Two years ago the Nittany Lions qualified for the first NCAA Tournament appearance in the young program’s history. A year ago the team returned to the tournament by gaining an at-large bid. This season it carries the unfortunate distinction of being the highest-ranked team in the country that did not make the NCAA Tournament.
Five out of the six conference tournament winners were already well within the top-16 in the PairWise Rankings. Only the Atlantic Hockey conference winner, American International, was outside the top-16, thus bumping one team in the top-16 from the NCAA Tournament field.
That team was Penn State.
While it is a disappointment that the team did not make the 16-team field, when the dust settles on the season it should be remembered as a very successful campaign. There were ups and downs along the way but any program that has finished in the top quarter of the rankings for three seasons in a row should be very proud of its accomplishments.
Here is a look at the final 6 teams, behind qualifier Bowling Green, that were left on the outside, looking in, at the NCAA Tournament field.
Bowling Green made the cut at 15. If you look at the far right column, the numbers represent the RPI rating for each school. As you can see, Penn State was .0034 behind Bowling Green, and also .0035 ahead of Western Michigan. The gap between teams grows wider once you get outside the top-17.
Penn State was very close, maybe just one additional win along the way in the first 36 games played, from making the tournament for a third season in a row. On Saturday night, the team fell one goal short of grabbing the automatic bid for winning the Big Ten Tournament.
When you look at the names below Penn State in the rankings, there are teams with recent National Championships to their credit. North Dakota won in 2016, Union in 2014. Minnesota has 5 National Championships, UMass-Lowell has 3. Further down in the rankings you will find strong programs such as Michigan (28) and Boston College (34).
There is no call for concern for the Penn State hockey program. The top-15 teams in the PairWise Rankings made the NCAA tournament, the Lions finished 16th. One spot off the pace.
The team would have loved to have made the NCAA Tournament, it is the ultimate goal at the start of the season. Graduate transfer Ludwig Larsson mentioned the possibility of playing in the tournament for the first time in his career as one of the reasons that he came to Penn State for his final season. On Saturday, late in the game, Larsson began to take very long shifts, laying it all on the line for a chance to score the tying goal.
Many players on the team played the final game of their college career on Saturday night. There are six seniors including Larsson that have run out of eligibility. In addition, as many as 5 or 6 players with eligibility remaining could sign professional contracts in the coming days.
There are 11 players listed as having committed to Penn State for the 2019-20 season by College Hockey Inc.com, the largest amount in recent years. This year only 4 players joined the team. It is impossible to know, at this point, how many players will end up coming to Hockey Valley next season. First we will have to wait to see which current players move on and which stay.
There are 9 members of the junior class, a group which sparked the Lions’ rise to national relevance.
Nate Sucese and Denis Smirnov, two juniors, were once listed as being recruits for the 2015 season. Circumstances put their arrival off by a year, for Smirnov it was his age and physical maturity. Had the young Russian joined the Lions that year, he would have been the second-youngest player in NCAA hockey.
While it will be sad to see some of the guys go, especially were there to be underclassmen leave, we should remember that the Guy staying is the one that built the program. Coach Guy Gadowsky built the Lions, from the ground up, into a national contender and destination for the top talent in college hockey. There is a lot of attention given to the donation that funded the men’s and women’s hockey programs at Penn State, and The Pegula Ice Arena.
Terry and Kim Pegula deserve a lot of credit for their generosity, but a building and some scholarships are not enough to produce the type of results that coach Gadowsky has achieved. Every team in the country has a sheet of ice to play on, whether it was purchased by the university or some other way; it does not help them once the puck is dropped.
Not every team can provide a chance to play on the highest-scoring offense in the country, on a team that expects to contend for the NCAA Tournament every season. Few programs have the crowd size or noise that is found inside The Pegula Ice Arena. None of that would be possible without the hard work and success of the coaching staff.
Guy Gadowsky and his key assistants, Matt Lindsay and Keith Fisher, have built a powerhouse and the future looks as bright as the recent past. The incoming players are as talented as any group that has joined the Lions to date. The team will lose some key players to the professional ranks but the cupboard is far from bare.
Six months and a couple of weeks from now the puck will drop for the first time at The Pegula Ice Arena to begin 2019-20 season. Inside the building will be a coaching staff, group of players, and fans, that are as good as any in the country.