Now solidly in the hunt for a berth in the NCAA men’s hockey tournament, No. 11 Penn State knows the pressure weighs a little more these days.
With just two games left in the regular season — against Michigan at 7:30 p.m. both Friday and Saturday at Yost Ice Arena — Penn State can still finish anywhere from second to fourth place in the conference. And the Nittany Lions’ finish in the Big Ten can obviously impact where they’re headed in the NCAA tournament.
But the next step is simply to focus on handling the Wolverines on the road. The Nittany Lions swept the earlier meetings between the teams at Pegula Ice Arena, 6-1 and 5-1, but those games were played the first two days of December.
“I don’t think there’s a lot that we can take from that series,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said Monday at his weekly session with the media. “It was so far back, but I think we’re different too. There’s no advantage to either team.”
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Penn State has a collection of scenarios awaiting with the postseason in mind.
The top-2 conference teams in the standings receive first-round byes in the six-team Big Ten tournament, and the Nittany Lions still have an outside chance at finishing second. Minnesota leads the conference with 39 points, while Wisconsin has 36, the Lions have 31 and Ohio State has 29. The Badgers and Buckeyes are also meeting this weekend.
With three points awarded for a win, one for a tie and a bonus point for winning in a shootout, Penn State needs an Ohio State sweep and to earn at least five points against the Wolverines to grab second. Short of that, Penn State would merely do well to not finish fourth, which would mean a semifinal meeting with the Golden Gophers.
As for chasing national glory, the Nittany Lions are No. 9 in the PairWise Rankings, a mathematical formula that very closely mirrors the selection process used by the NCAA. With a 16-team tournament, every spot better than 16 improves the odds, and the Lions are figured to be 97 percent assured of making the tournament – but they can drop with a bad weekend in Ann Arbor. So they can’t let up.
“That’s not going to happen until the end of the season, so we might as well get used to it,” Gadowsky said, also pointing out the must-win pressure started last weekend when the team split with the Badgers.
It’s the biggest weekend — to this point — in the history of the Penn State program. And the Nittany Lions are looking forward to the challenge.
“These games are extremely meaningful,” Gadowsky said, “which is a privilege to be in.”
Who: No. 11 Penn State (22-8-2, 11-6-1)
Where: Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor, Mich.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday
Radio: WAPY 103.1
Leading scorers: PSU—Denis Smirnov (17 goals, 26 assists), David Goodwin (10 G, 25 A), Chase Berger (11 G, 19 A), Andrew Sturtz (21 G, 9 A), Nate Sucese (14 G, 15 A). Michigan — Jake Slaker (17 G, 14 A), Will Lockwood (8 G, 9 A), Tony Calderone (12 G, 2 A).