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Lions Back In Pole Position For The Stretch Run

Tied for first in the B1G and No. 6 in the PairWise is a good place to be in late January.

Heather Weikel | Black Shoe Diaries

Penn State got an overtime win on the road against Michigan State on Saturday night, as a result the teams share first place in the Big Ten standings. With the win also came a jump in the PairWise Rankings for the Lions, back to where the team had been before its recent slump. At No. 6, the team is far enough away from the NCAA Tournament bubble that it is not on the radar at the moment.

It is still a little too early to begin micromanaging post-season positioning, but it’s not too early to take a glimpse at how the next two months will unfold.

Remaining Schedule

Penn State will host Notre Dame, then travel to Ohio State and Wisconsin before returning home for the final series against Minnesota. There are just 8 games left before the post-season, but the Lions have an advantage if you choose to see it that way.

On the final weekend of the regular season Penn State will have a bye week, while the rest of the league, and most of the country, plays its final series. Whether the time off will benefit the team will be known in the future.

It’s baked into the cake at this point. Whether it’s a glass half full or half empty will remain to be seen. Water expands when it freezes, so since we’re talking about ice hockey, we may as well figure that it’s a good thing. Put that glass in the freezer and it will be more than half full.

The Flow Of The Game

While we’ll see if the players benefit from time off later in the year there will be little rest for them for the next month. The series against Michigan State this past weekend bordered on a playoff atmosphere. There is reason to believe that trend will continue this weekend through to the end of the season.

All 7 Big Ten teams are in the top-30 in the PairWise Rankings. Last place Wisconsin has multiple NHL first-round picks on the team, players like that can go off at any time and could have a strong finish to the season. It is hard to predict how it will unfold but we do know a few things.

There will be four more full weekends of hockey, then there will be a lull for the players and fans. Let’s consider a few scenarios.

Best Case- The Lions win the B1G title, then get a bye week in the first round of the conference tournament. From there the team would play no more than two games over the next two weeks. One in the semis and then if they won, the conference championship.

That scenario seems great, but is it really great to play just two games in the month prior to the NCAA Tournament? I guess if you win them it would be, but there would be a consolation in not winning the league title if playing more games is seen as better.

Next Best Case- Were the Lions to host a first-round Big Ten Tournament series, they would play as many as five games in the final month leading up to the NCAA Tournament.

Lower Case- The Lions lead Notre Dame by 5 points in conference standings and Minnesota by 6. Those are the two remaining home series, and also two of the teams that have a realistic shot of knocking Penn State out of a home-ice scenario for the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

Here is a look at the standings. The top team will get a bye for the first round. Teams 2-4 will host best-of-three series on the first weekend. Two one-game semi-finals will take place on the second weekend, then the Big Ten Championship on the next weekend.

Notice that Minnesota and Michigan each have 2 more games than the rest of the league to play, so there is a chance that they could gain ground on the field. Michigan or Wisconsin would have to go on quite a run to get into home-ice territory. The other five teams remain in the hunt.

Something that came to mind while listing the different scenarios might actually be the worst-case scenario, if time off is a bad thing. Were the Lions to clinch the Big Ten regular-season title, then lose in the semi-finals, the team would play just one game in the final month of the season. And it would be a loss, on home ice, after two weeks off, providing roughly that much more off time before the NCAA Tournament.

That’s a risk the team will take if they achieve the goal of winning the conference title. With the veteran group that Guy Gadowsky has put together, the Lions are as capable of handling the down time as any team in the country.

For now fans should keep that in mind while we watch the next four weekends of heart-pounding action. The first game of the series against Notre Dame will be on the Big Ten Network this Friday at 6 p.m. The final series in the third week of February, both games against Minnesota, will be on the BTN at the Pegula Ice Arena, right across the street from THON.

It will be a great finish to the season and if you like action, tune in for the next month. If you prefer lulls in the action, tune in the following month. Two months from now, as long as the Lions make it back to Allentown for the NCAA Tournament, few people will care how they got there.