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What To Watch During The Penn State Hockey Bye Week: Positioning in the Rankings

Guy Gadowsky’s team can sit back and watch as teams battle it out over the weekend.

Photo by Heather Weikel

The Penn State hockey team has the weekend off and it will use it to prepare for the stretch run of the season. While the season has had its ups and downs, the team is currently in position to gain an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament for only the second time in program history.

When the Lions take to the ice a week from today they will face Michigan State. Both games of the series will be televised on the Big Ten Network. The following week the final series of the regular season will be played at the Pegula Ice Arena versus No. 9 Minnesota; both games will be televised on the Big Ten Network.

There is a great deal on the line for Penn State in the following weeks. The team could win its way into position to host an opening round best-of-three series at home. It could gain a bid to the NCAA tournament, which would mean it would play the first round in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

The stakes are high. Guy Gadowsky’s team could secure five or more additional games in the post-season for the home crowd to attend. The 6,000-plus fans that routinely pack the home stadium would gladly make the trip to Allentown.

Big Ten Conference Play

Notre Dame and Ohio State will play a pair over the weekend. On Friday the teams square off at 7:30 p.m. and will be televised on NBCSN. The series will be played in South Bend.

Wisconsin and Minnesota will play in a match-up of teams in the middle of the rankings. The series will be at the Kohl Center in Madison. There’s still too much hockey to be played to figure how one outcome or the other would change Penn State’s outlook. The teams will square off at 9 p.m. on Friday in a game that will be televised on the Big Ten Network.

Michigan State and Michigan will play in East Lansing. Since the Wolverines are in the mix with the Lions to move up in the Big Ten standings, and the Lions will play the currently 34th-ranked Spartans next weekend, it would be nice for Michigan State to win a game or more this weekend.

Here are the Big Ten standings heading into the weekend.

As you can see, the series between Notre Dame and Ohio State could be revealing. The Buckeyes have six games remaining, a possible 18 points, but anything less than a sweep this weekend will clinch first place for the Fighting Irish. Should Ohio State sweep it would still need a minor miracle to reach first place.

Michigan State still has life left in them but they are close to clinching seventh place. That would give the Spartans a date on the road versus Ohio State in the first weekend of the Big Ten tournament. The fate of the teams in the middle of the standings may not be determined until the final game of the season. While it matters a great deal to the fans and teams whether they play at home on opening week of the Big Ten tournament, the challenge will be considerable either way.

Looking at Michigan, Penn State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin; there are no easy locations to play or teams that cannot win on the road. Sure, each of these teams would rather play at home than on the road. At the same time, it is certain that all four teams will have to play well to win the best-of-three opening round.

Bubble teams for the NCAA tournament that win the first-round of the Big Ten tournament will have secured two wins against a team that is ranked in the top-20 of the PairWise rankings. So there is a great deal of hockey to be played, a lot to be determined in the final month of the conference season.

National Rankings

Following a tie versus No. 1 Notre Dame on Saturday, Penn State momentarily fell to No. 18 in the PairWise rankings. The Lions moved up one spot by Sunday with the results of other games around the country changing the rankings. By Sunday night, between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., the Lions gained a spot up to No. 16. With the Beanpot Classic results earlier this week, the Lions have now moved up to No. 15.

While it seems as though the PairWise rankings are volatile at this time of year, they are not. The reason the Lions are moving up and down without playing is due how close a group of teams is surrounding Penn State in the rankings.

One indicator within the PairWise rankings is the RPI. The RPI tells this story best, as it shows the cut-offs in current groups of teams that have hopes to make the NCAA tournament. Here is a look at the PairWise rankings.

Notice the RPI column of teams 9-20. There are two major groupings within this subset. Minnesota is .0049 points ahead of No. 10 Omaha. That is not an insurmountable lead at this point, but it is a clear delineation until further notice. Looking downward in the rankings from Omaha in the RPI, four teams are within .0030 points. That brings us down to and including No. 14 Western Michigan.

Western Michigan is .0095 points ahead of No. 15 Penn State in the RPI. Again, the RPI is not the deciding factor for teams being selected to the NCAA tournament but it is a statistical indicator of current positioning within the PairWise numbers. So right now teams 10-14 have a significant lead on the pack right behind them.

Penn State is leader of the pack of the final six teams that remain with a chance of playing into an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Only .0033 points separate No. 15 Penn State and No. 20 Northern Michigan. That is very close and that is why the Lions have been moving up and down a spot or two after the end of games that are being played around the country. It’s also something to remember if the team moves down over the weekend; it won’t be significantly down to the point where it would change anything.

All of the teams ranked 15-20 already know that they have to win to have a chance to gain an at-large spot, so that’s baked into the cake. Right now it is still possible that if nothing changed, the winner of this grouping would gain an at-large bid.

Currently only one conference does not have a team ranked in the top-16 of the PairWise rankings, and like last season when Ohio State made the NCAA tournament with the 15th PairWise ranking, it could happen again.

It’s more likely that the top 14 in the Pairwise at the end of the season will gain an at-large bid. For the teams in Penn State’s grouping, the six hoping to play into position, it is still possible to get as high in the rankings as number ten, realistically. With a strong finish, this grouping will secure a top-13 spot and all but guarantee a trip to the NCAA tournament. A .500 finish may still be enough for these teams to get a shot, as it will matter what the teams ahead of them do as well.

As the weeks continue the speculation will decrease. We’re getting down to the wire.