It’s been a difficult season for all the teams. Half have been impacted directly by COVID-19 — Wisconsin and Penn State had at least one positive test, while Michigan was shut down due to the more contagious UK variant being found elsewhere in the athletic department. Teams have dropped out of the Atlantic Hockey, Hockey East and ECAC tournaments due to positive COVID tests or violation of COVID protocols. As of now, all Big Ten teams will be participating in the tournament.
Since the Pairwise has been rendered ineffective because of lack of inter-confrence games, this year’s Big Ten tournament and autobid are especially important. The Big Ten used seeding protocols for an unbalanced schedule. Wisconsin won its first Big Ten regular-season title and its first regular-season title in any conference in 21 years.
This year the tournament moves to a different, yet familiar, format as Notre Dame will host the three-day affair.
No. 1 Wisconsin
Five years after Tony Granato joined the Badgers, it finally seems like Wisconsin is finding its game, just a year removed from coming in last place.
“We decided to become a team this year and learn from last year,” Granato said. “That’s just part of sports and hockey, it’s part of individual growth. This is recognizing, and being honest with yourself as individuals and as a team. We started to evaluate last year as it was going along from coaches all the way down through all of our players on what was going wrong and how do we fix it. Last year’s disappointment gave us an opportunity to learn from some of the things that we think we did wrong.”
The Badgers topped the Big Ten thanks to Cole Caufield, yes, but also Dylan Holloway, who’s been playing, well, more like Dylan Holloway. The Badgers haven’t lost in a month and haven’t lost much at all in the second half. That was after COVID sidelined the Badgers in December. Caufield leads the country with 0.89 goals per game, but Holloway and Linus Weissbach also placed in the top four nationally in scoring. But perhaps the bigger reason success comes from the opposite end.
The Badgers have been looking for a solid goaltender for years, really since Joel Rumpel graduated. At least for now, Cameron Rowe looks to be that answer. He posted a .943 save percentage (he did play fewer minutes than some of the other goaltenders with high save percentages).
“Cam has been an outstanding freshman,” Granato said. “When you recruit kids, you always see the potential that they have. That’s why you bring them in. And we knew he had great potential to be an outstanding goaltender and he’s done it in that a really early time in his in his collegiate career. And I think he’s his work habits, his concentration and focus and practice and details of looking for ways to improve, you know, gets me excited because I think there is room to see him you know, grow as a goaltender.
The tournament is not re-seeded after the first round, so the Badgers know they will face the winner of the Notre Dame-Penn State game.
No. 4 Notre Dame vs. No. 5 Penn State
Notre Dame is on a four-game winning streak, which includes a sweep of Penn State last weekend and a 7-1 win Saturday. It appears that, after a rough start to the season, Notre Dame’s offense has woken up.
“I’s just been trying to get our guys to play a full 60 minutes,” Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson said. “I think consistency. We’ve had stretches where we played really well. And then we come down a notch. And I think that that is the one thing that you know, our guys have been doing a better job of being able to play a full 60 minutes. We’ve been playing well at times. Really well and then we have a tendency to back off. Sometimes it’s with the lead, sometimes it’s in a tie game. But a lot of times it’s in the middle part of the game where we get a little comfortable and we start turning pucks over or taking penalties.
“That’s haunted us most of the year, I’d say that we’ve gotten better in the last several weeks in that area, but it’s still a concern of mine, being able to play the full 60 minutes at a high level. But we have gotten better and hopefully going into the playoffs, we’ll have that sense of urgency to be able to play three full periods, maybe even more.”
Dylan St. Cyr took over the starting role and has followed Cale Morris’ example with a .925 save percentage. Alex Steeves leads the team with 31 points.
Penn State has tapered off after a strong middle of the season. The big concern for Penn State is its normally high-powered offense, which has struggled this season. But don’t forget that Penn State was sidelined for an entire month because of a positive COVID test in the team’s Tier I personnel. The Nittany Lions have shown before that all you need is to get hot at the right time — they were the last team to win the championship in its original format, and they did it by riding a hot goaltender and winning three games in three days.
Right now Oskar Autio holds a .891 save percentage, so he will need to step up his game for Penn State to make a run. He’s shown he is capable, but hasn’t strung together great games before.
No. 2 Minnesota vs. No. 7 Michigan State
It’s been another rough year for the Spartans but a good one for the Gophers, who have just six losses on the season. Minnesota has the most wins of any team in the country, and all 20 of them came in regulation.
“[They have a] dangerous lineup, especially up front they’re very good,” Michigan State head coach Danton Cole said. “Their d-men are probably as good as any corps in the country, their goaltender has had an outstanding, in the mention for Hobey Baker type season.”
That goaltender — Jack LaFontaine — has been a huge addition as the Gophers, who much like the Badgers, have struggled of late finding consistency in net. But his success coupled with an all-around strong team has made the Gophers very tough to beat.
“We are a disciplined team,” Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said. “Not taking penalties early in the game, we give ourselves the greatest statistical opportunities to find a way to get a lead protect the puck, don’t take penalties, be on top of our game. And we’ve done that. We’ve pretty much done that all year long. It’s been one of our calling cards. I think I said it this morning: what is the game we need to play? We know what it looks like, we know what it feels like, from the staff to the players. We just got to get in that game right now. And I think that’s the best thing I can say about our team is we know what it looks like, we got to get into that real quickly.”
For Michigan State, which does not have the same, all-around team that Minnesota does, goaltending is the best attribute. Drew DeRidder has turned in a solid season with a .923 save percentage. There’s not much else for the Spartans, which have been caught in a lull this year.
“In Michigan State, they’re a big strong team,” Motzko said. “They’re well-coached, their goaltender DeRidder has been one of the best in the conference. They’re looking for hope. And if you give them hope, and you’re not ready to go and you make some mistakes, they’ll play off that whole. Our league is not very forgiving.
No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 6 Ohio State
Michigan’s performance has been fueled by its outstanding freshman class. Offense has been no problem for the maize and blue, and goaltending from Strauss Mann and Erik Portillo has also been solid.
The key for Michigan, as always, is harnessing all this talent into something effective for 60 minutes. When they are good, they are very, very good. When they are not, it can be trouble.
“It’s a constant push with these guys, because there’s so good offensively and they want to play on the offensive side, that when we’re going to get our goals, we just have to make sure we work harder defensively,” Michigan head coach Mel Pearson said. “And then from that point, it’s just staying together stick together, you know, playing together and playing for one, one goal and one purpose.”
Those freshmen sure are fun to watch. They are the team’s top four scorers — Thomas Bordeleau, Kent Johnson, Matty Beniers and Brendan Brisson. That doesn’t even include 6-foot-5 defenseman Owen Power, who has 16 points and a plus-19.
Pearson said Mann will start, but with three games in three days and the fatigue that will create, he may use a rotation. But tournaments like these are won when one goaltender gets hot.
For their rivals, things are a little different. The Buckeyes — after posting a few successful seasons in a row — have been struggling this year, in all areas.
“When you look at the consistency, even for us, it could be period to period. And lately, it’s been one game to the next. So let’s hope we catch ourselves on the right night,” Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik said.
“We got to go out there and play with confidence. Number two, we got to stay out of the penalty box. We don’t need to give any team more advantages than they need.”