We're four days away from Penn State's clash with Notre Dame for Big Ten championship honors.
It marks the second time in three years the Nittany Lions have made it to the conference final, as in 2017, a showstopping double overtime performance by then-freshman Liam Folkes solidified the title with a five-hole goal vs. Wisconsin. It not only shut all its naysayers up, but it also established the Big Ten as a legitimate college hockey conference and proved Penn State's men's program had a bright future.
Last season, the Lions' repeat chances in 2018 were cut short in the second round by eventual Big Ten champions (and Frozen Four runners-up) Notre Dame, and now, Penn State has the perfect opportunity for revenge.
In college hockey, there are six mandated automatic bids that go to the champions of the six Division I conferences. The Pairwise system, the NCAA's metrics that compare each team objectively and rank them accordingly using RPI, record vs. common opponents, and head-to-head records, determine the remaining 10 teams.
Most of the field is already set. The nine teams that currently have a spot locked are St. Cloud State, Massachusetts, Minnesota State, Minnesota-Duluth (defending national champions), Quinnipiac, Denver (who knocked out the Lions in 2018), Ohio State, Northeastern, and Clarkson. The remaining two automatic bids will go to the Atlantic Hockey winner (either American International, Niagara, Robert Morris, or RIT) and the winner of the Big Ten, leaving four spots open for at-large bids.
Currently, the Pairwise rankings have Notre Dame and Penn State at No. 15 and No. 16 respectively. The Nittany Lions, who are on the outside looking in, have no choice but to beat the Irish in the Big Ten final to earn that coveted automatic bid. There is no scenario that gives Penn State a chance at an at-large bid. A loss for the Irish doesn't rule them out of the tourney completely, but it does make scenarios a lot more intricate and less likely to come true if they want to sneak in with an at-large bid.
Penn State's season series vs. Notre Dame is deadlocked at a 2-2 record, with one of its wins coming Friday, March 1 in an overtime thriller, and the other on Dec. 8, where the Lions rolled the Irish to the tune of 9-1. This championship game -- with the stakes as high as they are -- could honestly shake out either way.
It will likely all come down to goaltending, and with a great battle brewing between Peyton Jones, who's coming off a monster performance vs. Ohio State, and Cale Morris, who has an impressive .929 save percentage and 2.23 goals against average. Stay tuned to RLR this week as we preview a game that will surely end with some fireworks.