Penn State hockey only has four series and the Big Ten tournament left — we’re nearing the end of the college hockey season. It’s finally time to take the PairWise seriously and talk NCAA tournament chances.
Math is confusing, but bear with me for a second: 16 teams make the tournament — six automatic bids are given to conference tournament winners, so that leaves 10 at-large bids up for grabs.
The road ahead features familiar foes, but this season has proved anything can happen in the realm of Big Ten hockey. Let’s take a look at the possible routes to Penn State hockey’s first-ever tournament appearance.
Plan A: At-Large Bid
Here’s where the aforementioned PairWise comes in. For the uninitiated, it mimics the NCAA Selection Committee’s method of tournament selection, and it’s typically spot on.
The Nittany Lions are in a better position for an at-large bid than they’ve ever been before. They even sat atop the PairWise rankings for a while there this season. A five-game winless streak knocked them down, but they climbed back up to seventh after an imperative Wisconsin sweep. If the season ended today there’s a 99.9 percent (more like 100 percent, but you never know) chance they’d get a bid.
This is optimal, of course, because they wouldn’t have to worry about winning the Big Ten tournament. But the season doesn’t end today, and Penn State has a tough-but-manageable slate ahead. It faces Minnesota, the only team that’s swept it, this weekend. The Gophers are No. 5 in the PairWise, so a worst case scenario pair of losses wouldn’t necessarily knock Penn State out of the top-10. But the teams behind it — Providence, UMass Lowell, and North Dakota — would likely have to suffer some big losses this weekend too. UMass Lowell has a single game against Umass Amherst that it will probably win. Playing what-if in this sense isn’t too productive anyways.
Despite that five-game winless streak, a lot would have to go wrong in the coming weeks for Penn State to not receive an at-large bid — a testament to how far the team’s come since even last year.
If Penn State can get at least one win out of its upcoming series with Minnesota, it shouldn’t be hard to maintain top-10 status for the post-season. Enter a trio of teams it has already defeated. After Minnesota comes a series against Michigan State, a struggling team Penn State swept back in January. A vengeful Wisconsin might put up a fight against the Nittany Lions the following weekend, but you’d have a hard time convincing me Penn State loses at Pegula to a team it already swept on the road. The regular season closes out with Michigan, another struggling team Penn State swept decisively early on.
So, what if the world comes crashing down in This Is Fine Dog fashion and Penn State gets swept by Michigan and Michigan State? (I cringe even thinking of this as a possibility, but this is sports and no one ever knows for certain — that’s why it’s fun.) What if Penn State gets knocked out of the top-10?
There’s still a chance.
Plan B: A Big Ten Tournament Win
Pulling off a Big Ten Tournament win feels like the simplest path to the big show, and I often fall victim to this line of thinking. But Penn State would potentially have to play single-elimination style against two of the only four teams it’s lost to all season.
Here’s how it works: The top two teams in the conference standings get a first-round bye. There’s plenty of conference play left — I won’t act like the current standings are set in stone. But here they are for the curious:
- Minnesota, 27 pts.
- Wisconsin, 24 pts.
- Penn State, 22 pts.
- Ohio State, 17 pts.
- Michigan, 10 pts.
- Michigan State, 8 pts.
Penn State sits two points behind Wisconsin, but a few wins could easily change that. If the Nittany Lions do pull off a bye, they’ll still have to play against the winner of the third vs. sixth seed in the semifinals — likely Wisconsin or Ohio State (AKA not easy wins, especially on neutral ice). Then they have to face Minnesota for the title, unless a crazy Michigan or Michigan State upset happens.
Let’s be real for a second: Michigan and Michigan State are probably staying put at the bottom. If Penn State remains in third place in the Big Ten standings, it will have to face either of those teams then potentially Minnesota.
The simplicity of single-elimination is also its danger: Anything can happen. You can sit there and compare stats all day but there’s still some chance Michigan State pulls one over Minnesota. When 60 minutes decides the fate of a season, all it takes is that one momentum-shifting turnover and a little luck.
That’s just the nature of these things, that’s why they’re so much fun unless it’s your team, and that’s why staying in the PairWise top-10 is Penn State’s best bet this season.