Pressure's on in the inaugural Big Ten hockey tournament

  • Article by: JASON GONZALEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 20, 2014 - 12:55 AM

There’s no room for error this weekend at Xcel Energy Center. The inaugural Big Ten hockey tournament has a single-elimination format, so any loss will end a team’s weekend — if not its season.

It’s unfamiliar territory for five of the six teams that will fight for an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and the Gophers are used to playing a first-round, best-of-three series in their old conference tournaments. But with all the new the Big Ten has brought to college hockey this season, it’s not surprising to those involved.

“This is the format that we have. The good thing is … it gives the fans an opportunity to know when season begins … my team is going to be there. … Hopefully this can grow and fans will make arrangements to follow their team and go to one site and make it a pretty big event as the years go on,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “I understand the big picture, we are in the one-and-done format this weekend and it’ll be that next weekend when the NCAA tournament arises.”

Here’s a look at how the six teams stack up against one another in the single-elimination tournament:

Michigan (18-12-4, 10-8-2-1 Big Ten)

The Wolverines are playing for more than the Big Ten tournament cup this weekend. They likely need at least one victory to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament after losing six of their past 12 games and dropping to 11th in the PairWise Rankings (which mimic the system the NCAA uses to determine its 16-team tournament field). Coach Red Berenson said his team isn’t playing really well or really poorly, it’s just ready to play. The return of senior defenseman Mac Bennett has re-energized the Wolverines, who are hoping to feed off a 6-2 victory in their regular-season finale against the Gophers.

Michigan State (11-17-7, 5-9-6-4)

The Spartans broke out of a scoring drought at the right time. They scored 13 goals over the past three games, following a slow February in which they scored only 10 goals and won one game. Michigan State beat Wisconsin 5-4 in overtime during their final weekend of the season and could be a dark horse in the tournament behind impressive goaltender Jake Hildebrand. Coach Tom Anastos said he is happy with how his team is playing at the moment, but touched on how the Spartans have proved they can beat any team and can be beaten any given night.

Minnesota (25-5-6, 14-3-3-0)

The Gophers’ goal is to continue to claim the Big Ten firsts, which includes a tournament championship. But this week is about preparing for the NCAA West Regional. The single-elimination format will force the Gophers into a must-win mentality in the same venue in which the regional will be held. The Gophers won the inaugural North Star College Cup at Xcel Energy Center earlier this season and are the favorite to win another cup this weekend. Strength will be in question if they run into physical Michigan State and Wisconsin, each teams that caused problems for the Gophers earlier this season.

Ohio State (16-13-5, 6-9-5-4)

The Buckeyes have the offensive tools to play spoiler. Ryan Dzingel led the conference with 43 points (20 goals, 23 assists) and has the ability to change the outcome late in a game. Because of these tools and the automatic NCAA bid that goes to the Big Ten tournament winner, coach Steve Rohlik is a fan of the single-elimination format. The Buckeyes face Michigan State, a team they tied three times this season, on Thursday evening. Ohio State won two of the three shootouts and the first of four meetings in regulation.

Penn State (7-25-2, 3-16-1-0)

The Nittany Lions are just happy to be playing in a postseason. They are in only their second season as a varsity program and won only three conference games. Coach Guy Gadowsky said he and his players are just looking forward to continuing the learning process in the Big Ten tournament. Don’t count them out so quickly, though. Two of their Big Ten victories were against first-round opponent Michigan, and they closed the regular season with a victory over Ohio State. Gadowsky said his team has found its confidence as of late and is starting to play its best hockey.

Wisconsin (22-10-2, 13-6-1-0)

If the Gophers are the tournament favorite, Wisconsin isn’t far behind. The Badgers won eight of their final 10 games to stay in contention for the regular-season championship and are at home playing on an NHL-sized sheet of ice. Playing outside of Madison, Wis., hasn’t been easy for the Badgers, though. They were 5-8-1 on the road this season. Coach Mike Eaves is confident the early season road woes won’t plague his team again. He said the veteran group has taken reigns of the team and is playing as a unit. The top-seeded Gophers and Badgers each swept one another at home during the regular season.

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