The Buckeyes (15-12-5, 5-8-5-4 Big Ten) will remain fourth or drop to fifth behind Michigan State in the six-team league depending on the results.
Either way, they will play Spartans in the single-elimination conference tournament March 20-22 at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minn., with the winner facing a semifinal game against No. 1 Minnesota.
OSU's 24 points are two ahead of the Spartans, who host No. 5 Wisconsin on Friday and Saturday, and the only tangible difference between finishing fourth and fifth is that the higher seed gets to make the final line change when they play each other.
Yet, the Buckeyes have a lot to play for Friday (7 p.m.) and Saturday (3 p.m.) in "Hockey Valley."
A sweep of the Nittany Lions (6-24-2, 2-15-1-0) would keep Ohio State's flickering NCAA Tournament hopes alive. The Buckeyes are 23rd in the PairWise Rankings that mimic the selection of the 16-team field.
Throw in the possibility of teams ranked lower than OSU receiving automatic bids for winning their conference tournaments and the Buckeyes could be eight or nine spots away from qualifying. That's why winning is paramount. Drop points to Penn State, 53rd in the PairWise, and the only path to the NCAAs for OSU seems to be winning the Big Ten tournament.
"We really want to be in that top 16 but we haven't had the chance yet so every game is a must win," freshman defenseman Drew Brevig said.
The Buckeyes aided their cause slightly with a 2-2 tie (followed by a shootout win which does not factor in the PairWise) against No. 1 Minnesota on March 8 in a rebound from a 5-1 loss to the Golden Gophers the previous night.
"We overtook the game with our forwards and really played a solid game to get that shootout win, tie, or whatever you want to call it," junior forward Tanner Fritz said. "It definitely is a confidence booster for the entire team."
OSU defeated the Nittany Lions 5-1 and 5-2, the latter overcoming a two-goal deficit, Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 in Value City Arena but PSU has not been a pushover even though the program is in its second season at the Division I level.
"We know we're going into a tough building against a team that beat Michigan twice; just lost in overtime to Wisconsin. They lost a shootout to Michigan State," coach Steve Rohlik said. "They've played everybody very well."
Penn State beat the Buckeyes last season in a holiday tournament in Pittsburgh and will have the chance to make a statement about the rivalry in its new Pegula Ice Arena (6,014 capacity), part of the nearly $100 million donation by alumnus Terry Pegula, owner of the Buffalo Sabres, to start the men's and women's varsity programs.
"Every time we've played them they've pushed the pace," Fritz said. "They're a great hockey team and coached very well. It's not that surprising, especially going into their rink. They have a great atmosphere. They build off that."
Rohlik addressed the team Wednesday about putting the Minnesota series behind and not looking past Penn State.
"We're playing on senior weekend in a building we haven't been to," he said. "We're going to have our hands full. Our guys understand it's playoff time."