Michigan State is first in the Big Ten. That’s not a typo. After sweeping Wisconsin, the Spartans hold a one-point lead ahead of Michigan and Minnesota. The Gophers and Wolverines are tied for second, both fighting for a first-day bye.
With two games left, Ohio State – which will face Wisconsin – can’t earn a bye. The Spartans will try to preserve their spot with a home-and-home against a struggling Michigan team, while Minnesota has a two-game set with Penn State. The Nittany Lions are two points behind the Gophers and Wolverines, and could potentially earn a bye.
The Nittany Lions entered the weekend without Taylor Holstrom, who might be out for the rest of the season. But Penn State swept Michigan, sending the Wolverines outside the PairWise bubble and leaving the Big Ten championship as its best bet to the NCAA tournament. Right now Michigan is 19th and Minnesota is 14th in the PairWise. Even if Michigan sweeps – not including other results – the Wolverines would be 16th in the PairWise.
With the Big Ten regular season championship on the line, the top four teams are separated by three points. And all four teams will face each other this weekend, as Michigan State and Michigan spar in a home-and-home and Minnesota hosts Penn State.
(After the jump: The one-bid league, how Michigan State got here, and the tournament frontrunners.)
The one-bid league
This is the fun part, because it’s controversial. For the past week I’ve been saying both Minnesota and Michigan won’t make the NCAA tournament. For Michigan, the only way they can earn an NCAA bid is through winning the Big Ten tournament, but Minnesota still has a chance to earn an at-large bid.
But it’s a slim chance, because if Minnesota gets swept, the Gophers will be knocked out of the PairWise. A split would give the Gophers 15th, meaning Minnesota’s best path will probably be through the tournament title. This is a Minnesota team I thought would win the NCAA championship, but now I’m convinced they won’t make the tournament.
If you’re interested in who can and can’t make the NCAA tournament, here’s a rundown on College Hockey Ranked. The Gophers and Wolverines weren’t counted in losing an at-large bid in this post, simply because the Big Ten tournament hasn’t started yet.
The out-of-conference losses are killing these Big Ten teams, and there’s a big chance the conference will only have one NCAA tournament representative.
Michigan State’s surprise spot in first
To be honest, I’m not sure how Michigan State got here either. I liked the Spartans this season because of its goaltending, and Jake Hildebrand has become the conference’s best netminder. The team’s young defense has matured, while the offense averages 2.41 goals per game higher than last year’s average of 2.19 goals per game.
Since December 28, the Great Lakes Invitation, Michigan State has a .656 winning percentage, highest amongst Big Ten teams. In conference play, the Spartans’ .679 winnin percentage since that point is also first. The Spartans have pulled off wins against Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Minnesota recently, and have allowed more than two goals three times since January.
And the Big Ten winner will be…
Not the regular season championship, because that could be anyone. But for the tournament championship, Michigan, Minnesota, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State are all in the running. I’ll abandon any hope for Wisconsin, because the Badgers won’t get a bye and I doubt Joel Rumpel can stand on his head for three-straight games.
At this point, Michigan and Minnesota need the championship to make the NCAA tournament. The Wolverines still have questionable defense and goalkeeping, and we know their offense can be stopped.
As I said before, Jake Hildebrand is the best goalkeeper in the conference. Last year the tournament was pushed by good goaltending, so Michigan State is my favorite to win. Behind them, I’d pick the now-healthy and troublesome Buckeyes.