A week ago, Penn State was coming off of its first win in more than a month and had just passed the lowest point in its long fall from grace. An eight-game winless streak plummeted the team in the Big Ten standings and potentially out of the NCAA Tournament picture. The Nittany Lions needed a sweep over Minnesota (something they had never done before) to rejoin the fold. What a difference a week makes.
On Friday night, Penn State outshot its foe 61-15 in a stress-free 5-1 win, then stymied Minnesota in another dominant 5-2 win on Saturday. Anything less than two regulation or overtime wins meant that the Nittany Lions wouldn’t play at Pegula Ice Arena until next October. Now, with a series sweep, Penn State jumped the Gophers in the standings and set up consecutive weekend visits from Minnesota, this time for the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Despite the similar scores, the two wins came in very different ways, which bodes well for the upcoming tournament run. Penn State’s struggles this year were a result of simply not playing to its true identity -- crashing the net, piling up crazy shot totals, winning faceoffs, and every other little thing defined the team and its success over the last few years. The lopsided shot total on Friday was a result of doing those little things right, and the score reflected it too. On Saturday, the team was actually outshot 41-40, but won the other way it knows how: by riding goalie Peyton Jones, who has the potential to be the best player on the ice any given night. He was the Big Ten Tournament MVP last year, and that’s who he looked like on Saturday.
A week ago, the season looked close to over; great teams don’t split series with lowly Michigan State, but they do sweep Minnesota. Now, fans in Hockey Valley have every reason to be confident heading into the postseason. Not only will the Lions host Minnesota at Pegula for a best-of-three series, but they’re currently on the inside of the NCAA Tournament field, according to CHN’s Pairwise Probability Matrix. Penn State is No. 13 and could be one of the last teams to earn an at-large berth (CHN gives it a five-percent chance to earn the Big Ten’s auto-bid by winning the tournament). Going winless this weekend could end the season, but at least one win over the Pairwise No. 10 Golden Gophers could lock up the berth. If Penn State is in, it is automatically placed in the PPL Center in Allentown, Pa., ostensibly giving it at least one quasi-home game in the national tournament.
Another key trait that former Penn State teams had, despite usually lacking the talent of other Big Ten teams, was the inability to give up. That no-quit attitude got it through the vital sweep of Minnesota, dramatically increased its odds to take a series in the Big Ten Tournament, and presented a good chance for at least a win or two in the NCAA Tournament.
Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals Schedule - Pegula Ice Arena
- Game 1 - Friday, March 2 - 7 p.m. EST
- Game 2 - Saturday, March 3 - 7 p.m. EST
- Game 3 - Sunday, March 4 - 7 p.m. EST (if necessary)