Big Ten hockey shifts to Detroit's Joe Louis Arena on Thursday, with the conference tournament winner headed to the NCAA tournament. Michigan and Michigan State are acting as the unofficial hosts and, if the Wolverines advance past Thursday night's quarterfinals, it will set up a Michigan-Michigan State semifinal showdown. The No. 2-seeded Spartans and No. 1 Gophers have first-round byes. Minnesota, based on its No. 13 PairWise ranking, is the only team that could make the NCAA field without winning the conference tournament, but the Gophers are on the bubble and likely need at least one victory. Ahead of that weekend drama, however, are Thursday's quarterfinal matchups. A preview:
No. 4 Penn State vs. No. 5 Ohio State
3:30 p.m. Thursday • TV: BTN
Penn State (18-14-4, 10-9-1): The Nittany Lions were in the race for the regular-season title before losing seven of their past 10 games. They were swept last weekend at Mariucci Arena, where they were outscored 11-2. Despite the disappointing second half, coach Guy Gadowsky was named the conference's Coach of the Year and eight players earned all-conference honors. Maybe the plethora of awards will remind the Nittany Lions how good they can be.
Ohio State (13-18-3, 8-11-1-1): The Buckeyes battled injuries, and it's reflected in their record. However, as players began to return to the lineup, it quickly translated into success and a 6-3-1 finish. The Buckeyes also have last year's Big Ten tournament run that ended with an overtime loss in the championship game for inspiration. Many of the same players from that group are back and looking to finish the job.
No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 6 Wisconsin
7 p.m. Thursday • TV: BTN
Michigan (20-14, 12-8): The Wolverines are eager to make up for last weekend's letdown in the final game of the regular season on their home ice. A win against Michigan State would have claimed a share of the Big Ten title and the tournament's No. 1 seed, which would have meant a first-round bye. Now they have to play an extra game and get by a Wisconsin team with nothing to lose for a rematch with rival Michigan State. The Wolverines outscored the Badgers 21-6 in four games this season.
Wisconsin (4-25-5, 2-15-3-2): The Badgers have been one of the worst teams in college hockey this season. Even with an all-conference goaltender in senior Joel Rumpel, they've won only four games and tied five. However, Rumpel might be the reason that Wisconsin could play an upset role this weekend. If the young skaters in front of Rumpel can put together a consistent effort, their goaltender can be as good as anyone in the country.