Bursting with talent, the Big Ten conference looks to offer intriguing matchups throughout the season. The conference features four teams in the United States College Hockey Online (USCHO) poll, including No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 Minnesota, and looks to make a splash come March.
For the first time in over two years, the seven members of the Big Ten will play regular schedules featuring an array of out-of-conference opponents. When conference play begins, however, no love will be lost as familiar foes do battle on the ice.
Wisconsin bounced back from a forgettable 2019-20 season, taking the Big Ten regular season crown last year before falling to Minnesota in the Big Ten championship. Its season came to a screeching halt when upset by Bemidji State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The Badgers will need to adjust in order to have a chance to defend their regular season title after losing key pieces over the offseason. All five of their All-Big Ten team members will not return to Wisconsin for the upcoming season.
Headlining losses for the Badgers is 2021 unanimous Big Ten Player of the Year forward Cole Caufield, who is joining the Montreal Canadiens this fall. 2021 Big Ten first-team forward Dylan Holloway, Big Ten second-team forward Linus Weissbach and Big Ten honorable mentions forward Ty Pelton-Byce and defenseman Ty Emberson will also not make returns, leaving skates that will be extremely difficult for Wisconsin to fill.
Despite these absences, the Badgers are ranked 13th in the USCHO poll, buoyed by the return of Big Ten All-Freshman goaltender Cameron Rowe, who had the second-best save percentage in the Big Ten last season at .933. Rowe will look to anchor a new-look team with momentum from last season’s success, in which the Badgers led the conference in goals per game while allowing the fewest goals per contest.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Perhaps Michigan’s biggest threat in the Big Ten is Minnesota, who finished second in the regular season and defeated Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship. The Golden Gophers were the only Big Ten team to win an NCAA tournament game last season, defeating Omaha 7-2 before being shutout by Minnesota State in the quarterfinals.
Although ranked fourth in the USCHO preseason poll with only one first place vote — compared to the Wolverines’ third place ranking with eight first place votes — Minnesota was selected to win the Big Ten in the preseason coach’s poll. In order to do so, it’ll need its impressive slate of seven preseason All-Big Ten team members to live up to expectations.
Equipped with talent across the ice, the Golden Gophers’ greatest strength lies in their goaltending. Former Wolverine Jack LaFontaine protects the crease for Minnesota, seeking to build off a spectacular 2020-21 campaign in which he led the conference with a .934 save percentage and was named Big Ten Goalie of the Year.
Last season’s leading Golden Gopher scorer, forward Sampo Ranta, is no longer with the team. Despite that, they aren’t short of firepower, and forward Sammy Walker will look to lead the talented group of skaters. Walker didn’t meet last season’s All Big Ten First Team preseason projection, but has garnished the same preseason honors this time around.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame is looking to build off of a middle-of-the-road 2020-21 campaign in which it ranked fourth in the Big Ten in goals per game and fifth in power play percentage. The Fighting Irish’s mediocre year was encapsulated by their fourth place regular season finish in the Big Ten, first round exit in the Big Ten Tournament and COVID-19 forfeit in the NCAA tournament.
A strong defense, however, kept them competitive throughout the season. They had the second-strongest penalty kill percentage in the conference at .855 and allowed the third fewest goals per game. The staunch defense looks to carry over, as Notre Dame caps-off the Big Ten’s four team slate of the preseason USCHO poll at 19.
Improving on last season will be difficult for the Fighting Irish, who no longer have Big Ten second-team forward Alex Steeves, their points leader. Preseason conference second team forward Graham Slaggert will lead the offense moving forward after a solid 25 point campaign last season, while Spencer Stastney will lead the strong defensive unit.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State took a major dip last season following its Big Ten regular season title in 2019-20. Struggles defending their net plagued the Nittany Lions, as goaltender Oskar Autio bottomed-out the corps of regularly-starting Big Ten net binders, posting a sluggish .877 save percentage. Penn State allowed 3.78 goals per game — most in the Big Ten — and must improve defensively in order to compete with the conference’s heaviest hitters.
Challenges extend to scoring for the Nittany Lions, who graduated their all-time points per game leader in forward Alex Limoges. Having scored an uninspiring 2.67 goals per game — leading only Ohio State and Michigan State — Penn State will look towards forward Connor McMenamin to generate scoring opportunities and open the ice up for teammates. Among all returning Nittany Lions, McMenamin led the team in points and shoulders increased responsibility as the team’s newest focal point.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Finishing sixth in the seven team Big Ten hockey conference, Ohio State has one thing going for it: its entire core of offensive production returns. The Buckeyes’ six point leaders from last season will all take the ice for the scarlet and grey in the 2021-22 campaign. Although struggling last season, roster continuity and growing chemistry is sure to provide aid in the program’s search for improvement and competitive postseason hockey.
Ranking second to last not only in points but also in goals per game, goals allowed per game, power play percentage and penalty kill percentage, Ohio State’s returning core of skaters have plenty of room for improvement. Forward Quinn Preston will look to facilitate the attack — and the Buckeyes’ return to relevance — via his playmaking. He earned a preseason Big Ten Honorable Mention nod, and looks to prove his worth in the talented conference.
Michigan State Spartans
Bottoming out the conference last season was Michigan State, who netted a measly 1.45 goals per game — worst in the Big Ten. Albeit dim overall, its defense — led by Dennis Cesana — was its bright spot. Cesana’s team-leading 10 assists initiated offense from the blue line, and put him fourth in defender assists in the Big Ten. He also totalled 19 blocks with his scrappy play, and will look to lead Michigan State as they seek escape from the conference’s cellar.
Along with Cesana, forward Mitchell Lewandowski also earned a Big Ten Honorable Mention this preseason. He led the team with 13 points on the year and will need to increase his team-best performance should the Spartans make any traction this season. Despite lacking the star-power of Michigan, the in-state rivalry should create heated and aggressive matchups this season.
Despite a seemingly large talent gap between Michigan and Minnesota and the rest of the conference, the physicality of the Big Ten should provide competitive affairs all season long. As fans return to rinks throughout the conference for the first time in over a year, the display of talent and prowess will be a sight to behold.