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Gophers set for Big Ten tourney, despite woeful outlook

The Big Ten Tournament is set to get underway tonight as six of the best teams in college hockey face off for their chance to make it to the NCAA tournament.

Okay, so maybe my subtitle here was a bit on the nose. The Big Ten tournament is getting started today at the Xcel Energy Center. Penn State will slap around play hockey or something against the Wisconsin Badgers at 4:00 PM on the Big Ten Network. At 7:30 PM, Ohio State and Michigan State will settle a centuries-old Big Ten feud over who will advance to face the Gophers in the semifinals.

I'm just kidding, obviously, because there's not a ton of history to these rivalries. At least not a ton of hockey history. College hockey rivalries are tough things. They're formed over decades, but only sort of -- because players move out of the NCAA quickly and their memories and grudges, unlike most pre-modern history, is not passed down through some oral tradition. History is meaningful in college hockey, but not nearly as important as geography.

In the rivalries the Big Ten has failed to develop, geography is tremendously important to the atmosphere of the college game. It's why Border Battles area thing. Because students who live near two big universities , both in the NCAA, can choose to go to one or the other. It's why Badgers erroneously needle Gophers with chants of "Safety school!" and why Gophers properly needle them back with "your team is bad!" These rivalries aren't built up over years of play in the way that NHL rivalries are, they're built up based on the shared knowledge of one another.

So it stood to reason, when the Big Ten hockey conference was created that such knowledge of more notable college athletics programs like Michigan and Ohio State, that rivalries would form quickly. Because, after all, what's a MSU Maverick? (Answer: It's a pretty good hockey team). But all this neglected the ubiquity of college hockey in Minnesota. It doesn't matter if anyone outside the state knows who the Bemidji State Beavers are or what their deal is, because hockey is everywhere and the WCHA, the old one, was a distillation of that.

Despite my soap-boxing, which is inferior to my beat-boxing, the Big Ten will lumber on tonight and brings us two matchups that seem unlikely to cause any sparks but could bring some real heat to tomorrow night's action. In the first game today, Penn State and Wisconsin square off.

The obvious favorite here is Penn State, though a rash of injuries on the team will force them to ice a short bench today. The Nittany Lions will miss forwards Dylan Richard and possibly Alec Marsh as well as d-man Luke Juha. The real notable absence, however, will be defenseman Vince Pedrie, whose 22 points on the season put him 6th on the team in scoring.

Nevertheless, they've dealt with this issue all season and I don't entirely trust that the 2016 Badgers are formidable enough to put down even a depleted Nittany Lions team. If the Badgers do lose today, or if they're playing from behind, I anticipate they'll take their season's frustrations out on their opponents, as they've done a number of times this season. Players like Eddie Wittchow and Aidan Cavallini have brought big physical games to some of their worst losing efforts. Don't expect this afternoon's action to settle those tempers.

While some frustrated sparks may fly in the early game, I expect a tighter matchup between Ohio State and Michigan State. Ohio State brings an impressive and well-acknowledged squad to St. Paul, studded with potential stars like defenseman Josh Healey, whose selection to the All-Big Ten First Team grabbed a few headlines. He's been stable all season long and brings a multi-faceted game to the Ohio blueline.

The Buckeyes also boost young talent, with Mason Jobst grabbing a spot on the Big Ten's All-Freshmen team. They're a stronger team at the end of this season than they were to begin it. To be fair, it's hard not to improve at the end of the season when the beginning of the season was a 0-7 start, but the Buckeyes have certainly made up for it, winning 5 of their past 7. They're much, much more solid in goal than they were early on, and are looking to make some waves in the Big Ten and the NCAA at large.

On the other bench will be Michigan State, who ended their season with a loss and a tie to...Ohio State?! Come on, that can't be right. Whatever, it's not like those games were really really close, and hotly contested. Oh, they were? Okay, well this just got much more interesting.

For the third straight game, the Spartans will take on the Buckeyes, and we'll see how diligent they are as students. They'll bring a powerful, offensive-minded d-corps to the game and will try to drive play from the points. Ideally for the Spartans, they can start to churn through the high zone and allow their wingers to move around low.

In the end, though, this matchup is really a great setup for the Big Ten. Two teams who know each other well and are designed to play one another face off for the right to play a dejected Gophers squad tomorrow night. The Gophers are still the odds-on favorites, but there's something to be said for momentum and how that plays out in high-stakes matchups.

As for the two first round byes, the Gophers and Michigan both have played decent hockey down the stretch. I'm more comfortable with Michigan's strength, having secured an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney with their #7 ranking to close out the season. Nevertheless, the Gophers dominated conference play late in the season and narrowly took the Big Ten regular season championship, so their seeding should be to their advantage.

If you're looking to get the most bang for your buck in terms of college hockey this weekend, take a peek at the Ohio State - Michigan State game and tomorrow night's matchup against the Gophers. Both games will feature the most motivated teams on the ice. They're sure to produce some of the tightest games and the most emotionally-charged play of the entire Big Ten season.

With all this said, there's not much left before the puck drops. But before that, drop me a puck comment below. Who do you think takes the Big Ten tournament? What will it mean if the Gophers sink? How do Gophers swim? Are they actually aquatic animals? Is this not a funny series of jokes?