Big Ten Tournament Preview
by Tony Jovenitti and Jashvina Shah/CHN Reporters
The Big Ten Tournament marks the first postseason for the conference. The Big Ten previously sponsored hockey for 23 seasons until 1981. Minnesota was the last Big Ten champion, but that was determined by regular season standings.
The Gophers once again claimed the regular season Big Ten championship, but this time the one that matters most will be decided by a 6-team single-elimination tournament.
The action starts Thursday when No. 6 seed Penn State faces off against No. 3 seed Michigan at 3 p.m. (ET) with the winner facing Wisconsin in the semifinals Friday afternoon. Thursday also features a matchup between No. 4 seed Ohio State and No. 5 seed Michigan State at 8 p.m., with the winner advancing to face Minnesota on Friday night.
Minnesota and Wisconsin are locks for the NCAA tournament, with the Gophers set to earn a No. 1 seed. Wisconsin could also snag a top seed with a strong showing. Michigan finds itself in good position for a tournament berth, but will likely need a win or two to feel safe. The other three teams will need to win the tournament if they want an invitation to play next weekend.
6. Penn State
In just their second year as an NCAA program, the Nittany Lions dove head first into the deep end of some of college hockey’s most difficult and storied programs. In addition to facing Big Ten powerhouses four times each, Penn State squared off with Boston College, Massachusetts-Lowell and Union.
The Nittany Lions notched three conference wins this season, including two victories against the team they face on Thursday afternoon in the tournament, Michigan.
Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky doesn’t think that his team has any special success against the Wolverines, it’s more a matter of stepping up at the right time and getting a little lucky.
“We’ve played very well against other teams and lost those games, but against Michigan we played very well and had the bounces go our way,” Gadowsky said. “I don’t think it’s a matter of a match-up or anything like that.”
The Nittany Lions hit their stride as the season came to a close. In their last five series, they beat Ohio State, took Wisconsin to overtime, gave Minnesota a one-goal scare, stunned Michigan in overtime and fell to Michigan State in a shootout.
Gadowsky thinks the schedule played a role in his team’s improvement down the stretch.
“When we started looking at our schedule at the start of the year, you can get a little intimidated,” he said. “But looking back at it, I think it’s something we really benefited from.”
5. Michigan State
The Spartans come into the tournament with an interesting mix of confidence and desperation. The 12 goals they’ve scored in their last three games boosted their confidence as they defeated Michigan and Wisconsin.
But the Spartans remain desperate, because the only way they’ll earn a bid to the NCAA tournament is if they win three games in three days this weekend, starting with Ohio State on Thursday night. The Buckeyes took the season series 1-0-3, with Ohio State winning two of the three shootouts.
Spartans coach Tom Anastos said his team has grown since the last time they faced off with Ohio State on Feb. 8.
“I think we’re scoring better today than we were back when we played them a while ago.” Anastos said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll have more confidence from an offensive perspective. ... Success breeds more success and it starts from having confidence.”
The Spartans will need that offensive touch if they want to knock the Big Ten’s leading scorer out of the tournament. Ohio State’s Ryan Dzingel led the conference with 20 goals and 23 assists on the season.
Things won’t get any easier for Michigan State if it beats Ohio State. The Spartans would then face the Big Ten regular season champions, Minnesota, on Friday night. The Gophers only lost three conference games this season, all of which were played outside of the state of Minnesota. So, even though Michigan State won two shootouts against Minnesota, beating the Gophers in St. Paul remains a tall task for the Spartans.
4. Ohio State
The only way the Buckeyes can make the NCAA tournament is through an automatic berth, so they must win the Big Ten Championship.
“At this time of the year, if you’re going to win a national championship you’re going to have to win hockey games,” Buckeye coach Steve Rohlik said. “We pretty much know we've got to win three games to even get there so this is our national tournament.”
In the first game, Ohio State will face Michigan State — two teams that tied three out of their four meetings this year.
After the Buckeyes netted five goals in their first game against the Spartans, neither team has managed to score more than two goals in the subsequent games. Ohio State will face a stingy defense; the Spartans allow 2.60 goals per game and block the most shots per game in the nation.
The Buckeyes have one of the most talented players in the conference in Ryan Dzingel. His 43 points led the conference and he has 11 points in eight games against the Spartans.
After a difficult goalkeeping situation earlier in the season, the Buckeyes have settled on freshmen Matt Tomkins and Christian Frey. Rohlik did not say who would start on Thursday, but said Frey has momentum heading into the tournament. They’ve both played against Michigan State this season.
Ohio State has been very good at times, handing Wisconsin just its second loss at the Kohl Center and playing a very close overtime game with the Gophers recently.
“Our concentration is trying to get up there Thursday and hopefully win one hockey game,” Rohlik said. “If you get too ahead of yourselves, all of a sudden your season’s over.”
The Wolverines will face the Nittany Lions on Thursday, and Michigan needs at least a win to earn an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament. Michigan is currently 11th in the Pairwise.
The Nittany Lions have had success against the Wolverines this season, and the two teams split the season series.
“We know that Penn State can beat anyone on a given night and have nothing to lose,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “We have a lot of respect for them for the way they played against us in all four games.”
The Wolverines, who have been inconsistent all year, finished the season with a series split against Minnesota and a 6-2 win on Saturday.
“We’re healthy and I can’t tell you that anything is going really well or really poorly, I just think we’re ready to play,” Berenson said.
Both Steve Racine and Zach Nagelvoort have started for the Wolverines this season, and both have played against Penn State. Racine has not lost to the Nittany Lions, but Berenson said Nagelvoort will start on Thursday.
JT Compher leads the Wolverines in scoring with 31 points, and he also leads all Big Ten freshmen skaters. Seven different Wolverines have notched at least 20 points this season.
I like where we are offensively, but let’s face it, these games tend to be low-scoring games and tight games,” Berenson said. “That’s really what hockey comes down to, you play hard to get a scoring chance and then you try and capitalize on it and in the mean time we’ve got to play rock-solid defensively because goals are going to be precious.”
The Badgers are assured a spot in the NCAA tournament, so they won’t be the same desperate team they were last March when they won three straight games to win the WCHA tournament. But Wisconsin still has a chance to earn a No. 1 seed with a strong showing in St. Paul.
Wisconsin earned a bye to the semifinals and will face either Michigan or Penn State on Friday afternoon. This group of Badgers posted the best home record in the history of the Kohl Center, going 17-2-1 at home. But Wisconsin struggled on the road, especially early in the season, which featured a pair of humbling losses at Boston College and Boston University.
“You have to work to find your team identity. We kind of worked through that during the first part of the season,” Badgers coach Mike Eaves said. “We had some decent games on the road, but didn’t find a way to win.”
Through their first eight road games, the Badgers only notched one victory. But Wisconsin finished strong, winning four of six road games. Eaves said he likes how this team has come together over the months.
“It’s been a fun group of young men to coach,” Eaves said. “They really like each other. They play for each other, and as a result they’ve done some good things.”
This year’s squad boasts nine seniors, and Eaves hopes their experience will help produce postseason results.
“They just calm your room down,” Eaves said. “They are veteran guys that were in the tournament last year in a pretty high pressure situation and were successful. They’re going to be able to lead by example.”
Minnesota is guaranteed the top seed in the NCAAs regardless of where it finishes in the Big Ten tournament. On Friday, the Gophers will face the winner of the Ohio State vs. Michigan State.
The Golden Gophers have one of the best defenses — and goalkeepers — in the nation. Minnesota allows two goals per game, fourth in the nation. Wilcox, in his second year, holds a .934 save percentage and a 1.91 goals-against average.
“He seems to be able to make the key save, the timely save, at the critical juncture in a game,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said.
“The guys are very confident in his ability and the consistency that he’s shown. I think that’s the most impressive thing for me with Adam. “
Even though the Gophers placed emphasis on defense this season, they still have the nation’s sixth best offense, averaging 3.47 goals per game. Kyle Rau leads the team in scoring with 33 points, and Minnesota’s top six scorers are separated by just six points.
The Gophers also received contribution from their rookies, as Hudson Fasching and Justin Kloos finished with 28 and 27 points, respectively.
This season, the Gophers strung together a 14-game unbeaten streak, the longest since 2006-07. The streak ended when Wisconsin swept Minnesota at the Kohl Center.
The Gophers have had success against the Spartans and Buckeyes this season, going 3-0-1 in both series. But the Buckeyes have played the Gophers well in three of the four games this season, and the Spartans own a good defense and an excellent goalkeeper in Jake Hildebrand.
“The edge almost goes on Friday to the teams that played the day before,” Lucia said. “When that games starts they have a game under their belt, a little of the nervousness is gone.”