This Week in Big Ten Hockey: Playoffs set to kick off as all teams hope ‘good things are going to happen’ during postseason

 (Jim Rosvold/University of Minnesota)
In the first round of the Big Ten playoffs this weekend, Michigan State plays Michigan while Minnesota will play Notre Dame (photo: Jim Rosvold/University of Minnesota).

Everyone should have someone like Michigan coach Mel Pearson in their corner.

“Things aren’t always going to go your way, but as long as you stick together, believe in each other and do the right thing and work your rear end off, good things are going to happen for you.”

That is what Pearson told his team after the Wolverines beat Minnesota 2-1 Saturday to secure home ice in the first round of the Big Ten playoffs.

Honestly, who can argue with any of that – for anything life throws at us?

Pearson’s philosophy goes a long way toward explaining how a team that began its conference season with a six-game winless streak played its way to hosting a first-round playoff series.

Michigan’s story is just one of seven fascinating narratives that carried us through the Big Ten regular season.

The Wolverines welcome their archrival, Michigan State, this weekend, and the Spartans have a story to tell, too – one of their own near-miss with home ice and flirtation with first place, a story backed by a goaltender having the season of his career.

Minnesota spent a good part of the season in the bottom half of the standings, but the Golden Gophers also played their way to a home weekend, hosting Notre Dame in the first round. Like Michigan, Minnesota had a phenomenal second half and a chance to capture the conference title – but the Wolverines had other ideas and took five of six points on the road from the Gophers in the final weekend of regular-season play.

Minnesota’s opponent, Notre Dame, also had a rough first half but rallied enough in the last few weeks to finish a point away from first-round home ice.

Then there’s the series between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 7 Wisconsin, a series in which the Badgers may be the favorites.

Of course, there’s the biggest story of all: Penn State held onto first place to capture the regular-season championship, earning a first-round bye for the playoffs.

This weekend, there are three first-round, best-of-three series.

The semifinals will be single games March 13-14, with Penn State hosting the lowest seed to emerge from this weekend and the highest surviving seed hosting the other winner from the first round.

The championship will be played on the home ice of the highest seed to advance from the semifinal round, March 20 or March 21.

“This is the worst weekend in college hockey,” said Minnesota coach Bob Motzko. “It’s the survival weekend to move forward. You have to anticipate everything can happen. Nothing’s going to be easy for any team – in our league or even around the country.”

Maybe everyone needs a Bob Motzko in their corner, too. There is a lot to be said for that friend who always tells it like it is.

No. 7 Wisconsin at No. 2 Ohio State

The last-place Badgers are not playing like a last-place team. They return to Columbus this weekend to face the highest seed in the first round after ending the regular season in Columbus, having taken five of six points from the Buckeyes in Value City Arena just last weekend.

Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik said that his players are “not naïve” about this first round.

“They know we just got beaten twice by this team,” he said.

Trailing first-place Penn State by four points at the start of last weekend with only two home losses all season, Ohio State gave up leads in both games and came away nearly empty.

“We know we’re playing a very talented team,” said Rohlik. “We’ve got to be dialed in, we’ve got to be detailed, we’ve got to be better in every facet.”

After a rocky first half and a five-game losing streak near the start of the second, the Badgers improved in the second half but didn’t have anything tangible for their efforts until mid-February. Wisconsin is 4-1-1 in its last seven games, all three of those weekends against ranked teams that included a sweep of Arizona State.

“Now confidence is at a season high,” said Badgers coach Tony Granato. “When you dig yourself a hole and you position yourself like we did, being the bottom seed, the encouraging part is we didn’t bail out, we didn’t say that it’s not happening for us this year. We actually buckled down and became a much better team coming through all that.

“The last few weeks, you could see it building. Now that we’re starting playoffs, I don’t think that any of the hiccups we had during the season mean anything. What means something now is that we’re playing our best. Our team feels good about itself. All of our players seem to be playing their best hockey of the year at the same time, and it gives us the excitement of knowing that we can go into any building, we can beat any team.”

What to watch: Wisconsin’s potentially explosive offense. The Badgers have scored three or more goals in their last six games, averaging over four per game in that span.

No. 6 Michigan State at No. 3 Michigan

It is difficult to explain the intensity of this rivalry to people outside the state of Michigan.

In a press conference this week, Mel Pearson mentioned almost casually that there’s more hate than love in this love-hate relationship. That isn’t a paraphrase.

“In this state, you’re one of the other,” said Pearson. “You’re either Michigan or you’re Michigan State. There’s no in between.”

The programs disagree about how many times they’ve met. According to Michigan, the Wolverines lead this all-time series 163-136-24. The Spartans say that Michigan leads 167-137-24. This year, the teams have split four games, with Michigan State winning a home-and-home series in November and Michigan in East Lansing on Valentine’s Day and again three nights later at Little Caesars Arena.

“Big Ten playoff matches are tough enough as they are, but it’ll be exciting playing our rival an hour down the road,” said Michigan State coach Danton Cole. “I think the guys are excited and looking forward to it.”

Just a few short weeks ago, the Spartans were vying for the regular-season title, but Michigan State struggled in the last month of play, going 3-6-1 in the last 10 Big Ten games with a four straight losses against Michigan and Ohio State putting home ice out of reach. The Spartans rebounded last weekend with a win and a tie on the road against Notre Dame last weekend.

The recent play, said Cole, has prepared his team for this first-round series.

“It’ll be an awful lot the last two weekends, with Ohio State at home and Notre Dame on the road,” said Cole. “Those were playoff games, but it’s going to bump up even a little bit more because now, the play you make, that might be the difference between continuing to play or getting ready for the summer.”

Michigan enters the weekend on a high note as well, having taken five points from Minnesota on the road this weekend. After a tough first half, the Wolverines have established themselves as one tough team since the start of the calendar year.

“At one point we were 0-6-1 in the Big Ten. We weren’t sure if we were ever going to win a Big Ten game,” said Pearson. “For our guys to hang in there in the first half and finish where we did in the standings and to get home ice, going to Minnesota and having to do that, I’m really proud and happy for our players.”

What changed in the second half of the season for the Wolverines? Michigan’s now playing with close to a full roster.

“We finally got healthy,” said Pearson. “And we just let them play.”

What to watch: The goaltending battle between Michigan State senior John Lethemon (1.99 GAA, .943 SV%) and Michigan sophomore Strauss Mann (2.04 GAA, .936 SV%).

No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 4 Minnesota

Both the Fighting Irish and Golden Gophers came into their own in the second half of the season – Minnesota a little sooner than Notre Dame, and both for very different reasons.

Notre Dame was a team that struggled with confidence in the first half of the season. The Irish knew they needed to find offense as the season began, but they didn’t anticipate a six-game losing streak in which they averaged 1.5 goals per game to take them to the second-to-last game of the first half.

Coach Jeff Jackson was frank about his team’s fragile confidence – compounded by some uncharacteristic inconsistency by senior goaltender Cale Morris – but that first half seems like a long time ago to a team that came within a point of hosting a first-round playoff series.

“We’ve actually recovered from our first-half slump and I think we’ve played pretty good hockey in the second half,” said Jackson. “We still have some inconsistencies in our game where we’re a little bit up and down from game to game. In that way, it’s been a roller coaster ride. The positive thing is that we have played well on the road here in the second half.

“We’re coming off a couple of good games in Penn State and our two-game series against Michigan, and that gives me confidence going into Minnesota in that at least we have a fairly good idea of what we have to do to be successful on the road. So that’ll be the biggest challenge, making sure the guys are focused to play the same that we have the last two road series that we played in the Big Ten.”

In those last two road series, the Irish were 1-1-2 with extra shootout points in each tie. They tied and lost to Minnesota at home in mid-February.

“We just played them about three weeks ago so we know their skill level and their speed,” said Jackson. “They’re a very good transition team.”

And the Gophers certainly are a very good transition team. A lot has been made of Minnesota’s youth, but Motzko said that it’s something that he and his coaching staff have never really talked about – but he does concede that it took a while for this team to get going this season.

“Early in the season, we got thumped a couple Friday nights pretty good,” said Motzko, “but our group would bounce back Saturday, and the next Monday, and the next week, every time it happened. There was always this little pull within our group to keep moving forward. We never talked about our age. We just talked about moving forward to get better.”

In the second half of the season, the Gophers were 7-4-3 in Big Ten play – and the Gophers have just nine wins in conference play for the whole season. “The Christmas break was the key for us,” said Motzko. “We needed to step away for a few weeks, come back, and then that’s when the tide turned.”

Two of the four games between Notre Dame and Minnesota were ties, with the Gophers taking an extra point each time. Another was a one-goal Minnesota win.

Motzko has a prediction about how this series will go.

“I’ve been doing this a while, and I can tell you I’ve been to a whole bunch of three-game series,” he said. “And I guarantee you, the way it’s playing out with our team, we’re going to see overtime, too, the way that Notre Dame and our team’s lined up. I think it’s inevitable that this thing could be three games.”

What to watch: Consistency. The team that has it in two of three games will live to play again.

And a word from the regular-season champs

As the regular-season champion, Penn State has a first-round playoff bye. The week off marks the Nittany Lions’ second consecutive week off, as Penn State had a bye the last weekend of the season, too.

“This is new for us,” said Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky. “Some guys are raring to go and some guys have bumps and bruises and really welcome this break. The way we’re approaching it is just [that] we’re going to take a few days off and when we take days off, we’re taking days off. When we come to the rink and work, we’re going to work. That’s our approach.”

Gadowsky said that what makes Penn State’s first regular-season championship that much more meaningful is that the Big Ten as a whole played the best hockey he’s seen since the league was formed.

“All teams are excellent,” said Gadowsky. “You could make an argument for any team that would end up on top at the start of the year. For us to be able to come away from the challenges that we’ve had and correct when we were going the wrong way and come out on top through the course of the season makes us feel really good, specifically because of the quality of the teams in the conference this year.”