With red faces either from a hot post-game shower or maybe a few too many frustrated tears, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team didn’t mince words about its 3-2 overtime loss to Penn State Monday night.
Sure, Penn State was a first-year team Wisconsin thrashed 5-0 the night before.
Sure, the Badgers outshot the Nittany Lions 44-36 and dominated puck possession for much of the game’s 65 minutes.
All that being said, Wisconsin should have won that game, leaving itself admittedly devastated by the result. But while the above factors certainly stung, what made the loss truly traumatizing was the effect it had on UW’s post-season hopes.
After the 5-0 win Sunday night, the Badgers found themselves up two spots in the rankings to No. 16 and up six spots in the PairWise rankings to a tie for 17th. One night and one loss later, they fell to a tie for 28th in the PairWise, essentially destroying their current hopes for an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament. At the moment, the bleak outlook could cause UW to miss its third consecutive NCAA tournament.
Now hold up. There are two weeks left of the regular season and the NCAA Selection Committee doesn’t even announce the NCAA tournament field until March 24. But with only a few weekends left to keep their second half season push alive, the Badgers chances of making it into the pool of 16 have encountered some complications.
In order to qualify for the tournament, Wisconsin has two options: either win the WCHA tournament or earn one of 11 at-large bids.
Each of the five conference tournament champions automatically qualify. If Wisconsin can manage to string together another unbeaten run to end this season, winning the WCHA Final Five is a possibility — a tough one, but certainly a feasible one.
To start that potential run, UW travels to Omaha to face No. 13 Nebraska-Omaha. UNO currently sits in a tie for third with North Dakota in the WCHA with 30 points, three points ahead of Wisconsin with 27, who is currently tied for sixth with Denver.
After UNO, UW returns home for a special season finale at the Coliseum against No. 7 SCSU who is currently the conference leader with 33 points. With each of their remaining opponents ahead of them in the conference, the Badgers control their own fate as far as improving their conference standing and gaining home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
But the last time the Badgers even made it to the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul, Minn., was in 2010 — the same season in which they eventually made it to the national championship. In that year, UW took third place in the conference tournament, earning an at-large bid into the NCAA playoffs.
While it’s certainly possible the Badgers can put together the necessary run through the WCHA tournament to earn the automatic bid, it won’t be an easy feat by any means with six other WCHA teams currently ranked above them — No. 2 Minnesota, No. 6 North Dakota, No. 7 St. Cloud State, No. 9 Minnesota State, No. 10 Denver and No. 13 Nebraska-Omaha. To date, the Badgers have a 4-5-3 record against those teams; UW hasn’t faced UNO or SCSU previously in the season.
That brings us back to option two: the at-large bid.
In order to solidify an at-large bid the Badgers need to improve their PairWise ranking to persuade the Selection Committee they’re a viable NCAA tournament team.
While the PairWise isn’t the exact system the NCAA Selection Committee uses, it is a system that attempts to mimic the method the committee does use to determine the tournament participants, according to USCHO.com. The selection process is entirely based on mathematical matchups and while the committee does reserve the right to consider strength of conference, the selection process remains objective.
In order to be under consideration a team must have at least a .500 winning percentage and have played in at least 20 Division 1 contests. The Badgers have accomplished both.
Once again, Wisconsin’s best and really only option for an at-large bid is to win out. If they finish the regular season 4-0, UW would jump up to 16th in the PairWise, with all other teams stagnant.
Keep in mind, it’d be quite the task to win out given how strong both SCSU and UNO are this season. But here are several different scenarios to consider, with all other teams stagnant, calculated using College Hockey News’ Customizable PairWise rankings:
If they were to drop one game in either series or get a tie, Wisconsin would move to 17th with all others stagnant.
If they were to split both series the Badgers could jump to 22nd.
If UW won only one game, but tied the other three it’d move into 21st.
When it comes right down to it, Wisconsin simply has to finish the season 4-0 for its best hope to make the NCAA tournament — with some necessary help along the way. There’s a sliver of hope, but a small one at that.
Given the position they’re currently in — coupled with an atrocious 1-7-2 start to the season — getting into the tournament would be a testament to how resilient the Badgers have been all season long.
But unfortunately that overtime loss, in its eleventh overtime game of the season, may just prove fatal to Wisconsin’s tournament hopes.
Kelly is a senior majoring in journalism. Think the Badgers can surprise everyone and win out? Let her know @kellymerickson or send her an email at [email protected].