Coming into the season, most people would not have considered the Big Ten any sort of existential threat to the extant order of college hockey.
Certainly adding Notre Dame, which just a year ago finished one point out of a four-way tie at the top of a strong Hockey East conference, was a boon. And certainly there had been significant changes elsewhere. Legendary Michigan coach Red Berenson had finally shuffled out of the job he’d held since 1984, replaced by former Wolverines assistant Mel Pearson. Likewise, Danton Cole took over a moribund Michigan State program.
Otherwise, there wasn’t a lot of reason to be especially optimistic that this season would be all that much different from last year’s when the Big Ten sent three teams, maybe one of them actually strong on a national level, into the tournament.
Then the season happened.
Once more, the conference sent three teams that were in its ranks last year to the NCAA tournament, and not surprisingly also had Notre Dame qualify. That meant four teams from a seven-team conference made the last 16, and one more — Minnesota — missed the cut by the narrowest margin ever, having had a series of six coin flips out of seven come up tails on the final night of the conference season.
Those four teams: Notre Dame (as mentioned, but they were also the Big Ten regular-season and postseason champion), Ohio State (making an appearance for the second year in a row after a long absence), Michigan (making it in the new coach’s first year behind the bench), and Penn State (not great but just barely good enough).
The Nittany Lions got dispatched posthaste, getting smoked in the tournament by Denver for the second season in a row. Everyone else won their regionals and headed to the Frozen Four. Only Minnesota-Duluth, heading to the Frozen Four for the second straight season, serves as the interloper and potential spoiler to a sort of coming-out party for the conference writ large.
The Frozen Four starts today at 6 p.m. Eastern time, with Ohio State taking on Minnesota-Duluth. At 9:30 p.m., it will be Michigan taking on conference rival Notre Dame.
The ascendency of the conference is, of course, going to be the narrative in this NCAA championship weekend, because at a minimum the Big Ten will have a team in the national title game since Minnesota in the conference’s inaugural season. Since then, it has had no Frozen Four entrants at all. However, the perception that the Big Ten has “arrived” as a conference may be a little overblown. First of all, most of its participants are well-heeled, highly pedigreed powerhouses of college hockey and the new entrant, Penn State, isn’t exactly destitute.
Notre Dame is obviously import, and the success the Fighting Irish have had — and they have to be considered the favorite this weekend as well, for reasons we’ll get into soon — was portended by the fact that they made the Frozen Four last year, lost a bunch of talent to graduation or attrition, and had no problem in speed-bagging the Big Ten this year from front to back. Coach Jeff Jackson is probably one of the five smartest, best coaches in the nation, and just this week took home the Spencer Penrose as the Div. 1 coach of the year.
Otherwise, Ohio State has been on the come-up for a few seasons here, but to ignore the fact that their high-end goaltending has come from a guy who could barely cut it in Hockey East would be strange. Sean Romeo has been very good and more recently he’s been great (.927 on the year, .937 in the past two months), but the Buckeyes are a team built to bore, and they’re very good at it. They have some high-end talent, but not as much as you might expect from a Frozen Four team, and it will be interesting to see what they do tonight against Minnesota-Duluth, as that is the sole non-Big Ten team left standing in this tournament.
Then there’s Michigan, which has an elite coach and some extremely talented players — Cooper Marody and Quinn Hughes chief among them — but is absolutely lucky to be here. The Wolverines’ top line of Marody between Dexter Dancs and Tony Calderone had its best weekend of the season, outscoring the best line in the country from Day 1 (Northeastern’s top trio) and the hottest in the second half (BU’s). In both cases, Michigan overcame two third-period comebacks and came out on top. Pearson, to his credit, used last change to its fullest effect in both games.
Hoping to break up this part is UMD, a more recent addition to college hockey’s elite, behind brilliant head coach Scott Sandelin. It won a national title in 2011 and made what is now two straight Frozen Fours. Early in the year, they weren’t particularly great, but the defense and goaltending really came together in the second half, thanks in large part to 19-going-on-20-year-old freshman defenseman Scott Perunovich, who led the team in scoring. At the back, Hunter Shepard went .924 this year, but has been .939 since Christmas.
Michigan, as the lowest-seeded team in the tournament, has the misfortune of drawing Notre Dame in today’s early game, which succeeds not because of a dominant top line, but because the whole team is just kinda pretty good. Whether that throws a wrench into Pearson’s game-planning remains to be seen, but it’s worth noting that Notre Dame swept Michigan in their first meetings in January, and the Wolverines returned the favor six weeks later.
Aggregate scoring in those games: 7-6 to Michigan. Aggregate shots: 143-134, also for Michigan. Safe to say, then, that this is likely to be a pretty closely-contested matchup.
In the late game, it’ll be Ohio State and Minnesota-Duluth, but we have no matchups, no comparables to examine. Ohio State not only didn’t play Duluth, it also didn’t play an NCHC team at all until the NCAA tournament started. To be fair, they smoked Denver on paper in that meeting two weekends ago (4-1 before an empty netter), but they haven’t played a team with this kind of goaltending since they played Notre Dame. And the Buckeyes took just one game out of five from the Irish, so it’s probably fair to have a dim view of their chances.
That said, they smoked Denver, so…
Please understand that the Big Ten will be framed as something of an underdog league coming into its own this weekend, as though it weren’t just a collection of high-end college hockey programs with plenty of funding that got cobbled together four years ago. Because it absolutely is. Certainly, getting rid of three of its worst coaches in the past two offseasons has helped a lot. But this is a conference that should be routinely among the best in the country. The real problem is that it hasn’t been living up to its potential.
Based on reputation alone, the Big Ten should be an elite conference. It was designed as such. So to put three teams in the Frozen Four is a bit of a surprise, but only because that’s hard for any conference to do.
But there’s a reason Michigan men’s basketball just made it to the national title game, and Notre Dame just won the women’s basketball national title, and Ohio State is the reigning back-to-back national champions in men’s volleyball. These are institutions for which athletic excellence is de rigueur.
So please, let’s not all act like, “Can you believe all these national powerhouses of college sport are also in the Frozen Four?” Because yeah, you should.