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Penn State hockey gears up for stretch run to end season

Penn State hockey had a mixed first half of the year, putting a return visit to the NCAA Tournament in peril. But plenty of opportunity awaits the Nittany Lions in the second half of the season.



Penn State hockey
Mar 14, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Penn State players celebrate scoring against Notre Dame at the Compton Family Ice Arena. Mandatory Credit: Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune-USA TODAY NETWORK

Penn State hockey has experienced an up-and-down first half of the 2023-24 season, which has put the Nittany Lions on the bubble to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. But, plenty of opportunity awaits Guy Gadowsky and the Nittany Lions in 2024. Can Penn State make the most of the second half of the season? Basic Blues Nation’s hockey experts Jaret Gold and Patrick Sweda break down the Nittany Lions’ season the rest of the way.

Mixed first half of the season for Penn State hockey


There is really only one word to describe the first half of the season for the Penn State hockey program: inconsistent. The team opened with three straight road wins over Long Island, Clarkson, and St. Lawrence. The Clarkson win is the only win that might hold some weight come March, but the other two are currently near the bottom of the Pairwise. The team came home and grabbed a fourth straight win against AIC, starting 4-0-0 for the second straight year.

That is when things started to go wrong. The next day, the Nittany Lions were stunned by AIC for their first loss of the year. The next weekend brought what looked to be a nice “get right” series against Alaska-Anchorage. The Lions squeaked by in the first game before dropping an even more stunning 6-5 result the next night.

Notre Dame came to town the next weekend to open Big Ten play, and saw Penn State tie both games. The next weekend opened road conference play at Michigan State, which saw a remarkable three-goal comeback to tie in game one before falling by a goal the second night. Penn State stayed in Michigan to take on the Wolverines just a week later and got an incredibly rare win at Yost Ice Arena.

Another “get right” series awaited against Lindenwood, and the Nittany Lions made no mistake this time, putting together a pair of six-goal wins. One of the biggest series of the year followed against Minnesota at home, resulting in a split against the Gophers. The last series of the first half saw Penn State take on Wisconsin on the year where it dominated both nights and got swept for the first time this year.

Penn State’s up-and-down first half has them entering the second half of the season at No. 19 in the Pairwise. The postseason is certainly not out of the question, but there is a lot of work to be done.

First Half Grade: B-


Penn State hockey didn’t have the picture-perfect non-conference record that it did last season. Last year, the Nittany Lions went 10-0 in the non-conference, and it helped propel them to a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament despite finishing below .500 in Big Ten play. This year, Penn State is already 7-2 in out-of-conference games, with one more to go against the Army. The issue is the Nittany Lions haven’t played a top-tier team that could justify that record. The highest-ranked teams the Nittany Lions have played so far are American International, who is No. 22 in the Pairwise, and Clarkson, who is 31st. Most likely, neither of those teams will make the NCAA Tournament without winning their respective conference tournaments and getting an automatic bid.

Bad losses to both AIC (22) and Alaska Anchorage (No. 49) are tanking Penn State’s Pairwise ranking. The Nittany Lions currently sit at No. 19 in the Pairwise and will need to play lights out in the second half of the season to have a shot to make its way into the No. 13/14 spot, which is the predicted bubble. A task that is always difficult considering that the No. 19 ranking puts them at No. 6 in the conference.

The key down the stretch will be to win home games and hope to at least get ties on the road. The most important thing will be to not lose to teams that are behind you. That includes Ohio State, who is currently ranked No. 30 in the Pairwise and the worst team in the Big Ten. Penn State hockey still has 4 games left against the Buckeyes and needs to win all of them if it hopes to stay in the mix. The Nittany Lions will need the goaltending to be better in the 2nd half, and someone other than the freshman line is going to have to consistently score goals.

I predicted an 11-7-1 (2-7-1) record in the preseason. Penn State hockey currently sits at 9-7-3 (2-5-3). The conference record has been pretty much the same, but those two bad losses in the nonconference are the reason why the 1st half has been sort of a letdown.

First Half Grade: C+

Opportunity awaits Penn State in the second half of the year

January 6 vs Army


The second half opens with a single game against Army at Pegula. This is a return trip for the Army after Penn State scheduled a last-minute trip to West Point on New Year’s Day in 2022 after its scheduled series against Maine was canceled due to COVID. Army is consistently one of the worst teams in college hockey each year, and this year is no different. There isn’t much to say about this one, as the Lions should dominate, but a loss here would effectively end any postseason hopes for Penn State.

Record: 10-7-3


It is pretty simple: lose this game, and the season is over. Army currently ranks No. 56 out of the 64 teams in Division I Hockey. The Knights are 5-13 on the season and have been getting handled by pretty much everyone in the Atlantic Hockey. Penn State hockey not only needs to win this one, but it needs to win big to get some momentum going for the rest of the Big Ten schedule.

Record: 10-7-3

January 12-13 vs Michigan State


The resumption of Big Ten play begins with Michigan State coming to Pegula Ice Arena the second weekend of January. This year has been a major leap for the Spartans, who currently sit at No. 7 in the Pairwise. Penn State, however, played them well on the road and appeared to be a tough matchup for Michigan State. Penn State has the potential to sweep this series, which would be massive for the tournament hopes. However, I am going with a split in this series.

Record: 11-8-3


Michigan State has had quite the resurgence this season. The Spartans are on track to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the Big Ten started 10 years ago. Michigan State and Wisconsin are the class of the Big Ten this year and the most likely candidates to win the regular season title and possibly get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Penn State hockey left East Lansing with a tie and a loss in the first half of the season. Any type of regulation win would greatly benefit Penn State in the Pairwise, with Michigan State currently sitting at No. 7. Returning home could prove beneficial, but I think a similar result is likely as Michigan State hasn’t lost in regulation yet this season.

Record: 10-8-4

January 19-20 at Notre Dame


Going on the road to South Bend is always a tricky trip, but these teams couldn’t be more evenly matched. They tied twice in their first two meetings this season. I’m taking another tie and then a Penn State win on the road in this series.

Record: 12-8-4


Penn State came away with two ties when they played at Pegula earlier this season. While a tie isn’t flashy, it is certainly better than a loss. Notre Dame currently sits at No. 18 in the Pairwise, one spot ahead of Penn State. I think a trip to South Bend will be tricky but these two teams are evenly matched and split the series this time around.

Record: 11-9-4

January 26-27 vs Ohio State


Late January brings around the first “must sweep” of the season. Ohio State is by far the worst team in the Big Ten, lacking a conference win in its first 10 games. The Buckeyes’ Pairwise ranking is very poor, and a loss here would be really bad for the Nittany Lions. Penn State hockey takes care of business at home, getting its first conference sweep.

Record: 14-8-4


This is the series where we find out if Penn State truly has the possibility of making a return to the NCAA Tournament. To say Ohio State is bad this year would be an understatement. The Buckeyes are currently 0-8-2 in conference play and are No. 30 in the Pairwise. A loss or a tie in either of these games would be detrimental for the Nittany Lions. I think being at home makes this a lot easier of a prediction, Penn State sweeps.

Record: 13-9-4

February 9-10 at Minnesota


Traveling to last year’s national runner-up’s barn will be no easy task, even if the Gophers have taken a step back this season. Penn State looked decent against Minnesota in December, but it is hard to see much success on the road against this team. I’ll go with a tie, and Minnesota win in this series.

Record: 14-9-5


Minnesota is always a tricky place to play, regardless of how good the team is. This year, the Gophers aren’t as dominant as in previous seasons, but still are ranked No. 12 in the Pairwise and are on track to make another NCAA Tournament. Any result other than a loss should help Penn State’s postseason hopes. I just don’t see it happening this weekend, and I predict Minnesota to sweep.

Record: 13-11-4

February 16-17 vs Michigan


Coming home to play Michigan will be one of the biggest series of the year. Michigan, also a Frozen Four team a year ago, took a major step back. The Wolverines are very beatable, as evidenced by Penn State beating them at Ann Arbor for just the fourth time in program history. I think Penn State will make a statement in the series and pick up the sweep.

Record: 16-9-5


Michigan is showing some vulnerability this season and is currently on the outside looking in of the NCAA Tournament. Having this series at home should prove to help Penn State, and jumping the Wolverines in both the Pairwise and Big Ten Standings could be a possibility with a sweep. I predict that Michigan will steal a game, and the series will result in a split.

Record: 14-12-4

February 23-24 vs Wisconsin


The college hockey world knew Wisconsin would take a step forward when the Badgers hired Mike Hastings away from Minnesota State to be head coach. No one knew it would be this soon. Wisconsin looks like the best team in the Big Ten and sits in the top five of the Pairwise. And the Badgers dominated Penn State in their first meeting this year. Wisconsin used its speed to generate a ton of offense off transition, which is typically Penn State’s playbook. It was a bit jarring to see Penn State get beat at its own game so badly. This clash of styles leads me to believe it will be hard for Penn State to beat this team. I see the Nittany Lions getting swept by the Badgers at home.

Record: 16-11-5


Wisconsin has been an absolute wagon this season under first-year head coach Mike Hastings. The Badgers are 16-4 and currently No. 5 in the Pairwise. While I have been pessimistic about my outlook for a lot of these series, I think this is the random upset that we tend to see from a Guy Gadowsky team every season, and Penn State gets the split.

Record: 15-13-4

March 1-2 at Ohio State


This is another “must sweep” on the road against the Buckeyes. And I think Penn State does it to wrap up the regular season.

Record: 18-11-5


Depending on how much success Penn State hockey has had leading up to this series, the ramifications for both a Big Ten Tournament seed and an NCAA bid could prove massive. Whether it is to clinch a berth or home ice, a sweep is needed in this to at least get momentum heading into the postseason. This feels like the ugly road series that Penn State drops a game, but I am going to predict a win and tie for the Nittany Lions.

Record: 16-13-5

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