Examining Penn State Hockey’s Chances Of Making The NCAA Tournament
Three short years ago, the idea was impossible. The highest level of hockey played at Penn State was club, and obviously a club hockey team couldn’t make the NCAA Division I tournament. Two years ago, Penn State’s developing Division I hockey team showed potential despite a losing record. Last year’s Nittany Lions suffered a discouraging 8-26-2 season.
But now, Penn State hockey is a force. This season, the former club team was ranked. This season, Casey Bailey and Taylor Holstrom are serious Hobey Baker Award contenders. The 2014-15 Nittany Lions are currently 13-7-4 overall and 5-2-1 in the Big Ten.
It’s time to talk about the tournament.
To understand Penn State’s chances, it’s important to analyze how the NCAA Division I hockey tournament works. Basically, there are 16 slots. Each conference receives one automatic bid, awarded to its postseason tournament champion. A committee selects the 10 remaining at-large slots based on statistical comparisons of teams with a winning percentage of .500 or better that have played at least 20 games against Division I teams. The committee mimics USCHO’s PairWise rankings, but it also considers the relative strength of each conference.
Penn State is currently ranked No. 22 in USCHO’s PairWise rankings. Let’s say (hypothetically, of course) Penn State fails to win the Big Ten tournament. The best case scenario here would be if six teams ranked above No. 22 win their respective conferences. That would leave ten at-large bids and fifteen teams still ahead of Penn State. On the other end of the spectrum, if six teams ranked below No. 22 win their respective conferences, 10 of 21 teams still ranked ahead of Penn State would likely fill the remaining spots. Although an at-large bid isn’t impossible for the Nittany Lions, there happens to be a way easier route.
Remember, the winner of the Big Ten tournament receives an automatic bid. Penn State (5-2-1) is among the Big Ten’s best, rivaled by Michigan (7-2-0) and Michigan State (4-3-2).
Michigan is Penn State’s biggest obstacle in earning an automatic bid, and many fans wouldn’t have it any other way. Imagine a Michigan upset doubling as Penn State’s first playoff bid. It’s feasible.
In the first Penn State-Michigan matchup this season, the Lions defeated the Wolverines 3-2. Despite the win, Michigan outshot Penn State 40-28. Goalie Eamon McAdam was “unstoppable”, and this game was a reminder of how crucial solid goaltending is.
The second Penn State-Michigan matchup was a less friendly reminder of the same idea. The Wolverines crushed the Lions 8-1. Although Penn State’s shot attempts increased, they weren’t enough. Michigan still outshot Penn State 45-41. McAdam’s save percentage was .822, a number disappointing even without the high expectations fans had for the goalie.
The Michigan series was Penn State’s Big Ten opener. In the two months since the pair of games, the Lions have evolved. Ridiculous comeback wins have instilled a determination that prevails as the team’s current identity. The versatility of three solid goalies gives the team an unusual edge. A key in Penn State’s comeback win against Northern Michigan was goalie interchangeability. If the team had utilized this rare weapon in the Michigan loss, it might have been less soul-crushing.
As Penn State jumps back in to Big Ten play this weekend, a few things could happen. The team could continue to sport a determined mentality and move up in the rankings. Then, an at-large bid might become more possible. As of now, It’s certainly conceivable but pretty unlikely. The teams above No. 22 in the PairWise rankings generally get first dibs, and when conference strength is considered, the Hockey East is a favorite.
So far, Penn State has defeated every Big Ten opponent in its path at least once. The rest of the season consists solely of in-conference play. It’s bound to challenge this team’s newfound identity. If the Nittany Lions can hold their own and maintain a winning record, a bid to the tournament does not sound unreasonable. Penn State hosts Michigan on March 6-7. By then, a lot could change, but this particular series will be telling. Today, though, a once-impossible Penn State tournament bid feels attainable.
The most viable route to the tournament is an automatic bid via a Big Ten postseason tournament win. The Wolverines are the biggest challenge in this scenario. And here’s the deal about important Penn State-Michigan games: Penn State loves to win them.