With the regular season over in the Big Ten, it’s time to figure out who belongs in the NCAA tournament (hint: Minnesota, PSU, maaaaybe Wisconsin), and who doesn’t (lots of other teams). Last night served as the quarterfinal to the real show, and saw both Michigan State and Michigan bounced by Ohio State and PSU, respectively.
Each of Thursday’s games were low penalty, high event affairs. PSU and Ohio State put up an identical 34 shots against their opponents, though Ohio State had a bit more luck, with 5 separate players finding the back of the net. In total, these results aren’t surprising; Michigan and Michigan State’s records combined would have barely put them in front of Penn State in the Big Ten Conference, and their dismal performance throughout the season put them in that position.
Thursday’s results put in place more exciting semifinals between Ohio State and Wisconsin and Penn State and Minnesota. Throughout the season, Penn State has been the more threatening team, rising as high as No. 4 in the USCHO rankings at their peak in the year (correct me if I’m wrong).
Nevertheless, the Gophers have had their number in their 4 regular season matchups, winning 3 games in regulation and one in the overtime session. The Gophers have outscored the Nittany Lions 20 - 9 in those 4 games, with the usual suspects playing large roles.
Rem Pitlick and Tyler Sheehy have put in great seasons for the maroon and gold, and if you’re rooting for another Gophers Big Ten at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, look for them to hit the ice hard tonight. These type of games always make me question whether the Gophers can hold up, but I think this is one they can manage.
In the other match tonight, the skidding Wisconsin Badgers take on Ohio State, who ended their season with a par of tough losses a week ago. In the past three games, the Badgers have scored 2 goals and have let in 14. Probably not the position you want to be in headed into the Big Ten tournament, but what do I know?
This season has been a huge improvement for the Badgers, who finished second in the Big Ten with a 12-8-0 record. That’s worth something for a team that made a big change in the offseason, bringing on Head Coach Tony Granato to establish a new culture in the locker room and make the program respectable for prospects.
So far, Granato’s tenure has done what he’s needed to. I don’t think anyone really expected the Badgers to rise to the level they did and briefly threaten the Gophers for the lead atop the Big Ten, but they did, and I think for many Badgers fans, that’s statement enough.
A loss tonight would likely end their chances at making the NCAA tournament, but a win would prove something else. It’d show the Badgers critics from past seasons that their players are able to adjust on-the-fly to difficult situations and regroup when the time comes.
That’s a big challenge at this point for the Badgers, who, save for a few scoring outbursts, have struggled to find the back of the net like they did earlier in the season when they boasted a strong attack and tolerable defense. Lately, their goaltending has regressed to levels seen in the past few years, and their offense looks similar, too.
I imagine the Badgers do have it in them to get a win tonight, but it’ll likely take a lot of things coming together in just the right way to make it happen. First, they’ll have to overcome a scoring bug that’s hurt them on both ends of the ice. They’ll also have to beat a team that has proven they match up well against them. Then, they’ll have to carry the One Ring through Mordor and toss it into the fires of Mount — wrong saga. But whatever.
With the tournament underway, it’s up to the Gophers to prove that they’re ready once again for the NCAA tournament and it’s up to the Badgers to prove that they finally are.