NCAA Hockey 101: Big Ten tighter than it should be

NCAA Hockey 101: Big Ten tighter than it should be

As we head into the final weekend of regular-season play in the Big Ten, just about anything could happen.

Minnesota is up four points on Michigan atop the conference, and it's possible that the Wolverines could pull ahead. The Gophers host lowly Wisconsin for a pair, while Michigan hosts Penn State, so it's not particularly likely, but it's possible. Moreover, it's a lot more possible that Penn State passes Michigan — losers of a bizarre sweep at the hands of Ohio State this past weekend — if their head-to-head series goes as the Nittany Lions would like. If they sweep in regulation, they would pull within a point of Minnesota.

And even below the top-three in the conference, there is intrigue. Given what the Buckeyes just did to Michigan (albeit home-and-home in a huge rivalry series) would anyone particularly want to face them in the first round of the Big Ten tournament? Or what about Michigan State, which pummeled the Gophers on Saturday, 5-0, to pick up a road split? Even Wisconsin split with Penn State this past weekend.

The games this weekend and, more importantly, next are critical to a number of Big Ten teams. Michigan is the only one that's basically guaranteed an NCAA tournament appearance at this point, and the rest would probably need to win the conference tournament and pull the league's auto-bid to squeeze in. That's potentially bad news for the other teams on the bubble — UMass Lowell, Minnesota Duluth, and Nebraska Omaha — but only because right now you can't have too much faith in anyone to actually win the conference tournament.

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In other conferences, this isn't an issue. The three or four best teams in Hockey East, the ECAC, and the NCHC are all pretty much assured entrance at this point, while everyone save for Michigan in every other conference knows they have to win a title to make it. Even Lowell, which currently sits 12th in the Pairwise, would basically guarantee itself a spot in the tournament with a single win over BU in their best-of-three series between the Nos. 4 and 5 teams in Hockey East; right now, the River Hawks have a 96 percent chance to make it, while BU is at almost 100 percent. Even if Lowell gets swept, it only drops to an 86 percent chance of getting in.

But the thing with the Big Ten in particular when it comes to all this is that it has been an extremely weird conference all season. A decent Minnesota team stands astride it right now, but only because it made hay against the conference's weakest teams all season, with its only losses before Saturday's pasting at the hands of the Spartans coming against Michigan and Penn State (the teams split all four series). Meanwhile Michigan very much did not. It lost to Michigan State, and most recently got swept by Ohio State as part of a current three-game skid. And in a conference with three-point games every night, the difference between winning convincingly and barely winning rears its head quickly.

The Wolverines are almost certainly the conference's best team, with stronger possession numbers than all but Penn State, plenty of talent, and a strong out-of-conference body of work against actual good teams. The Wolverines went 10-2-2 OOC, better than everyone in the Big Ten, and really only rivaled by Penn State's 10-3-3. Conference leader Minnesota? A dismal 5-10-0.

There's no reason for Minnesota to have played as poorly out-of-conference as it did. It lost to an awful Vermont team, lost two of three to Minnesota State, lost to Bemidji, and so on. Its other wins came against Northeastern (twice, at a time when the Huskies were the total opposite of the hottest team in the nation by far), in a split with Notre Dame (fairly good!), and against UConn (who cares?). Surprisingly, Minnesota has built its marginally good possession share (51.7 percent), mostly by pumping good teams. They're 58 percent or so against teams currently top-16 in the Pairwise. That also means the bad teams punked them out pretty well, all things considered (48.4 percent). Score effects weigh heavily here, certainly, but nonetheless it's something to keep an eye on going forward.

Meanwhile, Penn State is playing just as it always has, more or less, sitting well above 50 percent for the season and staying there despite some tougher recent circumstances. The Nittany Lions haven't played much in the way of tough competition this year, and had a weak OOC schedule comprised mostly of bad teams coming to Pegula and getting badly out-attempted. And hey, if it buoys your chances to make the NCAA tournament, which it certainly has for Penn State, then it's tough to be mad about it, but regardless it's also something that should be remembered when looking at their strong record: It was built mainly with cupcakes as mortar.

Finally, there's Michigan, which probably had these last two losses coming for a while now. It flat-out hasn't been playing well for the last month or so, and if it's catching up with them, the numbers show that this may only be fair. People are going to blame the team's goaltending going in the toilet (Steve Racine is .889 since Feb. 12, and .823 in his last three games!) and certainly it's a major issue. But the cracks are starting to show elsewhere too.


What will happen next weekend? The way these teams have played this year, it's awful difficult to say. Lots of up-and-down play from Minnesota and Michigan, the two actual best teams in the conference, but their talent levels alone should still be enough to hold off the challengers. The most likely scenario is Minnesota winning the conference, and Michigan playing runner-up. That wouldn't and shouldn't shock anyone.

But once you get into the conference playoffs, all bets may be off. Quite frankly it should be scary for all involved.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. Quinnipiac (idle)

2. Boston College (idle)

3. North Dakota (swept Western Michigan)

4. Providence (idle)

5. St. Cloud (swept at Colorado College)

6. Notre Dame (idle)

7. UMass Lowell (idle)

8. Michigan (got swept at Ohio State)

9. BU (swept UMass)

10. Yale (idle)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and also covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here.