With consecutive sweeps for the first time in three seasons, the No. 17 Michigan hockey team has positioned itself in the top half of the Big Ten standings and is back in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Since defeating then-No. 9 Minnesota and then-No. 12 Penn State, the Wolverines (7-7-2-1 Big Ten, 12-10-2 overall) have jumped from No. 27 to No. 15 in the PairWise rankings. These rankings are annually a solid indicator of qualifiers for the 16-team NCAA Tournament and Michigan is within the cutoff, determined not to dip out of contention.
The Wolverines, after being sixth in the conference standings earlier this season, are now the sole owner of third place with 24 points — only one ahead of the Nittany Lions and one behind No. 6 Ohio State. They look primed to host a best-of-three series for the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
But in one of college hockey’s most dominant conferences, all can change in a moment’s notice. And with eight Big Ten games left, Michigan knows that.
“We could easily be on a four-game win streak or a six-game losing streak, so I think we know to take it game by game, weekend by weekend,” said sophomore forward Jake Slaker. “We don’t try to look ahead or look in the past, we just kind of take it how it comes.”
The Big Ten has seen unprecedented depth, with six of the seven teams in the top-20 in PairWise and the conference foes splitting series regularly.
At the end of last season, the point differential between the second and fifth-ranked teams in the Big Ten standings was 14 points. This year, it’s currently five.
That’s not to say the standings won’t revert to last year’s larger gaps between teams. But by the looks of it, most of the conference order — apart from No. 1 Notre Dame, which is 14 points ahead of the pack — may not be decided until the final weeks of the regular season.
Slaker acknowledges the newfound parity in Big Ten competition has led to a tighter race for the back half of the season.
“From last year playing in the Big Ten, it was a little bit more separated, but I think this year it seems every team is equal,” he said. “No matter what, any team you play, it’s going to be an absolute battle and any team can win any game. Every game is so important in the Big Ten because you know everyone is flipping and flopping, between second, third, fourth, whatever place.”
From a practical standpoint, the strength of conference opponents helps with PairWise rankings. Wins against highly-ranked Big Ten teams catapult the victors to greater positioning — a la Michigan moving 12 spots over the past two weekends. Falling to these same top-tier teams doesn’t hurt the losers much — because of its RPI, Penn State dropped just four spots from No. 12 to No. 16 after being swept by the Wolverines.
The new conference intensity hasn’t only kept programs afloat in the rankings, though. The toughness has also led to an improvement in overall play, according to Michigan coach Mel Pearson.
“It’s made us better,” Pearson said. “It’s forced us to be better because if you don’t, you’re going to get your rear end handed to you every night and you have to show up and compete. Fortunately, we’ve been pretty good lately. I think the first half, you saw we were inconsistent, giving up six goals and five goals and now we’re a little bit more locked in.
“There’s no trap game or sandwich game because you just have to keep going. The biggest thing is keeping the energy level up because week after week after week, you keep playing good teams.”
For Pearson, it’s vital to block out the noise and outside distractions. He constantly reminds his players to concentrate on the tasks at hand — building on recent successes, continuing to improve in weaker areas and maintaining momentum down the stretch.
“It’s just human nature to look at the standings or people talk to you about the standings or ask you about the PairWise,” Pearson said. “They’re all aware of it, they look at it. But right now, as coaches, we have to try to — when we have the opportunity with them — get them to focus on the other things, the other things that we need to do that’ll help.”
The focus has worked up to this point. A second-half resurgence for a once-sluggish team, contributions from skaters starting to rise to the occasion and statement wins have all propelled the Wolverines lately.
Despite the turnaround hot streak to start off the new year, Pearson sees his team completely differently heading into the weekend road series against the Buckeyes — not as a team that is already in contention but one that still has much yet to prove.
“We’ve been fortunate because every team has been ahead of us,” Pearson said. “Minnesota was ahead of us, we leapfrogged them. Penn State was ahead of us in the standings, then we leapfrogged them. And now we get another opportunity (at Ohio State).
“At some point, we might become the favorites, but we’re still going to relish that underdog role and the role fits us well. I don’t pay much attention (to the rankings), I just know we have to continue winning and then everything takes care of itself.”