Penn State Hockey

As Penn State hockey chases a Big Ten title repeat, what are its NCAA chances?

Penn State’s Andrew Sturtz, left, and forward Chase Berger celebrate Berger’s goal on Feb. 2 against Notre Dame. The teams meet again in the Big Ten tournament semifinals on Saturday in South Bend, Ind.
Penn State’s Andrew Sturtz, left, and forward Chase Berger celebrate Berger’s goal on Feb. 2 against Notre Dame. The teams meet again in the Big Ten tournament semifinals on Saturday in South Bend, Ind. psheehan@centredaily.com file

For Penn State hockey fans eager to see the Nittany Lions again, they should be playing close to home very soon.

That statement comes with 99.7 percent certainty, according to one web site. Barring incredible upsets in other conference tournaments, Penn State should be in the NCAA bracket as an at-large team, regardless of what it does in the Big Ten tournament.

Then again, the No. 12 Nittany Lions could repeat the feat of the conference title they pulled off last season, raising the chances to a perfect 100 percent. Fans can catch them on TV Saturday, visiting No. 5 Notre Dame in the Big Ten semifinals at 5:30 p.m.

“Until your name says 100 percent, you never are (certain),” coach Guy Gadowsky said at his weekly session with the media Tuesday. “All we have is Saturday night, and that’s all we’re looking at.”

What the Nittany Lions also have is the playoff experience of last season, running to three wins for the Big Ten title and a first-round NCAA victory. That should comfort the team a little as it pays a visit to the conference’s regular-season champion and a Frozen Four participant last season.

“Any time there’s a new experience, there’s a little bit of … trepidation and unknown,” Gadowsky said. “I wouldn’t call it comfort, but I think there’s less anxiety of, how does this work? What does it take? Whatever that’s worth, maybe that’s worth a lot. … We have the feel of a little bit more of a veteran feel because we’ve been through it.”

The Nittany Lions also will be riding the wave of confidence built with four straight wins over Minnesota the last two weekends, while the Fighting Irish lost four of their final five games in the regular season. However, Penn State did not win any of the four regular-season meetings between the teams, and the Irish have one of the nation’s top goaltenders and a finalist for the Big Ten’s Player of the Year in Cale Morris.

Even if Penn State has its high-powered offense firing away like earlier in the season, beating Morris is a challenge.

“He is really good,” Penn State junior forward Chase Berger said. “I played against him a couple times in juniors, too, he was really good. You just have to shoot the puck.”

The Lions have built their successful offensive model on an up-tempo style, but getting the best of Morris may instead result from some old-fashioned, blue-collar work around the net, surrounding the Notre Dame goalie with chaos.

“We understand their goaltender’s performance throughout the year and their goaltender’s performance against us,” Gadowsky said. “We have to somehow figure out a way without changing what we do too much to maximize our chances.”

No. 11 Michigan heads to No. 6 Ohio State in the other semifinal later Saturday, and the winners battle for the Big Ten title on March 17 at the home of the highest remaining seed.

Although that may mean the Nittany Lions have no chance to be at home again, Penn State is the official host school for the Midwest regional of the NCAA tournament. As the site host, it means if the Lions are part of the 16-team NCAA field, they are assured of playing at the PPL Center in Allentown the weekend of March 24-25.

The latest PairWise Rankings, a formula that provides a strong indication of the tournament field, has Penn State at No. 11 — a number high enough to erase most of the worry of making the tournament. College Hockey News also has a probability breakdown of teams in the PairWise rankings, and gives Penn State a 99.7 percent chance to make the tournament. Only the top seven teams in the list, each of which is at 100 percent, have a better probability to make the tournament.

Penn State players know what the rankings say, but are trying hard to tune it out this week.

“I heard that we’re in now, that’s the only thing I’ve ever heard about it,” Berger said. “(We) try not to look at it just because, if you win the games, it seems to take care of itself. I don’t see much of a benefit, really, to look at the simulations.”

The field for the tournament will be announced March 18. The Frozen Four will be held at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., on April 5 and 7.

The Nittany Lions, however, are trying to keep their eyes on South Bend.

“The bottom line is you still have to win the game,” Berger said. “The bottom line is it doesn’t matter until the (regular) season’s over. I just think if you read into that so much, it almost gets into your head and you lose focus for what’s really important.”

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @GordonCDT

Men’s hockey

What: Big Ten tournament semifinals

Who: No. 12 Penn State (18-13-5) at No. 5 Notre Dame (23-9-2)

Where: Compton Family Ice Arena, South Bend, Ind.

When: 5:30 p.m. Saturday

Radio: WAPY 103.1

TV: ESPNU

Scoring leaders: PSU—Andrew Sturtz (14 goals, 26 assists), Brandon Biro (8 G, 21 A), Trevor Hamilton (6 G, 23 A), Denis Smirnov (15 G, 12 A), Nate Sucese (13 G, 14 A), Chase Berger (11 G, 16 A). ND—Jake Evans (11 G, 27 A), Andrew Oglevie (12 G, 19 A), Jordan Gross (7 G, 17 A), Cal Burke (13 G, 9 A)

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