Big Ten hockey has been a punching bag for fans since its first season in 2013-2014. The conference’s lack of success in nonconference action and limited presence in the NCAA tournament fueled the criticism.
This sentiment – or at least the results – could be changing.
The Big Ten entered conference play last weekend with four teams – the most since the conference started – ranked in the USCHO Top 20. Three of the four are ranked in the Top 11 of the newest poll released Monday and would qualify for the NCAA tournament if it started this week.
Penn State leads the conference ranked No. 3 with the nation’s best record of 13-1-1. Ohio State is No. 10 and the Gophers are No. 11. Michigan lost its No. 20 ranking after being swept by Penn State over the weekend.
The Nittany Lions are No. 2 in the PairWise rankings – used to predict the 16-team NCAA tournament field – behind No. 1 Minnesota Duluth. Ohio State (9-2-4) is No. 6 and the Gophers (7-5-2) are No. 12.
Penn State started the season unranked, but climbed to the highest ranking in program history with quality nonconference wins against ranked opponents St. Lawrence and Notre Dame. The Nittany Lions’ lone loss and tie were also to St. Lawrence and Notre Dame, respectively.
Ohio State also began the season unranked and upset No. 3 Denver in the first game of the season. The Buckeyes only lost once in nonconference play to Robert Morris (8-4-2).
The Gophers have played one of the toughest nonconference schedules loaded with five ranked opponents. They have wins against ranked North Dakota, Minnesota State, Boston College and a tie with St. Lawrence.
Michigan beat ranked Boston University. Wisconsin has wins against Boston College and St. Lawrence. Michigan State beat and tied North Dakota.
The Big Ten’s top four teams faced off in the first week of conference play with Penn State sweeping Michigan to move up in the polls and push the Wolverines out of the Top 20. Ohio State and the Gophers split their series at Mariucci Arena and kept their No. 10 and 11 rankings from the previous week.
Wisconsin and Michigan received votes in the most recent poll.
The conference has an overall record of 46-27-10 with 10 wins and four ties against ranked opponents.
Penn State and Ohio State, the youngest programs in the Big Ten with the least history of success, will meet Friday and Saturday in a showdown of Top 10 teams. If these schools can maintain quality programs and the traditional powerhouses of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin continue to cycle through championship seasons, it might not be long until the Big Ten starts producing two or more NCAA tournament teams most seasons.
Don’t forget, next season the conference adds Notre Dame as a hockey member, and the Fighting Irish are currently ranked No. 14 in the USCHO poll.
As much as college hockey purists might not like it, the Big Ten appears to be trending up.