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Penn State Hockey: Notre Dame In Hockey Valley? Frozen Four Comparisons Shows A Work In Progress

by on March 31, 2015 12:15 PM

Penn State men's hockey coach Guy Gadowsky would be the first to tell you that his program isn't in the national title hunt just yet.

And that's fine.

Anyone who has watched the team knows that there is a lot of work left to be done.

That's not to say the progress Penn State has made so far as a program isn't headed in that general direction, but if being elite was easy, everyone could do it.

Even so, after an 18-15-4 season and a legitimate chance to win the conference in the regular season, it's worth a brief look at how the teams in the Frozen Four stack up against the Nittany Lions.

For reference: Penn State has the nation's 47th best strength of schedule and finished the season 33rd in the PairWise, which is best described as college hockey's BCS. The top 16 teams make the NCAA tournament assuming that lower ranked teams don't win conference tournaments and steal bids to the dance. Penn State floated around that mark midway through the season, but a few losses late in final third of the season dragged Penn State's ranking down.

North Dakota: A traditional powerhouse, North Dakota faces off against Boston University in what ought to be a great game. Ranked second in the PairWise and with the nation's eighth best strength of schedule, North Dakota has seen it all. With a 27-9-3 record, there is a lot more winning going on than losing. In fact that record comes with the fourth best winning percentage in college hockey.

Boston University: The Terriers aren't far behind, ranked third in the PariWise and with the nation's 14th best strength of schedule. A 25-7-5 record is nothing to scoff at either. It's the second best win mark in the Frozen Four. Like North Dakota, BU has seen many of the best teams in the nation and has hung with them all. 

Nebraska-Omaha: Eighth in the PairWise and the fifth best strength of schedule, Nebraska-Omaha actually has the most Penn State-like season with an 18-12-6 record with plenty of ups and downs. The real saving grace for this team team was the strong strength of schedule -- the best of the teams in the Frozen Four. You don't have to win every game to be good, but if you're going to lose, it may as well be against good teams. That formula worked well despite a record that saw a whole boatload of ties and the second most losses of the bunch.

Providence: The last team of the group, Providence is 14th in the PairWise and 20th in strength of schedule. That's 27 spots better than Penn State in SOS and 19 spots higher in the rankings. The Friars are still, if nothing else, an example that your schedule doesn't have to be impossible to have a title shot. A 21-13-2 record shows that winning is key if your schedule isn't the toughest.

So what does it mean for Penn State?

Admittedly a lot of factors out of the Nittany Lions' control were in play as far as Penn State's rankings at the end of the season. The Big Ten struggled out of conference and in turn had somewhat of a down year across the board. Only one team in the Big Ten cracked the Top 16 in the PairWise while four teams were ranked lower than No. 30 in the nation. As a result, the vast majority of Penn State's wins came against conference teams that were struggling to stay relevant in the nation conversation.

The good news, Penn State never lost to a team in the non conference ranked lower than 36, with three losses coming to the 24th, 25th and 26th ranked teams. Conversely, the Nittany Lions beat nearly all of the teams they should have out of conference and even won against No. 17 on the road and No. 20.

So from here the path is fairly simple. Penn State's schedule doesn't have to be impossible (Year 1 in Pegula had a Top 5 strength of schedule) but the Nittany Lions will need to turn those middle of the pack losses into middle of the pack wins. Penn State will also need the Big Ten to find its stride again, so wins mean more and the losses don't hurt so much.

Ultimately getting to the Frozen Four takes more than a good schedule. Penn State has a way to go to be in that conversation, but right now the journey is headed in the right direction and people are interested in seeing it. With five days to go until the April 10 season ticket renewal deadline Penn State is over 50 percent renewal, expecting 90 percent by the time the deadline comes.

And a hot ticket everyone will want? A not-yet-official home series against Notre Dame. The contracts and papers have to be sign sealed and approved, but once that happens it's hard to imagine that those tickets won't go faster than a stretch of fresh ice.

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Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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