This Week in Big Ten Hockey: Michigan, Minnesota battling for top spot, home ice for conference playoffs

Michigan senior Jake Slaker has registered a team-best 12 goals and 25 points this season (photo: Michigan Athletics).

The two hottest teams in the Big Ten are the only two teams in control of their own destinies – and their respective coaches couldn’t sound more different with two weeks left in the regular season.

“This team has a chance,” said Michigan’s Mel Pearson after the Wolverines beat Michigan State Monday night in Detroit. “It’s got all the ingredients you need to have a real good run here.”

“Right now, after watching Michigan-Michigan State last night, I just want home ice now,” added Minnesota’s Bob Motzko. “We’re in a battle for home ice.”

At the start of the second half of the season, Michigan was in last place in the Big Ten standings with seven points and Minnesota was in fifth with 13. Penn State led the conference with 24 points.

At the start of action this weekend, Minnesota is tied with Penn State in first place, each with 36 points, and Michigan is right behind them in third place with 33. Now, the Nittany Lions are working hard to maintain a share of second place or higher. With a bye week the last weekend of the regular season, the best Penn State can do potentially is sweep Minnesota this weekend and earn six points.

That alone, though, is good enough only to guarantee a slice of third place. The Nittany Lions would need help to finish higher than third.

The Golden Gophers and Wolverines, though, each are able to secure at least a part of first place. If Minnesota wins three of its four remaining games, the Gophers finish in first place. Michigan needs to sweep its last four games to take first place. After facing off against Notre Dame this weekend, the Wolverines travel to – drum roll, please – Minnesota.

Motzko began his weekly press conference this week by teasing my good friend and colleague Jess Myers, who covers Minnesota for The Rink Live.

“I’m going to blame something on you –I think it was you. Wasn’t it three weeks ago you said, ‘So you’ve got a five-team race?’ and I said, ‘So you’re counting Michigan out?’… And I said it was a six-team race at that time.

“It’s not going to change. That’s the way it is this year. Look at Hockey East – same thing. It’s crazy all over right now.”

It is, as Motzko says, crazy all over right now.

The top eight teams in Hockey East are separated by four points. While top teams in other conferences have given themselves some breathing room – the ECAC excepted, with Cornell and Clarkson tied in first – the teams behind them are all bunched up and jockeying for playoff positions.

In the Big Ten, though, the reason that things are so nuts is because of the excellent second halves that both Michigan and Minnesota have had.

The formerly last-place Wolverines have gone 8-1-1 in their last 10 games while Minnesota is 7-2-1 in that stretch. (An aside: Both teams, coincidentally, dropped single games to the U.S. National Under-18 team in the second half, too.) Each team has seen recent success for different reasons, but the result is that each is also a team in the proverbial driver’s seat.

“We’re healthy,” said Pearson.

Two big men up front for Michigan, seniors Will Lockwood and Jake Slaker, each missed time earlier in the season because of injuries, as did a pair of impact freshmen, forward Johnny Beecher and defenseman Cam York.

The Wolverines approach the end of the season with a nearly injury-free roster with another advantage, the increasingly good play of sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann

“Strauss Mann has continued to play solid, and now we’re getting some scoring,” said Pearson. “We weren’t scoring early. I don’t want to say that we played better earlier in the year than we are now, but we played well. We just couldn’t score. We’re getting some goals, and we continue to get great goaltending.”

Mann’s numbers (.935 save percentage, 2.00 GAA) put him among the top 10 goaltenders in the country. In the second half, Michigan has averaged 4.2 goals per game.

The Gophers have also seen an uptick in scoring, averaging 3.4 goals per game in second-half Big Ten play and 3.75 goals in their last eight games. Minnesota averaged 2.4 goals per game in their first 10 conference games of the season.

“I think it’s really exciting for us to see our team playing to a standard that we want to see them play and moving in the right direction,” said Motzko. “I was very cautious in January. I said, ‘Hey, we had a nice month.’ Now we’ve flipped into February. I’m going to say [that] I think we’re pointed in the right direction for how we want to play. We’re not there yet, but I think this young group is coming.”

So close to the end of the regular season, Motzko isn’t thinking too far ahead. His attention is on Penn State.

“What we’re trying to drill home right now is that they whipped our butts early in the year,” he said.

The Nittany Lions swept the Gophers in Minneapolis Nov. 15-16, outscoring Minnesota 14-5 in the process.

“Let’s see if we’ve closed the gap,” Motzko said. “They’ve got a ton of talent. It’s a great measuring stick to see how far we’ve come because they whooped us early.

“We’re in a battle for home ice. That’s all we’re fighting for right now is to stay there. In another week, if we’ve got a shot at something else, we’re going to go for it, but right now it’s Penn State and get ready for them.”

Motzko is in his second season with Minnesota and tasked with rebuilding a program.

Pearson is less rebuilding than he is restoring. After a six-year run as head coach with his alma mater, Michigan Tech, Pearson returned to Michigan three seasons ago. Prior to his time in Houghton, though, Pearson spent 22 years behind the Michigan bench, first as an assistant coach followed by a dozen years as the associate head coach, and all beside the legendary Red Berenson.

At the end of his first season back in 2017-18, Pearson took the Wolverines to the Frozen Four.

“These guys experienced a heck of a run on the way to the Frozen Four,” said Pearson, who credits his senior class for this season’s turnaround. “That’s not out of the realm of possibilities with this group. We’ve got everything we need.”

Pearson isn’t denying that this second half feels very much like it did two seasons ago. “It really does,” he said. “We’ll see how this plays out.”

Michigan hosts Notre Dame this weekend before finishing the season on the road in Minnesota.

To reiterate

“We know because of our experience last year that every single point is huge.”

That’s what Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky is impressing upon his team this week after the Nittany Lions split on the road against Wisconsin.

That experience last year was another Big Ten horse race, one in which Ohio State ran out front a little with everyone else trailing but not by much. The Buckeyes took the regular-season title with 46 points and the five teams right behind them were separated by just three points among them.

Penn State finished in fourth place with 34 points, enough for home ice in the first round of the playoffs. The Nittany Lions advanced to the B1G playoff championship game against Notre Dame and lost by a goal. That was the end of Penn State’s season, as the Nittany Lions were on the outside of the PairWise Rankings looking in.

This season, Penn State is the only Big Ten team in a decent position in the PWR field at No. 10. This weekend’s series against visiting Minnesota is the last series of the regular season for the Nittany Lions.

“Unless you win, you feel a little bit like you let one get away because of the knowledge that we have, the experience that we have being so close last year and not getting there, that every point, every game is so important,” said Gadowsky. “We very well know what can happen when you don’t take advantage of every point.”

Penn State has gained 12 points since then in a span of 10 conference games dating back to Jan. 17.

The return of the CCHA

People have kindly inquired about my well-being at the news of the resurrection of the CCHA.

I assure you that I am fine, having not hyperventilated for anything longer than about an hour after the announcement was made.

All kidding aside, I see this as a sad occasion.

While I understand the economics of why seven member teams are leaving the WCHA to reboot the CCHA, I am saddened by the dismal prospects for three schools whose programs will now be endangered. Alaska, Alaska Anchorage, Alabama Huntsville – these are not hockey programs that can survive long without conference affiliation, and I fear that both cash-strapped Alaska schools will end their hockey programs sooner rather than later.

And we know that this reboot won’t have the same magic as the old CCHA – or even the old, pre-B1G hockey WCHA – once had. There will be no mix of R1 schools and smaller institutions.

While it’s nice to see the conference name return for nostalgia’s sake, all it means really is that the sport we love has a lot of work to do. If D-I hockey is to thrive, there will need to be a serious discussion about alignment and development of programs at new schools.

Farewell, Pops

In his Hockey East column last week, my longtime colleague and friend, Dave Hendrickson – a.k.a. “Pops” to USCHO staff – announced that he’s leaving USCHO.

Dave has been with USCHO since the summer before it was up and running. He’s had an enormous impact on building the USCHO brand and, by extension, an impact on the way we talk about hockey. It’s nearly impossible to imagine this publication without him.

If you have the chance in the next couple of weeks, take in his final column of the season, read his postseason coverage, and enjoy the work that he so loves doing.