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Penn State Hockey: What It Will Take To Make The NCAA Tournament

The challenge is significant but the Lions have overcome longer odds in the past two seasons. A third-consecutive trip is within reach.

Photo by Heather Weikel

The Lions (17-11-2) are coming off a split in East Lansing and are currently sitting in 5th place in the Big Ten and hold the No.18 position in the PairWise Rankings. With four regular-season games remaining and then the Big Ten tournament to play, there are still too many scenarios that can play out to speak of anything with certainty.

For now the question can be answered simply. What does Penn State have to do from this point forward, sitting in the 18 spot figuring to need to get to 14 or better by the time all the games have been played? Penn State needs to play as though it were an NCAA Tournament-caliber team.

No team ranked outside the top-10 at this point can afford to lose more games than it wins as the season comes to an end. Teams on the bubble, it makes sense, would need to win 2 or 3 of the 4 regular-season games and then win the first series of the conference tournament. A 2-2 finish may require a sweep in the first round of the conference tournament. It’s still a little early to tell.

The first round of the Big Ten conference tournament is a best-of-three at the higher-seeded team’s home ice. No NCAA Tournament bubble team would figure to be able to afford losing the first series of the Big Ten Tournament, going 0-2 or 1-2 to finish the season.

So for now it appears that the Lions will have to be near perfect to close out the season, or go deep into the Big Ten Tournament to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. It’s also too early to count any team out from making a run in the B1G Tournament and grabbing the automatic bid that way.

Since it seems imperative for the Lions, in their current position, to win the first series of the Big Ten tournament, let’s take a look at the conference standings.

Big Ten Standings

Ohio State has all but clinched the first round bye in the Big Ten tournament that comes with winning the B1G regular-season title. There remains a great deal at stake for Penn State and any other team that is hoping to make a run in the conference tournament; home ice. Teams 2-4 will host teams 5-7 in the first round. It will be much easier to win the first round if it is played on friendly home ice, in front of friendly fans, with friendly food in their belly having slept in their own bed.

In order to stay in contention for an NCAA Tournament at-large invitation, Penn State will have to win enough Big Ten games that it would garner home-ice advantage in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. If Penn State ends up playing on the road in the first round, most scenarios for getting to the tournament without an automatic bid are down to nearly zero.

That is what makes the next two series so important. The next game, with Wisconsin on Friday night at 6:30 P.M., will be televised nationally on the Big Ten Network. You can expect the home crowd inside the Pegula Ice Arena to be in top-form for the game and it will hold national implications so eyes from all around the country will follow the action.

It should be a tournament atmosphere all weekend in Hockey Valley for the final regular-season home games on the schedule. If things go well, the Lions may return home for more games following a series in South Bend with a team Penn State is jockeying for position in both the conference and NCAA Tournament standings.

Let’s take a look at the bubble teams in the PairWise Rankings.

While it may seem discouraging that there are 4-5 teams between the Lions and an assured at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament, all is not lost. As you can see, Notre Dame is one of the teams. Penn State finished 2018 with a series sweep against Minnesota, then faced the Gophers again in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. A similar scenario may play out this year between the Fighting Irish and Penn State.

One way or another, it is unlikely that both Notre Dame and Penn State will be able to garner at-large bids. Each will have a chance to eliminate the other from consideration, especially if the teams meet in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

Notice a little ahead at Clarkson, currently tied at 12. The Lions swept Clarkson earlier in the year and if the teams are vying for a spot a month from now, that may be the difference. With each passing week the picture will become that much clearer.

The only thing that we know for sure is that each game is very important. The fans in Hockey Valley have at least two more chances to bring their A-game to the stands in support of the team. It should be a fun ride.