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Penn State Hockey: Nittany Lions Face No. 2 Notre Dame As Big Ten Grind Continues

on January 31, 2018 1:00 PM

As Penn State heads into a weekend series against No. 2 Notre Dame the season very likely hangs in the balance. Win(s) and the Nittany Lions ought to see their stock in the PairWise rise high enough to make for a slightly less stressful final two weeks of the regular season.

Losses and Penn State isn't out of the hunt for a second straight NCAA Tournament bid, but the road becomes much more difficult.

In the big picture there are worse positions to be in if you're Penn State. For the most part the Nittany Lions control their own destiny at a crucial moment of the year. That's a good problem to have.

At the same time as Penn State nears the end of its sixth season at the Division I level and fifth in the Big Ten, there is a larger question at hand. Is it ever going to get easier for the Nittany Lions to make the postseason in a conference as deep as the Big Ten? Penn State has yet to finish higher than third in the now seven team conference and in truth only made the tournament last season due to some herculean level efforts.

Consider this, as things stand today, No. 1 ranked Cornell will have played eight games against teams ranked in the Top 20 of the USCHO.com poll. The same can be said for No. 3 Clarkson. 

While few in college hockey would question the credentials of either of those teams on the ice, it does speak to what has turned into a meat grinder Big Ten conference. As Notre Dame enters this weekend, the Fighting Irish will have already played 14 games against Top 20 teams. Penn State, the same and a Week 1 game against a then-unranked Clarkson team. Both teams with more games against ranked opponents left on the scheule.

Is that bad? It's hard to say for sure. Penn State and Notre Dame both find themselves in the postseason hunt. The Irish tickets already stamped and the Nittany Lions having found a way to stay in the conversation in spite of a thankless schedule. So it's not as though the Big Ten is taking itself out of the conversation.

"You come to Penn State to play in these games," forward Andrew Sturtz said on Tuesday. "You want to play in 4-2, 3-2 games not 7-0 blowouts."

Perhaps, but equally true, the Nittany Lions felt as though they played some of their best hockey of the year last weekend against Wisconsin and came away without a much needed victory. There's no reason to think the Nittany Lions would waltz through any other conference with ease, but if the Big Ten ever looks to expand to an even number, it might be well served finding a team that won't add to bloodbath currently taking place. In theory the Nittany Lions could be playing as well as anyone and still finding themselves on the outside looking in on the 16-team field by the nature of a difficult schedule.

"It's interesting right now because you do have six of seven teams in the Top 20," coach Guy Gadowsky added. "You could have an excellent week, I'm telling you we did not play poorly this weekend and in fact I would say Saturday was one of our best games. You can play well in this league and lose right now. And is that a problem? I think that it's a benefit in the long run but it does make it difficult to make the tournament as an at-large team because the margin is so, so thin that you can play so well and still lose. But we wouldn't want to have it any other way. Is it easier? No, but we wouldn't have it any other way."

"The benefit of that is that the teams that come here to play are top teams. And if you can have success it should mean that you have success in the PairWise."

And in the end Gadowsky is right, the quality of the Big Ten gives teams the freedom to lose and still make the tournament with wins against quality opponents. If anything the likes of Cornell and Clarkson have their own thin margin for error with a limited number of resume boosting opportunities. A bit of a pick your poison. Is it better to get beat to hell every week against good teams, winning and losing, or win with ease, setting up bigger weekends against marquee teams?

For Penn State the choice has already been made, and as the gap still remains between the likes of Notre Dame and the Nittany Lions it won't be getting any easier for anyone to make the big dance.

So get used to these final few weeks being stressful if you're a Penn State fan, because it doesn't look like that will be changing anytime soon.

And an even bigger question, until a Big Ten team wins a national title, it will be interesting to see if the conference's grueling schedule is truly to its benefit. Or if just surviving to earn the right to lose to fresher teams is the current reward.

Then again, when it was all said and done 2017 Champion Denver had played 19 ranked opponents and North Dakota in 2016 faced 25.

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