The NCAA Tournament will tip off on Thursday without Penn State basketball in the field, but another Nittany Lions team will be trying to make its tournament dreams come true.
When the No. 4-seeded Penn State men’s hockey squad takes on No. 5 seed Michigan Thursday at 8 p.m. in Detroit in the Big Ten Hockey Tournament, the Lions will be playing for an NCAA Tournament berth, according to many.
Of course, they could win the whole tournament and get an automatic qualifying berth as well.
Penn State in primetime Thursday for what might very well be win-and-in pic.twitter.com/TgBKmN0pCX
— Ben Jones (@Ben_Jones88) March 12, 2017
Providence (idle), Penn State, Ohio State, Air Force, and Boston College are fighting for at-large spots, each stand a chance with no wins
— CollegeHockeyRanked (@chranked) March 13, 2017
But realistically, the Lions seemingly need a win against the Wolverines to guarantee a berth after being almost a lock to make the tournament just two weeks ago.
They sit tied for No. 12 in the PairWise rankings, which accurately predict the top 16 teams that make the tournament, but a loss could bump them out.
So what happened?
It’s been a roller-coaster season for the Lions that started with the highest of highs.
The team rolled through its non-conference slate, going 12-1-1 to open the season.
The Lions then dispatched the Wolverines, 5-1 and 6-1, to open conference play and went 3-1 in their next four games against Ohio State and Michigan State to earn the first No. 1 ranking in the program’s history.
But that’s virtually where the party stopped.
The team tied one and lost another to the Buckeyes in their second weekend series, which started a four-game losing streak with losses to Princeton and Minnesota.
That started a trend of beating the bad teams while falling to the good ones.
Both No. 13 Ohio State and No. 5 Minnesota are ahead of the No. 15 Lions in the USCHO poll, and they proved why they should be on the ice.
The Lions beat Wisconsin twice before falling twice to the Gophers again at home in what was an important series in conference and national standings.
Then, again, the Lions swept Michigan State and played well against the Badgers, taking one of two and conjuring up hopes that they could be a viable tournament team.
But the blue and white stumbled to the finish line of the regular season, getting swept by the Wolverines last week and setting up their fifth meeting of the season in what will be a rubber match between the two teams.
The Maize and Blue took one of two from both the Buckeyes and the Gophers before sweeping the Lions. They are led by Tony Calderone with 15 goals, while Jake Slacker has 21 points to lead the team in that category.
The three goaltenders who have shared the duties for the Wolverines have been less than stalwart.
Zach Nagelvoort has started 11 games and posted a .924 save percentage and a 2.67 goals against average, Hayden Lavigne has started 13 games with a .912 save percentage and a 2.94 GAA, and Jack LaFontaine has made 10 starts with a .911 percentage and a 3.34 GAA.
On the other side, the Lions counter with a number of scorers. Andrew Sturtz leads the team with 21 goals but four other players have tallied 10 or more. Denis Smirnov also leads the team with 26 assists and 43 overall points with 17 goals.
David Goodwin, Chase Berger and Nate Sucese have all chipped in as well.
In net, Peyton Jones has started 31 games, posting a .899 save percentage and a 2.68 GAA. He’ll likely be between the pipes on Thursday.
This will also be the third time the two teams have met in the tournament. In the 2014 tournament, the No. 3-seeded Lions, knocked off the 16th-seeded Wolverines, 2-1, in overtime in the first round.
The Wolverines got revenge though, taking down the Lions 7-2 last year in the second round in a matchup between the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds.