When it was announced that the Big Ten men’s hockey conference would come together for its inaugural season, many people had high expectations.
With the regular season over and postseason play about to begin, it has become clear those expectations were right on the money. A competitive and skilled conference campaign has set up a tasty tournament bracket. All six of the conference’s teams are set to travel to Saint Paul, Minn., this weekend hoping to become the first-ever Big Ten hockey champions.
Minnesota and Wisconsin are the top seeds respectively, so both receive a bye in the quarterfinals, while No. 3-seed Michigan is slated to play No. 6 Penn State for the chance to play the Badgers.
Minnesota awaits the winner of the other quarterfinal between No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan State. The Buckeyes went 1-0-3 with two shootout wins against the Spartans in the regular season, and first-year coach Steve Rohlik said his team knows how tough the game will be.
“(The game is between) two teams that are evenly matched, you saw that in our results this year. They block a lot of shots, they’ve got a very good goaltender, (and) they’re scoring more goals now,” Rohlik said, referring to Spartan sophomore goalie Jake Hildebrand. “So we’ve got to play our best hockey game Thursday night, there’s no question.”
For the team that claims the prize, a Big Ten championship will bring with it an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The national tournament is made up of 16 teams: the six conferences’ postseason tournament champions plus 10 at-large bids. The NCAA selection committee uses a series of calculations to figure out the at-large bids, and those calculations are replicated by something called the PairWise rankings.
According to those rankings, the Big Ten can be split up into two blocks of three: those who look to be in the tournament no matter what, and those who require a Big Ten title to get there. The former is made up of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, while the latter is composed of Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State.
The tournament implications at stake this weekend don’t seem to faze OSU junior forward Ryan Dzingel, the leading scorer in the Big Ten this season who was just named to the all-Big Ten team earlier in the week.
“We’re all really excited. The CCHA (Central Collegiate Hockey Association) tournament last year was really cool and there was a lot of publicity, so I can’t even imagine how much it will be with the Big Ten,” Dzingel said. “Playing in an awesome rink with these great teams is going to be a lot of fun.”
Rohlik, a Saint Paul native, said the tournament’s location is going to make the occasion that much more special.
“A lot of people say that baby boys are born here (in Ohio) with a football in their crib, up there (in Minnesota) it’s a pair of hockey skates,” Rohlik said. “It’s the culture, its kind of what Minnesota is. It’s certainly one of the big spots for hockey across the U.S.”
With the hockey-savvy eyes of the Minnesota crowd upon it, OSU’s high-powered offense will need to find a way past an MSU defensive corps that has blocked the most shots in the Big Ten.
The prize awaiting the Buckeyes if they manage to do that: another shot at the best team in the nation, in the Gophers own backyard.
The Buckeyes and Spartans are set to face off at 8 p.m. Thursday.