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Penn State Hockey Stretch Run: A Look At Post-Season Positioning

With just six regular-season games remaining on the schedule, the Lions are in a solid position.

Photo by Heather Weikel

Penn State (16-10-2) is coming off a much-needed sweep of Minnesota and is now ranked No. 16 in the PairWise Rankings.

At the start of the weekend the Lions were ranked No. 18 and were in last place in the Big Ten standings. With six points gained courtesy of the Gophers, Penn State is now tentatively holding the 4th spot in the B1G.

The Big Ten tournament awards a first-round bye to the top team. Teams 2-4 host teams 5-7 in the first round for a three-game series. Last year the Lions were able to capture home ice with a sweep of Minnesota in the final regular-season series. That likely proved critical, if not at least very helpful, in their taking the series from Minnesota at home in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

Home ice is not only advantageous for the team’s chances of advancing in the tournament but it also gives the fans extra home games to attend. If the Lions can earn a third-consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, the first-round game will once again be played in Allentown, Pa.

Let’s take a look at the conference and national standings.

Big Ten Standings

As you can see the top spot is all but locked up by Ohio State. The Buckeyes would have to falter significantly in order to lose the bye that comes with winning the regular-season title. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one. The rest of the 6-team field is very fluid. The Lions went from last place to hosting the first round of the B1G tournament in one weekend. It is still too early to start penciling in one team or another for a spot; just because Wisconsin is in last place, as the Lions were four days ago, doesn’t mean they will stay there. You never know which of the six teams may go on a run from this point.

The Lions have 2 games remaining with Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. While on paper the three teams are the bottom three in Big Ten Standings, that could change quickly. There are no easy games remaining, with four on the road and just two with Wisconsin at home.

NCAA Tournament Positioning

At the conclusion of the NCAA hockey regular-season, when all of the conference tournaments are finished, 16 teams will be invited to play in the NCAA tournament. For most teams, there are still anywhere from 8 to 12 games left to play, depending how the conference tournaments play out.

The PairWise Rankings are used to mimic the process used by the NCAA selection committee when they make their decision of which at-large teams will be offered a spot. The six conference champions will be awarded an automatic bid, as the Lions earned two yeas ago by winning the final Big Ten tournament in Joe Louis Arena. Depending on the position in the PairWise Rankings of each conference winner, the position a team must attain to get an at-large bid may change.

If all six conference champions are in the top-10 in the rankings, then the top 16 teams in the PairWise Rankings will earn a spot to the NCAA tournament. That has never happened. Typically one or two of the teams that earn an automatic bid are below the top-16, and therefore it bumps a team in the top-16 from earning a spot.

At this point, of the six conferences, just one seems poised to send a team outside of the top-16 to the tournament. The Atlantic Hockey league does not currently have a team ranked 16th or higher, and probably won’t at the end of the season. If the other five conference winners came from the top-16, that would mean that if a team was ranked 15 or better, it would gain an at-large bid.

Historically, when all of the games are played, the top-13 in the PairWise Rankings are safe to gain an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Some years the top-14 make the cut but anything in the top-12 is about as close to a lock statistically that a team can get. The top 12 teams have always made the tournament since the 6-team format was created a half-dozen years ago.

It makes sense that at least two, probably more, of the conference tournament champions will come from the top-10. It’s still too early to get caught up in the numbers that are needed for a team to gain a certain position, in a month those scenarios will be much clearer, heading into conference tournament play.

Here is a snapshot of the standings at this point.

Even if the conference season were over, the Lions would have a chance from their current position to win their way into the NCAA tournament with a few wins in the Big Ten tournament. There is also a chance that teams above and below the Lions in the rankings will impact their chances.

Arizona State was ranked No.8 heading into last weekend and then dropped one spot while on a bye week. The Sun Devils have just four more chances to gain wins, being the only independent team in the country, lacking a conference tournament. We will watch how those four games play out, and how the lack of games impacts their PairWise Ranking.

Interestingly enough, two of the games the Sun Devils have yet to play come against Minnesota, the other two versus American International. AIC is an annual bottom-10 team in the country but has had a tremendous season, currently ranked No. 28 in the PairWise. Minnesota is struggling, and its fan base would not appreciate the fact that they are tied at 28 with AIC at this moment.

However, the Gophers could help Penn State’s positioning with a sweep of Arizona State. Not only would that bump the Sun Devils down to where the Lions might be able to pass them due to the losses, but Gopher wins will also help PSU. It will be fun to watch in the first weekend of March.

It’s far too early to be more concerned with the standings than the actual games, but as the end of the season nears, we will continue to break down the scenarios.