Close games, favorites and a surprisingly strong conference

Big Ten fans were treated to two fantastic semifinal games Saturday night. Congratulations to winners Notre Dame and Ohio State, who will play for the B1G championship this Saturday, March 17 — St. Patrick’s Day — in the Compton Family Ice Arena.

1. Two televised 3-2 thrillers provided a perfect showcase for college hockey.

Maybe this isn’t what I should start with, but I was delighted that both semifinal games were close games that came down to the last minute on either side of regulation. After the Nittany Lions and Fighting Irish each scored two goals in the first period of their game, junior forward Jack Jenkins found the net for the Irish with 31 seconds left in regulation, giving Notre Dame that last-minute win. It was Jenkins’ third goal of the season and his first in 23 games, his first since scoring against Penn State Nov. 10.

In Ohio State’s exciting 3-2 overtime decision against Michigan, the Wolverines sent the game to OT on junior Cooper Marody’s second goal of the night on the power play at 7:27 in the third period — but it took Matthew Weis just 32 seconds into overtime to win the game for Ohio State.

Both games were well attended. There were 4,892 fans at the Compton Family Ice Arena, and 6,527 filled the lower bowl of Nationwide Arena, home to the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets. Ohio State’s home rink, Value City Arena, is always booked for the second weekend in March for the statewide Ohio boys’ high school wrestling tournament. The atmosphere for both games, though, was collegiate and fantastic, and fans who watched on ESPNU and BTN can attest to that.

2. The favorites won, but things could have gone differently.

Obviously, the games were close but each of the favorites found ways to win. This is telling in a couple of ways.

For a Notre Dame team that had a really rocky February (3-4-1) and was able to use the first-round bye to address whatever was ailing the team — and was able to adjust mid-game against Penn State — the win was a reminder of why this team put together that first-half win streak and dominated this conference for so long. The Nittany Lions absolutely played their brand of hockey in that first period, forcing the Irish to go end-to-end, locking the game 2-2, outshooting Notre Dame 18-16 in the first 20 minutes. But Notre Dame adjusted, shutting down the Nittany Lions for the rest of the game and eventually outshooting Penn State 47-45. Notre Dame is a defense-first team, but it is significant that the Irish were able to figure out how to outplay Penn State at its own game. The Irish were also able to find a way to take care of business at the very last minute. It was an impressive display.

For Ohio State, the neutral ice easily could have negated any home advantage but didn’t, and the fierce rivalry between the Buckeyes and Wolverines could very well have played into the hands of a hot, emotional Michigan team but it didn’t. Michigan was 8-1-1 in its last 10 games coming into Columbus and was a team with something to prove, having not only been picked to finish sixth by coaches in the Big Ten preseason poll but also having lost all four regular-season games to the Buckeyes. In the end, the Buckeyes netted two power-play goals in regulation — including sophomore defenseman Gordi Myer’s first goal of the season to open the scoring at 16:02 in the first, his second career goal — and the team’s big players did the proverbial stepping up in overtime when the team needed it most, including goaltender Sean Romeo who had to make two very good saves in the first 30 seconds of OT when Michigan was buzzing.

3. Four B1G teams and probably a fifth are going to the NCAA Tournament.

This is insane. Whoever captures the Big Ten title will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the runner-up may drop to a No. 2 seed but may not. Notre Dame (tied for second in the PairWise Rankings), Ohio State (tied for fourth), Michigan (tied for 10th) and Penn State (12th) are all in as far as I can tell. I’ve played with the PairWise Predictor for a little bit and it would take an awful lot to knock out Minnesota (13th) as well.

What is going on here? I think there are a couple of factors at play. The league had a really good first half, especially in nonconference play. Both Notre Dame and Ohio State had good first halves as well, and the excellence of Notre Dame’s first half helped buoy the Irish when they stumbled in the second. Ohio State has been consistent all season long, so there’s that. Michigan, however, went through enormous growing pains in the first half and emerged a contender in the second, with a more mature team, a confident Hayden Lavigne in goal, and an offense that is looking pretty scary. Penn State and Minnesota have had disappointing seasons, but each has been strong enough in stretches to keep afloat, and they also have benefited from having played in the stronger Big Ten this season.

There’s more, of course. Jayson Moy can give you a much better picture of the PWR and how it works through his Bracketology blog. It’s just good to see the Big Ten begin to realize its potential.