The Big Ten’s entrance into hockey irrevocably changed the landscape of the college game for good.
But five years into its hockey existence, the Big Ten looks to have the super conference it sought all along.
The conference, which began play in 2013 and added Notre Dame before this season, arguably is the deepest league in college hockey, with five of its seven members inside the top 13 of the PairWise rankings and on pace to make the 16-team NCAA tournament through Saturday’s games.
“I think the Big Ten has finally got to the point where we thought it would be when it started,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “I think that was the goal, and now you’re seeing that.”
Notre Dame's Bobby Nardella flips as he hits Ohio State's Sean Romeo (30) during a game earlier this year. The Fighting Irish and Buckeyes finished the regular season in first and second, respectively, in the Big Ten.
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The Fighting Irish had a stretch at No. 1 in PairWise — which determines the NCAA field — and now sits second. Ohio State is fourth, followed by Michigan in a tie for seventh, Penn State at No. 11, and Minnesota in 13th.
In the past four NHL entry drafts, the league has had 42 players selected.
Wisconsin coach Tony Granato, who led the U.S. men’s Olympic team at the Pyeongchang Games, said the quality of play has been apparent on a nightly basis in the Big Ten.
“Every game that we play, no matter who we play in our conference,” Granato said, “It seems like we’re going against the top team in the country.”
The top five teams in the Big Ten seem capable of making a run in the NCAA tournament, which begins March 23 and announces its field March 18. Notre Dame, Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan, and Penn State essentially are tournament locks through the first round of conference postseason series.
The only two programs who are out of contention the NCAA tournament are Michigan State and Wisconsin, schools with a combined nine men’s hockey national championships between them.
As the Big Ten stands now, the league’s coaches are finding there is only a marginal gap between the teams at the top of the standings and the teams at the bottom.
“Sometimes, it’s the bounce of the puck or when your team’s healthy. There really isn’t much difference,” Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik said. “I think that’s [been] proven over the last couple months. It just forces you to be better every week: your coaches to be better, your players to be better.
“I think that’s really exciting for our league.”
Ohio State forward Miguel Fidler controls the puck next to Wisconsin goalie Jack Berry during last year's Big Ten tournament.
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The Buckeyes drew a No. 2 seed in the league tournament, their best finish in the Big Ten and best since their 2005 team finished second in the defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
The top-seeded Fighting Irish dominated the first half of the schedule, winning its first 13 conference games until Wisconsin finally snapped the run Jan. 21.
Third-seeded Michigan ended the regular season on a 10-3-1 run, and Penn State and Minnesota will approach the NCAA selection show with winning records.
“I think any number of teams certainly could win the championship in the conference, and any number of the teams certainly could go on to win an NCAA championship,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. “I think the state of the conference is good, and it’s only going to get better.”
The depth of the league was on display in the opening round of the conference tournament during the weekend. Penn State swept a best-of-3 series against Minnesota, Michigan won a pair of tight games vs. Wisconsin, and Ohio State needed an overtime win to finish a sweep of Michigan State.
As tough as the Big Ten has been this season, Pearson said this might be the norm for the conference in the future.
“I only think the league is going to continue to get stronger and continue to grow and become tougher,” said Pearson, who is in his first year at UM after the retirement of the legendary coach Red Berenson. “It’s great for the fans, but it’s tough on coaches, I’ll tell you that.”
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