game of the series in Madison after leading by two goals on three separate occasions. That was a tough non-win to take for Guy Gadowsky’s team but at least it was able to salvage a tie out of the chaos.

On Saturday this past weekend the Lions trailed by two goals very early to a Notre Dame team that can take that type of an advantage all the way to the win column. The two goals let in by Peyton Jones were pretty soft and it appeared that he was just one more goal of any type from being removed for backup Chris Funkey.

Instead Jones and his team answered, playing well enough to tie the top team in the country, avoiding what would have been a tough loss to let linger for the 13 days between games during the bye week. The status of the team during the past three games, at 0-1-2 could be upgraded to can’t lose for tying. The team has avoided a loss recently and that has kept it in the hunt for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Hopefully the next time we take a look at the playoff picture the team’s status will be upgraded to can’t lose for winning. Then we can reserve the folksy sayings for articles such as Bless Your Heart, Big Ten Referees.

NCAA Tournament Positioning

The entire Big Ten conference other than Michigan State is ranked within range of an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament. The Spartans had a nice split this weekend with Ohio State, which stabilized their Pairwise number at 34.

Last season the top-15 teams ranked in the Pairwise made the NCAA tournament with only one conference automatic bid going to a team outside of the top-16. Typically the top 14 make the tournament, but that will not be known until after all of the conference tournaments have finished over a month from now.

There are a lot of scenarios that can unfold in the coming weeks so it is still too early to speculate. Rest assured, while the Lions are not currently in a spot that would garner an at-large bid to the tournament, there is plenty of time to make up ground.

One way to make up ground on the field would be to stop losing. Tying the final four games may be enough for the team to get into position for the NCAA tournament heading into the Big Ten tournament opening week. A finish of 3-1 or even 3-0-1 would almost certainly put Penn State in a position where it would gain an at-large bid. Two losses or more could mean that the team would need to win some games in the Big Ten tournament.

Conference Positioning

Notre Dame needs to win two games out of the final six to clinch the regular-season title. Michigan State has all but clinched the No. 7 seed and it’s looking as though the Spartans will face Ohio State on the road in the first week of the Big Ten tournament.

From there everything is up in the air. Ohio State has the inside track at the second seed but it’s not yet set in stone. Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Penn State will be stuck in a logjam in the middle of the standings the rest of the way.

B1G Outlook

Teams 3-6 in the Big Ten Standings will remain huddled together for the final three weeks and it is unlikely that a clear separation will occur. Which teams will grab the 3 and 4 seeds and the home-ice advantage that comes with it in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament may not be revealed until the final day of the regular-season.

The Lions host Minnesota for two games, a tough opponent, but should be favored to at least split the series. Should the team sweep Michigan State it could have it’s destiny in its own hands while facing the Gophers in Hockey Valley on what could be the final series at home this season. If things go well, there could be some Big Ten Tournament action at the Pegula Ice Arena the following week.

Keeping Up With The Joneses

Trouble ahead, trouble behind, and you know that notion just crossed my mind.-JG

While it is known that there is the possibility that a team behind where Penn State is ranked could leapfrog into the NCAA tournament by winning the conference championship, there could be help coming from in front of the Lions.

There are currently three teams that could remain ahead of the Lions in the Pairwise Rankings but be ineligible for the tournament due to having less than a .500 record. A team must have a record of .500 or higher to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

No. 10 Omaha (14-13-1), No. 11 Minnesota-Duluth (14-13-3) and No. 13 Western Michigan (14-13-1) all have records on the edge of this margin. There are scenarios that could unfold in which a team ahead of Penn State could finish under .500 and the Lions could get the nod, if they stay where they are now in the rankings or move up slightly.

As for the Pairwise Ranking there is no reason to be anxious at this point. Think about it this way: no team ranked outside of the top-8 can coast its way into the tournament. Nor would anyone want to backpedal into the post-season anyway.

The Lions and the several teams directly ahead of them will have to win in order to remain in or get into an at-large position. What has happened in the past isn’t as important as what is soon to unfold.

After the bye the final four Penn State regular-season games, two at Michigan State, two at home, will be televised on the Big Ten Network.