Penn State Hockey is off and running this season sitting at 15-5 (7-4-0-1) and ranked No. 5 in both the USCHO rankings, as well as the Pairwise Rankings as the first half comes to a close.
This team has done well by sweeping less talented non-conference opponents and avoiding the sweep in conference play.
In years past, Penn State Hockey would often drop a game to a poor non conference team leading to a lower pairwise ranking.
The Pairwise is the ranking system used by the NCAA selection committee to determine who makes the NCAA tournament. Let’s look at the possible postseason implications of this Nittany Lions team.
Making the NCAA Tournament
Since moving up from the club level in 2012, Penn State Hockey has only made 2 appearances in the NCAA tournament.
Those took place in 2017 and 2018, although it is important to mention that they would have had another appearance in 2020 if it weren’t for COVID.
Penn State Hockey had a 5-year stretch between 2016-2020 where they were in the tournament hunt for the entirety of those seasons with a total record of 105-63-17. The current No. 5 ranking would be the highest finish in program history, if it holds through the end of the season.
Typically, teams ranked within the Top 12 of the pairwise at this point in the season make the NCAA tournament 80% of the time.
The Nittany Lions will have 14 more regular season games plus the Big Ten tournament to continue improving their resume.
Penn State Hockey has not had higher than a 3 seed in the 16-team field and would have projected to be a 2 seed during the 2020 season. If the Nittany Lions can finish strong there is a chance they are the No. seed in the Allentown regional.
The magic number of wins for Penn State to clinch a tournament berth is probably around 21.
Pairwise Finishes (2016-2020)
2016: #22 (21-13-4)
2017: #9 (24-11-2) Big Ten Tournament Champions
2018: #11 (18-14-5)
2019: #16 (22-15-2)
2020: #7 (20-10-4) Big Ten Regular Season Champions
This season is statistically the strongest that the Big Ten conference has been since its inception in 2013-14.
Notre Dame joined the conference in 2018 and the conference has had 4 out of 7 members make the tournament, but never 5. That is a legitimate possibility with the depth of this season. Currently Minnesota (1), Penn State (5), Michigan State (8), Michigan (10), Ohio State (11) are all safely inside the “safe” Top 12 cutoff of at-large bids. That doesn’t include Notre Dame (17), who has a chance to play themselves into the top 12 and or win the conference tournament and take the auto bid.
This strength is from the wins that Big Ten teams have acquired in the non conference. These next few weeks before conference play kicks back off mid-January will either continue to strengthen or possibly knock a few teams down.
The Big Ten being strong is both positive and negative for the Nittany Lions. The positive is that conference losses don’t hurt your pairwise and making the tournament is still possible with a record close to the .500 mark.
Another positive is that it will certainly battle test teams as they are constantly playing tournament teams every week of the season.
The negatives, however, are that it is not only difficult to win, but difficult to put distance between yourself and other conference teams.
Penn State Hockey has 12 conference games to play and as it currently sits 8 of those are against teams currently in the 16 team field.
Previous Big Ten Tournament Teams:
2014: (2) Minnesota, Wisconsin
2015: (1) Minnesota
2016: (1) Michigan
2017: (3) Minnesota, Penn State, Ohio State
2018: (4) Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan
2019: (2) Ohio State, Notre Dame
2021: (4) Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Notre Dame
2022: (3) Michigan, Minnesota, Notre Dame
Can Penn State win the Big Ten?
Entering the season this wasn’t even considered.
After all, Penn State Hockey had missed the tournament the last 2 seasons, finishing with a below .500 record in both. As we sit at the halfway mark of conference play, the Nittany Lions find themselves in 2nd place only behind Minnesota who ranks No. 3 in the USCHO and No. 1 in the Pairwise.
The Gophers were a preseason top-5 team and have been consistent all year. Currently Minnesota sits at 30 points while the Nittany Lions are 8 back at 22 points.
Michigan State was the other team picked to finish at the bottom of the Big 10 this season and are right behind the Nittany Lions at 20 points.
It is important to note that Minnesota, Penn State and Michigan State have each played 12 conference games, while Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin have each played 10 conference games.
Despite that, Penn State Hockey would still be in 2nd whether either of those teams won their next 2 games to get to 12. Now returning to the question, can the Nittany Lions win the Big Ten? That is going to be difficult considering how well Minnesota has played this season.
While Penn State Hockey has struggled to sweep a Big Ten team since its opening conference series against Wisconsin, the Gophers have swept their last 3 conference opponents and 4 of 6 this season.
Penn State Hockey will need to start sweeping teams, especially at home. The Nittany Lions host the Gophers in the 2nd to last series of the year February 17th/18th in one could be a massive series in determining the Big Ten Regular season title.
Until then, 6 of the first 8 conference games out of the break will be on the road. Penn State will need to go at least 5-3 in that stretch to have a chance.
The team who wins the regular season title not only gets the championship trophy, but also the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament and a 1st round bye. The 2-4 seeds then host the 5-7 in the 1st round and this is why it is important that Penn State at a minimum stay in the top 4 but preferably the top 2 which would mean they have home ice advantage to at least the championship in the conference tournament.
This team has struggled to sweep conference teams but haven’t lost in the opening game of the series this season. The first round is a 3-game series but after it is single elimination. This could bode well for Penn State and thus they could be a favorite to make a run to their 2nd conference tournament title.
Current Big Ten Standings:
- Minnesota 10-2-0-0 30
- Penn State 7-4-0-1 22
- Michigan State 6-5-1-0 20
- Ohio State 5-5-0-0 15
- Michigan 3-5-1-1 12
- Notre Dame 3-5-1-1 12
- Wisconsin 1-9-0-0 3