It’s time to talk about some magic – magic numbers, that is.
February brings the last four weekends of regular-season Big Ten play, and with that comes the fight for the regular-season title, the jockeying for home ice throughout the playoffs and the chance to improve in the PairWise Rankings in the hopes of reaching the NCAA tournament without the benefit of the postseason championship autobid.
With eight games remaining, Notre Dame is the only team in control of its own destiny. Sitting in first place with 42 points – 11 points ahead of second-place Ohio State – the Fighting Irish will clinch the regular-season title if they win their next four straight games. The Irish cannot finish lower than third, even if they lose the rest of their games.
Only Ohio State and third-place Wisconsin can, in theory, catch Notre Dame and claim the regular-season title. It’s interesting to note, though, that every team except for Notre Dame has the potential to finish in last place, although the probability of anyone other than Michigan State doing so is low, as the Spartans are 12 points behind sixth-place Minnesota.
If the Buckeyes win their next four in a row – and that would include a series against Notre Dame – they would finish no lower than third place. Wisconsin needs to win six straight, regardless of what anybody else in the league does, to clinch third place.
It’s in the middle of the pack where things become interesting, and even though Ohio State is six points ahead of Wisconsin, with two losses the Buckeyes could be fighting for home ice. The four teams throttled in the middle of the standings – Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State and Minnesota – are separated by two points or less, and each has six games remaining. The Irish, Buckeyes and Spartans each have eight remaining regular-season games.
This season, the Big Ten has reconfigured its playoff format with an eye to increase fan interest and to help the NCAA tournament chances of conference teams. Brad Traviolia, the deputy commissioner of the Big Ten, said that prior to this season, the league talked about a format that would “maximize attendance, excitement, the experience for the student-athletes and prepare your teams for the NCAA championship.” That led to this year’s three-weekend format, played on the home ice of the highest seed.
The playoffs open the weekend of March 2 with best-of-three series. The top seed overall gets a bye for the first week of play, with No. 2 hosting No. 7, No. 3 hosting No. 6, and No. 4 hosting No. 5.
The survivors of that weekend then head to a single-elimination semifinal game Saturday, March 10, hosted by the No. 1 seed and the top remaining seed after that.
The championship game will be hosted by the top remaining seed Saturday, March 17.
“We’re very excited about it and think it will be very well attended this year,” said Traviolia.
Now in its fifth season, Big Ten hockey has certainly gone through some growing pains. Three of the current seven head coaches are new since Big Ten play began and it can be argued that when the conference was formed, the five teams that were coming from the WCHA and CCHA – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State – were showing some signs of growing pains of their own, individually.
These and other things contributed to disappointing turnouts for the first four Big Ten conference playoff tournaments, alternating between the Xcel Center in St. Paul and Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
“The tournament numbers in either St. Paul or Detroit didn’t live up to the historic norms of either the WCHA or the CCHA had done when our schools had participated as part of those two leagues,” said Traviolia. “The conference tournament should be a culminating event that is very exciting and has a great atmosphere, and unfortunately it was a challenge for us to provide that at neutral sites, even though those are two great facilities and two great hockey cities that do a wonderful job of hosting.”
So the league came up with the new playoff format, complete with location being determined by seeding, and the coaches voted unanimously for it.
“I think that one of the things that’s a great positive of college athletics and certainly is great of our Big Ten institutions is the home crowds,” said Traviolia. “If that’s one of the great things about your sport, why not supply that as much as possible. The idea of taking the conference tournament from neutral sites to back on campus was one that resonated with our coaches.”
Figuring everything out was a little tricky with the addition of a seventh team this season. Traviolia said that it came down to how the playoff format would affect teams in advance of the NCAA tournament. “If you played in the first round and your series went three games, and if you played in the second round and your series went three games, even though you had a single game in the final, potentially seven games over that period of time could be a little bit of wear and tear on the teams.”
The Big Ten is an enormous, high-profile conference with a wealth of championship experience from which to draw, and Traviolia said that hockey looked toward the success of the Big Ten baseball playoff tournament for a bit of inspiration.
In 2014, the Big Ten held its baseball tournament in Omaha, home of the college world series, and the atmosphere was electric. In 2015, it moved to Minneapolis, back to Omaha in 2016, and last year it was Bloomington. From 2018 through 2022, though, it’s scheduled every year in Omaha. Before Omaha, said Traviolia, “Our baseball tournament was very sparsely attended. We’d been at neutral sites, we’d been at campus sites [and] we never really found a place where it could thrive.”
That’s what the Big Ten is banking on this year, that the hockey playoffs will thrive where they’re most welcome, in the home rinks of the teams playing the games. “We know that the WCHA had a very successful postseason tournament last year when they brought theirs back to campus,” said Traviolia, “and I think that’s just another indicator of why the Big Ten’s very optimistic heading into this year.”
There’s no reason to think that this isn’t a good move on the part of the Big Ten. Note the date of the championship game, too – St. Patrick’s Day.
So … maybe eight teams?
The expansion of the league from six to seven teams has created a longer conference season – much welcomed by programs and fans alike – and more interesting hockey. That the team is Notre Dame makes the expansion even better. The Irish have a long recent history with the three former CCHA Big Ten teams and Notre Dame once played in the WCHA with Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“We’re very happy and confident that Notre Dame has all the characteristics of a very successful hockey program regardless of the whole competitive result,” said Traviolia. “They look, act, and perform a lot like a Big Ten program. They’re right in our wheelhouse, they’re right in our geography, and it’s been a very good fit.”
So, will the University of Illinois be the league’s eighth team? Last June, the NHL announced grants available for schools to explore adding Division I ice hockey and Illinois began to explore the option of adding a team.
“Illinois is in their feasibility study phase with the grant provided by the NHL,” said Traviolia. “I don’t think the feasibility study has been completed yet, formally, but they’ve met with the consultants and they’ve done a lot of due diligence with some of the NHL support, and I would think that later this spring or early summer, they’ll have to reach a decision. I don’t think they want this to drag on forever, but I think they want to put enough time into the process where they thoroughly vet the idea and if it’s something they think they can do, they’ll pull the trigger – and not just do, but be successful at it.
“They’re not going to try something just to be mediocre at it. If they’re going to do something, they’re going to do something very well.”
Three stars of the week
Two goalies and a forward.
First star – Ohio State senior goaltender Sean Romeo
Romeo (Cary, N.C.), a transfer from Maine, stopped 32 shots Friday in his second career shutout and first in Big Ten play when the Buckeyes beat the Wolverines 4-0. In the two-game home sweep of Michigan, Romeo had a .952 save percentage and 1.50 goals-against average, and he made 17 saves in the third period of Saturday’s 5-3 win to help the Buckeyes complete their first season sweep of the Wolverines since the 1985-1986 season. This Romeo’s third career Big Ten weekly award.
Second star – Wisconsin senior forward Ryan Wagner
Wagner (Park Ridge, Ill.) led the Big Ten with four points on the weekend, including an unassisted goal in Saturday’s 4-4 tie against Penn State and three assists in the series. His goal was his 10th of the season, equaling his career-best 10-goal season in his sophomore year, and he now leads the Badgers in points (10-16—26). This is Wagner’s second career Big Ten weekly award, his first of the season.
Third star – Notre Dame sophomore goaltender Cale Morris
Morris (Larkspur, Colo.) had a .961 save percentage in Notre Dame’s road split against Minnesota. He allowed one goal on 34 shots in Notre Dame’s 1-0 overtime loss Friday and had 16 saves in Notre Dame’s 4-1 win Saturday, Cale’s 19th win of the season to lead the NCAA. This is Cale’s seventh career Big Ten weekly award, all from this season.
2. Notre Dame
4. Ohio State
6. St. Cloud
7. Minnesota State
9. North Dakota
10. Minnesota Duluth
13. Western Michigan
15. Penn State
16. Bowling Green
17. Northern Michigan
19. Boston College
20. Bemidji State