Last April at Xcel Energy Center, the Big Ten as a hockey conference had its coming out party. Three of its teams — Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan — were in the NCAA Frozen Four, with only Minnesota Duluth’s championship run preventing the Big Ten from hanging its first banner since the new league began play in 2014.
Fast forward 10 months, and the Big Ten will be hard-pressed to repeat that feat. In fact, if the NCAA tournament started today, only one conference team — Ohio State — would make the 16-team field. The Buckeyes, ranked No. 3 in the PairWise Ratings (the formula that mimics what the NCAA uses to pick its tournament teams), are the class of the Big Ten, holding a commanding 11-point lead on second-place Michigan.
After that, none of the other six Big Ten teams, including the Gophers, are in an NCAA tournament spot. Minnesota’s only realistic shot is winning the Big Ten tournament and its automatic bid.
Aside from Ohio State, the rest of the conference has taken turns beating up on each other, with only eight points separating Michigan from last-place Wisconsin.
“Anybody can beat anybody in our league, top to bottom,” said Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik, whose team will clinch the conference championship and coveted first-round tournament bye if it sweeps the Gophers on Friday and Saturday in Columbus. “Everybody is so close. The team that’s getting that fortunate bounce is the one that’s winning right now.”
Ohio State has been the team feasting on those bounces. The Buckeyes (19-5-4) are the only Big Ten team with a conference record better than .500 and are just three one-goal losses from being unbeaten in league play. They’re a talented and veteran group, led by senior forward Mason Jobst, who’ll turn 25 on Sunday and join teammates Sasha Larocque and Freddy Gerard in the quarter-century club.
“In the new day in college hockey, it seems like the older teams are the ones who have been the most successful,” said Jobst, whose 15 goals and 18 assists lead the team. “It’s no secret we have a very old team this year.”
A confident one, too. Fueled by last year’s run to the Frozen Four — Ohio State fell 2-1 to Minnesota Duluth in the semifinals — the Buckeyes know the work needed to get back there, this time in Buffalo, N.Y.
“There’s a fire burning in our stomach from last year,” Jobst said. “Although it was a historic season for us at Ohio State, we have nothing to truly show for it. We have no rings on our fingers or banners in the rafters.”
On the other end of the confidence scale are the Gophers, who have lost six of their past eight games and were swept by scores of 7-2 and 6-2 at Penn State last weekend. Though Minnesota (11-14-4) sits in fourth place in the Big Ten with 27 points, the Nittany Lions are only one point behind and have two games in hand.
“We’re getting through a tough month right now,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “… A lot of self-inflicted wounds with our group. No one’s happy, I can assure you. But no group is going to work harder to try to rectify this.”
Because of their winter swoon, plus devastating home losses to St. Lawrence (4-23-1) and Ferris State (7-21-2), the Gophers sit at No. 30 in the PairWise, making it virtually impossible for them to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
To win the Big Ten tournament and an NCAA bid, it would behoove the Gophers to finish fourth or better in the conference standings and earn home ice for the best-of-three first-round playoffs. Should they fall to fifth or worse, they’d be on the road — and possibly back at Penn State, where they’ve been mauled by a combined 34-15 in six consecutive losses.
“Last six games of the year, we have the understanding that we’re gonna have to win the Big Ten tournament to get to the national tournament,” said Gophers senior captain Tyler Sheehy, whose team finishes the season with home series against Notre Dame and Arizona State. “We’ve got to play each game like it’s our last.”
Added sophomore Brannon McManus, “We’re fighting to get home ice. It’s playoff hockey.”