This Week in Big Ten Hockey: ‘All of the coaches are in support of’ moving up start of postseason tournament to March 14

Penn State’s Alex Limoges looks to make a move around Wisconsin’s Anthony Kehrer during a recent Big Ten game (photo: Mark Selders).

Still trying to figure out what the college hockey postseason will look like?

Well, you’re not alone.

We’ve known since late January that Notre Dame will be hosting the single-elimination Big Ten tournament at the Compton Family Ice Arena, an event originally scheduled for March 18 to March 20.

On Tuesday of this week, though, Todd Milewski wrote for the Wisconsin State Journal that the Big Ten will likely be moving up the start date of the playoff tournament to Sunday, March 14. That is something that Wisconsin coach Tony Granato let slip, apparently, before anything official had been announced by the league.

In the article, Granato is quoted as saying that “all of the coaches are in support of” moving up the start date of the tournament to buy additional time for Big Ten teams that advance to the NCAA tournament, which is slated to begin at regional sites Friday, March 26. Granato said that a Big Ten title game on March 20 “would be asking a lot of the athletes and put us in a spot that we don’t want to be in.”

The final full weekend of Big Ten play is scheduled for the first weekend in March, and the last regular-season game is a rescheduled contest between Michigan and Michigan State Wednesday, March 10. The Wolverines and Spartans had a game Feb. 9 postponed because of a two-week COVID lockdown of the entire University of Michigan athletic department. It should be noted that the positive tests that precipitated that event came from outside of the hockey program.

The news of a possible change in B1G playoff plans comes coincidentally as Penn State is finishing a month completely devoid of competition.

On Feb. 9, Penn State announced that its series against Ohio State scheduled for the following weekend had been postponed because of positive tests among Tier 1 hockey personnel – players, coaches, anyone who works directly in person with the team – in the Nittany Lions program. Then a series against Arizona State was cancelled, and last week Penn State announced that its scheduled series against Minnesota this coming weekend had also been cancelled outright.

Prior to the positive COVID tests in the Penn State program, the Nittany Lions had a series against Michigan scheduled for Feb. 3-4 postponed because of that pause in the Michigan athletic department. There has been no word yet on when Penn State will return to competition – or about the games still labeled “postponed” on the Nittany Lions’ schedule – but Penn State is scheduled to end the regular season on the road against Notre Dame March 5-6.

Prior to the beginning of this season, the Big Ten published “Protocol for Unbalanced Schedules” at the bottom of its explanations of tie breakers. In the event that some teams might not be able to play all of their scheduled games in the 2020-21 season, the regular season Big Ten champion and seeding of the league’s playoff tournament would rely first and foremost on win percentage in all Big Ten games rather than on points earned.

Minnesota currently has the best win percentage in the conference (.750). Bob Motzko said that he’s treating the cancelled weekend against Penn State like every other bye week he’s had.

“We’ve all been through this before,” said the coach, who doesn’t seem especially worried about the cancelled series. “If we win, we’re good. Let’s win. We’ll figure it out.”

What, then, about that last game of the season, the one that Michigan and Michigan State are scheduled to play March 10? What if the outcome of that game won’t change the win percentages enough to affect the seeding of the Big Ten tournament? If that’s the case, it would make sense to cancel it so that the Wolverines and Spartans have at least as much time as the rest of the B1G field between the end of their regular season and the start of conference championship tournament.

It’s worth mentioning here, too, that in a memo last week, the NCAA outlined its six criteria for seeding the national tournament that include “Strength of Schedule” and “Quality Wins,” two things that seem difficult to quantify given the near-complete lack of interconference play this season.

The memo also suggests that the selection committee will employ degrees of subjective judgement and flexibility in determining the field and the seeding. Jimmy Connelly and I puzzle through this in this week’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback. Given how close we are to the end of the season and what’s happened to Penn State in February, it seems impossible to discuss the end of the Big Ten season without looking at an even bigger picture.

Then there’s this bit of news: The Michigan athletic department announced this past Monday that the field hockey team is postponing its opening weekend of play scheduled for Feb. 26-27 because of COVID-19 protocols.

There is nothing in that announcement connected to the men’s ice hockey team, but the news that the virus is out there circulating among more than one B1G athletic department this close to the end of the season is alarming.

They is actual hockey, too

Wisconsin defeated Notre Dame 4-2 last Friday before the teams tied 5-5 the following night. In that tie, the Badgers led 3-1 going into the third period and would have lost outright without Ty Pelton-Bryce’s tying goal with 27 seconds remaining in regulation.

“We got away from playing the smart game we were playing most of the weekend,” said Granato. “It was a wild third.”

Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said that he liked the way his team responded after doing a “poor job of managing the puck” in the second period. Tying it in the third “was just playing for pride,” said Jackson.

The Badgers are 6-1-1 in their last eight games. The Irish broke a three-game losing streak with that tie.

The Irish did prevail in the shootout, but that additional point does nothing for Notre Dame beyond giving the Irish an emotional lift heading into the final two weeks of the season. With the unbalanced schedule, the tie is a tie and does nothing for the win percentage of either the Badgers or the Fighting Irish.

This weekend, Wisconsin hosts Ohio State and Notre Dame plays Michigan State on the road.

An optimistic split

The Buckeyes broke a five-game losing streak last Friday with a 3-2 home win over archrival Michigan. “Our team, we just keep buying in,” said Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik. “We’ve been working hard. I like our practice habits. It just hasn’t translated.”

Rohlik said that the Buckeyes have been striving to play their best hockey at the end of the season.

“I know it hasn’t looked good at times,” Rohlik said. “We’ve lost some tough games, but you’ve got to learn from that. You’ve got to stick together [in] good times and bad times, and any time you step on the ice, you’ve got to expect to win. That might sound silly for us right now, but you know what? That’s our attitude and we’ve just got to continue to look at it and try to get better.”

The Buckeyes lost 6-0 the following night to the Wolverines, a game after which Rohlik found a positive takeaway.

“We just beat a top-10 team in the country,” he said. “We split with them. We got some things to build on. We’ve got a lot to look forward to next week playing another top-five team in the country.”