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How Penn State Hockey Can Clinch Its First NCAA Tournament Berth

Penn State still has four regular season games and at least one Big Ten Tournament game left to play. That’s at least five games to build on its program-record 19 wins, and while the program’s rise to national prominence has been fascinating, a successful postseason showing would mean more than any number in the standings.

As things currently stand, the Nittany Lions are ranked No. 14 in the USCHO Poll and are tied for 14th in the PairWise Rankings. Sixteen teams make the NCAA Tournament and odds are Guy Gadowsky’s team would be in if the bracket was drawn up today.

Penn State travels to Madison this weekend for a series with the last-place team in the Big Ten, Wisconsin. Next weekend, Michigan will host Penn State trying to cap off a season sweep. Anything can happen in the next few weeks; here’s the current outlook for how the Nittany Lions can make it to the NCAA Tournament.

Path 1: Winning the Big Ten Tournament

Six spots are available in the NCAA Tournament for the conference tournament winners. One of the most exciting or frustrating parts of college hockey, depending on who you ask, is the number of teams and conference sizes. The Big Ten only has six teams, so anyone has a shot in the single-elimination tournament.

Last week, we took a look at what needed to happen for Penn State to earn one of two first-round byes. The third-place Nittany Lions didn’t play last weekend while the first- and second-place Minnesota Golden Gophers and Michigan Wolverines played each other. Ideally, one of those teams would’ve swept so the other didn’t get any points in the standings and Penn State could have an easier time catching up. They ended up splitting; Minnesota leads the conference with 36 points, Michigan has 35, and Penn State has 29.

Each team has four games left. Teams earn three points for a regulation or overtime win, two points for a shootout win, one point for a shootout loss, and zero points for a regulation or overtime loss. Penn State plays at Wisconsin then Michigan. Minnesota travels to Michigan State then hosts Wisconsin. Michigan plays a home-and-home with Ohio State then hosts Penn State.

Minnesota is already in first place in the standings and has the easiest slate remaining. Michigan leads Penn State by six points and there are conveniently six points’ worth of games to be decided between them. Passing the Wolverines looks to be the easiest path to the bye. Here are the scenarios where that happens:

  • Penn State earns at least one more point than Michigan in the teams’ other series, then Penn State sweeps Michigan.
  • Penn State earns at least three more points from the other series, then takes five of six points from Michigan. Michigan can’t win a regulation or overtime game in the other series, because then it will either have more than or the same number of Big Ten wins as Penn State, and possesses a better regular season record and therefore the tiebreaker.
  • Penn State earns five more points then Michigan from the other series, then takes four points from the Michigan series. Which means Penn State either sweeps Wisconsin or wins one in regulation and wins a shootout, then respectively, Michigan earns only one point over the two games or loses both games in regulation or overtime.
  • Penn State needs to take six points from Wisconsin and Michigan can’t earn any against Ohio State, if the two teams split points 3-3 the next week. That will tie the teams in the standings with 38 points, but Penn State will have one more conference win.
  • If Michigan takes four or more points from Penn State, it can’t be caught.

Earning a bye into the Big Ten semifinals obviously is a big step towards the title, but it also is a big help regarding PairWise points (more on that later). The first and only two Big Ten Tournament champions started their runs with a first-round bye; the difference between playing two games instead of three in three days can’t be understated, and if Penn State is destined for a winner-take-all matchup with Michigan or Minnesota in St. Paul, it better be well-rested.

If the conference tournament began today and the current seeds were in effect, Penn State would need to beat Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota in that order. If one of the aforementioned situations came to fruition, the Nittany Lions would only play Michigan and Minnesota, assuming they won their first one or two games. Beating them on consecutive nights is a tall task, but it’s one way to the NCAA Tournament.

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Path 2: At-large berth

A lot has to go right for the Nittany Lions to win their conference. If they don’t, they have to compete for one of ten at-large spots. USCHO writes:

The [at-large selection committee] uses criteria spelled out in its publicly available manual to determine which at-large teams make the NCAA tournament. First, only teams with a winning percentage of .500 or better that have played at least 20 games against Division I teams are eligible to be an at-large selection. All teams are compared against each other and ordered by the number of comparisons they win.

It goes on to explain the selection committee uses a methodology similar to the PairWise Rankings. A ranking is given from 59 to 0, representing how many teams the subject is better than. It is determined from three criteria: RPI (a mathematical method that compares a team’s opponents played and in turn, who they played), record against common opponents, and head-to-head play. Despite the fact the selection committee creates the bracket with a mathematical analysis that isn’t the PairWise system, it has still been historically accurate in predicting the field.

Right now, Penn State is tied at No. 14 in the PairWise Rankings with Minnesota-Duluth. In other words, both teams have 45 PairWise points for being better than 45 teams. To cement their spot in the tournament, the Nittany Lions should look to improve their rating compared to their peers in order to move higher in the rankings and more safely into a top-16 spot. The easiest way to do that is beat Wisconsin and Michigan, but how would those wins affect the standings?

Two wins over Wisconsin are welcome mostly because they aren’t losses. The wins would make a nominal difference, because the Badgers’ Pairwise is only better than 20 of the nation’s 60 teams. They have five forgettable wins against pretty bad teams, who in turn haven’t beaten anyone spectacular. Their other win is against current No. 2 North Dakota, which accounts for a significant portion of their points. The last thing Penn State wants is to be added to the short list of teams who have lost to Wisconsin and watch its PairWise suffer in the second-to-last week of the regular season.

Opposing logic applies to the Michigan series. Penn State already lost to the Wolverines twice this year, and so have teams like current No. 9 Boston University, No. 20 Robert Morris, and No. 13 Michigan Tech. Michigan is No. 6 in the PairWise; a loss or two would hurt Penn State, but not as much as a win or two would help.

The Big Ten Tournament offers more opportunities that could affect Penn State’s scores, but the matchups won’t be set for another two weeks.

It looks like Penn State controls its own destiny when vying for an at-large berth, but help is always welcome. Let’s take a look at the two teams behind Penn State, the team it’s tied with, and the two teams in front.

  • Michigan Tech is tied for 16th in the PairWise. Penn State wins the head-to-head comparison, despite the Huskies being ranked one spot ahead in the USCHO Poll. They have two games remaining: a home-and-home series against Northern Michigan (No. 31 in the PairWise).
  • Minnesota is also 16th. The Gophers are No. 17 in the USCHO Poll, are first place in the Big Ten, and beat Penn State head-to-head in the PairWise despite trailing overall. Again, they play two games at Michigan State (No. 44 in the PairWise) before hosting Wisconsin for another two games (t-40th).
  • Minnesota-Duluth is tied with Penn State at No. 14 in the PairWise, but the Nittany Lions own the tiebreaker. The Bulldogs are the sixth team listed in the “others receiving votes” part of the USCHO Poll. They have two games remaining against Miami, which is No. 18 in PairWise.
  • Nebraska-Omaha is immediately ahead of Penn State at No. 13 in PairWise and immediately behind at No. 15 in the USCHO Poll. The Mavericks will play their final two games at No. 7 Denver, facing a similar dynamic to the Penn State-Michigan series.
  • UMass-Lowell is No. 12 in the PairWise and No. 11 in the poll. The River Hawks’ regular season is over, so they’re an example of where the rating could get complicated (read: fun) if the Nittany Lions make some noise at the end of the season. They could beat Michigan who beat Boston University who split with UMass-Lowell, so that series could help Penn State in spades.

There are countless scenarios that could play out, but Penn State has held steady around No. 14 for most of the year. If they take the simplest route and take most of the points from the Wisconsin series but struggle against Michigan, the Nittany Lions will still probably be a fringe team with a decent shot at the tournament. Every game counts though, and they won’t ignore the importance of fighting for a higher seed.


There’s no denying Penn State has its best shot ever at an NCAA Tournament appearance. The beginning of the end of the season is this Friday in Madison, Wisconsin at 8 p.m. as the Nittany Lions try to cap off what is already their best season yet.

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About the Author

Doug Leeson

Doug is a sophomore and Onward State's Assistant Managing Editor. Dislikes: popcorn, Rutgers, and a low #TimberCount. Likes: "Frozen," Rec Hall, and you. Contact him via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @DougLeeson.

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