When the No. 11 Michigan hockey team starts Big Ten play against Notre Dame three weeks from now, it will have a chance at redemption. In last year’s Frozen Four semifinal, a last-second Fighting Irish goal ended the Wolverines’ tournament run and their surprisingly successful season. But with Notre Dame ranked as the No. 2 team in the country, that chance at redemption may be a tall order for Michigan.
After the opening series against the Fighting Irish, the Wolverines’ Big Ten slate doesn’t get any easier. Three of last year’s four Frozen Four teams came from the conference — the Wolverines, Ohio State and Notre Dame.
And the Big Ten is poised to be a talent-filled conference again throughout the 2018-19 season. Six of the seven teams are currently ranked inside the top 15 in the USCHO poll, with four teams in the top 10.
With that much talent in a single conference, the competition will be intense from now until March. The Daily takes a look at each of the teams in the Big Ten.
No. 1 Ohio State
After reaching the Frozen Four for the first time in 20 years last season, the Buckeyes (2-0) are set for a similarly strong year.
They returned 75 percent of their scoring, led by forwards Mason Jobst, Tanner Laczynski and Dakota Joshua. Jobst is the NCAA’s active-leading scorer, having notched 128 points — 52 of them goals — in his three years in an Ohio State sweater.
Last year’s Buckeye defense had the top penalty-kill percentage in the nation, preventing their opponents from scoring on .894 percent of their chances, and ranked third in goals allowed per game with 2.1. With just two goals allowed through the first two games, the Ohio State defense — headlined by Wyatt Ege — appears poised for another year of high-level performances.
No. 2 Notre Dame
In their first year in the Big Ten, the Fighting Irish (1-0-1) made quite the impression on the rest of the conference. They lost just six conference games, winning the regular season title by eight points, and defeated the Buckeyes in overtime for their first Big Ten championship.
After losing the National Championship to Minnesota-Duluth, Notre Dame surely has motivation to reach the pinnacle this year. And with the return of the Big Ten Player of the Year and a top-10 Hobey Baker finalist in goaltender Cale Morris, the Fighting Irish’s defense shouldn’t have much to worry about.
At forward, Notre Dame has been led by Cal Burke and Bobby Nardella in the first two games. Burke’s three goals in the third period against Mercyhurst allowed the Fighting Irish to rally and tie the game at six goals before earning a shootout victory.
No. 7 Minnesota
The Golden Gophers (1-0-1) opened the 2018-19 season with a series against the team that kept them from the NCAA Tournament last season, Minnesota-Duluth. The Bulldogs edged Minnesota by just 0.001 points in the Pairwise rankings, leaving the Golden Gophers on the outside looking in.
Minnesota has a new head coach, Bob Motzko, which sets up some uncertainty in the early going of the year. The Golden Gophers have two talented goaltenders to choose from in Mat Robson, who was named to the watch list for the Mike Richter award, and Eric Schierhorn, who was Big Ten Goaltender of the Year two years ago.
On offense, Minnesota will have to replace forward Casey Mittlestadt, who departed for the Buffalo Sabres. Forwards Brannon McManus and Sampo Ranta have emerged as the leading scorers thus far, but time will tell if they can replace Mittlestadt’s 30-point performance from last season.
No. 10 Penn State
After making their second-straight NCAA Tournament last season, the Nittany Lions (2-0) are seeking to improve on their Midwest regional loss to Denver and make it farther in the postseason.
But with the loss of one of their top forwards, Andrew Sturtz, and a pair of talented defensemen in Trevor Hamilton and Erik Autio, Penn State will need to find replacements — and quickly — for those key players. Forwards Brandon Biro and Nate Sucese have so far looked the part of replacements to Sturtz’s production with four points each in two games.
On the penalty kill in the opening series against Clarkston, the Nittany Lions allowed just two power-play goals in five chances. Penn State’s power play, on the other hand, has scored on 50 percent of its opportunities.
No. 15 Wisconsin
The Badgers (2-0) are in rebound mode after last season’s loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament and their subsequent missing of the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin lost six straight conference games to finish the 2017-18 season, including the two losses in the Big Ten Tournament.
After sweeping Boston College to open the season, Wisconsin jumped from unranked to No. 15 in the USCHO poll. Goaltender Jack Berry had a rollercoaster weekend, as he shut out the Eagles in one game and allowed five goals on 28 shots in the other.
The Badgers’ offense seems to have found its rhythm, scoring 10 goals across the two games. Forward Tarek Baker paces the team with four points on the season, and forward Wyatt Kalnuk — a unanimous preseason All-Big Ten selection — has added three points of his own.
After finishing last in the Big Ten for the third straight season in 2017-18, with just six conference wins, the Spartans (1-1) are in the most trouble of any Big Ten team. Michigan State was once again picked to fall to the bottom of the heap in the 2018-19 preseason poll, so improvement may be minimal.
Last season, the Spartans managed to score just 91 goals — the worst scoring offense in the Big Ten. Forward Taro Hirose is expected to help increase that tally after being one of six unanimous All-Big Ten preseason selections. With three points in just the first two games, Hirose should help the Michigan State offense find its rhythm.
Beyond the top line of Hirose, Mitchell Lewandoski and Patrick Khodorenko, offensive depth and experience is a question for the Spartans, who have just three seniors on the roster.