No. 15 Penn State and Michigan have faced off four times already this season. By now, you’d think we’d know exactly who has the edge heading into the Big Ten postseason this Thursday. But this rivalry has been marked by inconsistency and uncertainty from the start; with a 2-2 record on the regular season, the first round of the tournament is anyone’s game — especially when there’s so much at stake.
Recapping The Season
Penn State and Michigan met four times. First, the Nittany Lions swept the Wolverines at Pegula for their Big Ten opener with convincing 6-1 and 5-1 wins. In both of those games, Penn State struck first and didn’t let up on speed or momentum at all. The series was something of a statement — it asserted Penn State was going to hold its own in the Big Ten this season after an easy pre-conference slate. Penn State climbed from No. 7 to No. 3 after, and even though Michigan lost its prolific top line from the previous season to the NHL, this series made it seem like Penn State could consistently win against tough teams. Legendary Michigan head coach Red Berenson agreed, calling it one of the best teams in the nation among other compliments.
Michigan coach Red Berenson: “Penn State put on a clinic this weekend.” #tru
— Onward Sports (@OnwardStSports) December 3, 2016
Andrew Sturtz and Denis Smirnov made multiple points look easy throughout this series, but a full-team effort in scoring was also evident. Folks wondered if the depth and effortlessness were too good to be true, and we now know the answer to that: Sort of.
Sure, you could look at Michigan’s sweep of Penn State last weekend in a vacuum and say Penn State sucks now, but you’d be wrong; there’s too much context here. The Wolverines were lost initially without their explosive top line, but by the end of the season they started to form an identity — you couldn’t just write them off after wins over Ohio State and Minnesota. Senior weekend at Yost? Yikes. Potentially Berenson’s last regular-season series? You don’t want to be the guy who loses that for him.
Superstition and extenuating circumstances aside, Big Ten First Star of the Week Zach Nagelvoort had the game of a lifetime Saturday. He stopped 46 shots in the second-best performance of his career. That’s not something the Wolverines can bank on come Thursday.
Penn State’s 3-2 and 4-0 losses against Michigan elucidated the team’s late-season inconsistency and issues with careless turnovers surfaced. There’s no denying the Nittany Lions had a considerable hand in last weekend’s outcome. But to me, the losses were equally about the fickleness of Big Ten play, the power of college hockey senior nights, and a rivalry with a track record that never made much sense to begin with.
What’s At Stake
No one can be completely sure of Penn State’s NCAA tournament hopes after this game, but USCHO’s PairWise predictor helps. Considering teams that win their conference championships get automatic bids, if any non-top seed wins, means its in and its conference leader will likely get an at-large. Essentially, Penn State fans want everything to go as planned.
Let’s play a little “what if” here — assume the teams atop their respective conferences all win their tournaments and get the automatic bids. If Penn State loses Thursday, it can still potentially make the tournament. First and foremost, Ohio State also has to lose against Michigan State. A Buckeye win would give them an at-large bid over Penn State in almost every situation. Penn State winning and Ohio State losing is obviously the ideal situation here — if that happens, the Nittany Lions get the bid.
What if Penn State and Ohio State both win Thursday? They’re both in if absolutely everything else goes according to plan.
Since Union, Harvard, and Cornell are already locked in any of those teams could win the ECAC and it won’t affect Penn State. Even if Quinnipiac manages to win the ECAC, a win on Thursday will still be enough for Penn State to get an at-large bid.
In the Hockey East, BU, UMass-Lowell, and Notre Dame are locked in for the NCAA Tournament. If BC can somehow beat BU and UMass-Lowell to win the Hockey East, Penn State still manages an at-large bid with a win on Thursday.
Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, and Western Michigan are the locked in NCHC teams with North Dakota right on the bubble. If North Dakota beats Denver in the quarterfinals and makes it to the championship, Penn State is still safe with Thursday’s win.
The WCHA tournament results don’t affect Penn State.
What if they both lose? If everything goes according to plan, Penn State still sneaks in at the cutoff. The Nittany Lions are out if Wisconsin beats Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament, if BC wins the Hockey East, or if Quinnipiac wins the ECAC.
The moral of the story is this: If Penn State can just pull off a win Thursday, it can afford to lose to Minnesota in the semifinals and still very likely make the playoffs. If it loses, it’s almost definitely out if Ohio State wins. If both lose, a playoff run is still possible but #ThisIsMarch and there are too many variables for comfort.
Usually I’m vague with my predictions, but I’m confident Penn State will pull this one off or it’s not the team I thought it was. The term “must-win” has been thrown around lately, but Thursday at 8 p.m. at Joe Louis Arena is as must-win as it gets for Penn State’s playoff hopes.