Penn State Hockey’s Path to the Postseason

By Doug Leeson on February 15, 2018 at 10:56 am
Penn State hockey
via Adriana Lacy

With four games remaining in the regular season, Penn State’s postseason hopes are now blatantly on the line. Early-season struggles were rectified by a midseason tear, but now another extended winless streak seems to have the Nittany Lions on the outside looking in.

Penn State will play Michigan State in East Lansing this weekend before hosting Minnesota next weekend. The Big Ten Tournament is about two weeks away and the NCAA Tournament begins on March 24. Let’s check out Penn State’s odds at making a splash at each tournament and just how likely those results are.

Big Ten Tournament Scenarios

Here are the current standings:

1. Notre Dame 16-3-1-1 50
2. Ohio State 12-7-1-0 39
3. Michigan 9-10-3-2 32
4. Minnesota 9-10-1-1 29
5. Wisconsin 8-11-3-1 28
6. Penn State 6-9-5-2 25
7. Michigan State 4-14-2-1 15

Notre Dame already clinched a first-round bye. Seeds 2-4 will host 5-7 on their campuses for a best-of-three series, then the winners will join Notre Dame on the higher seeds’ campus for single-elimination semifinals and the championship.

Before we look at Penn State, let’s try to imagine how the table will end up for the teams off of its schedule. Wisconsin has one series left; conservatively, let’s say it splits with Ohio State. Michigan also has one series left, a home-and-home with Notre Dame; let’s call that a split too, but it’d be surprising. Otherwise, the only relevance that Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Michigan State have is because of who they give points to or take them away from, as it doesn’t matter how many points they get because their standing can’t be affected by Penn State. So:

  • A Wisconsin split means Penn State needs seven of 12 possible points to jump them.
  • This weekend’s Minnesota-Ohio State and Penn State-Michigan State series is the most important of the Big Ten season so far, as it looks like the former teams are primed for a duel for that coveted fourth spot.
  • So we’re all Buckeye fans this weekend; Minnesota already has a four-point lead on Penn State and if that extends to six by the end of the weekend, Penn State is locked out of the top four.
  • Obviously, a sweep over the Spartans is paramount. That, coupled with a Minnesota split, would give the Gophers a one-point lead heading into the winner-take-all season finale at Pegula.

That makes up what I think is the most likely scenario. I won’t predict that final weekend, but here’s how I think the table ends up beside two teams’ final series.

1. Notre Dame 19-4-1-1 59
2. Ohio State 14-9-1-0 45
3. Michigan 10-11-3-2 35
4. Minnesota* 10-11-1-1 32
5. Wisconsin 9-12-3-1 31
6. Penn State* 8-9-5-2 31
7. Michigan State 4-18-2-1 15

*Minnesota and Penn State will then have six points to split among themselves. A regulation/overtime sweep would push the Nittany Lions into third place, a regulation/overtime win plus a shootout win would push them into fourth, and anything less results in fifth or sixth.

Obviously, this scenario is contingent on things happening the way I expect, which they will not. Even with their countless struggles, Michigan State has the talent to play spoiler, and Minnesota should probably be favored in that final series. BUT if everything goes well, we can look forward to…

NCAA Tournament Scenarios

The NCAA Tournament committee selects 16 teams using a ranking very similar to the PairWise (which can be seen in full here). It compares teams based on head-to-head results, results vs. common opponents, and the RPI. Right now, Penn State is No. 17, barely missing the cut. This is another reason why sweeping Michigan State is so important. Anything less than two wins over the T-No. 37 team will plummet them, but even a split against Minnesota, the T-No. 9 team, could help the Nittany Lions climb.

Let’s say that happens. Then, Penn State is probably in the 14-16 range, at which point another problem will present itself: Conference champions get auto-bids, and two conferences are currently not represented in the top 16. This means two lower-ranked teams will bump two higher-ranked teams out. The 14-seed could be the final at-large spot, assuming no other teams outside the top-16 win their conference tournaments (No. 20 Wisconsin could be a threat!).

That means Penn State needs an additional win or two in the Big Ten Tournament. Winning at least 1 of 3 against No. 6 Ohio State would be very helpful, as would winning a series against T-No. 9 Minnesota or No. 15 Michigan.

As the first team on the bubble, Penn State is in the unenviable position of having every game, period, and shift matter for its NCAA Tournament hopes. We haven’t even gotten into the pressure of the Nittany Lions’ auto-placement in the Allentown, Pa., regional if they make the cut, meaning they’d have a quasi-home game.

This is what they signed up for though. Penn State needs to win most or all of its remaining games and it should be in; regardless of what happens, it’s sure to be a fun finish.

Or, go with Plan B. Just win the Big Ten Tournament like last year and all the stress will go away.