As the Michigan hockey team inches closer to postseason play, one thing is abundantly clear — the only way that it makes the NCAA Tournament is with an automatic bid.
The Wolverines currently sit at 25th in the Pairwise rankings, and according to College Hockey News’ Playoff Probability Matrix they have a zero percent chance of an at-large bid, even if they win out their last four games against Ohio State and Wisconsin.
But not all hope is lost. The Wolverines can still earn an automatic bid if they win the Big Ten Tournament. Besides Ohio State — which leads second-place Minnesota (33 points) by the same eight-point margin that the Golden Gophers lead last-place Wisconsin (25) — the second through seventh seeds in the tournaments are all essentially up for grabs. To guarantee home-ice for the three-game series in the first round, Michigan must finish no lower than fourth. For the second-round game to be at Yost as well, it would have to finish second.
“It was disappointing you know, at Ohio State when you have the lead in the third period and played pretty well but made some bad mistakes in New York because you can’t get those points back,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson on Jan. 31 after splitting a home and neutral site series against Penn State. “And as you look at the standings, everything’s so tight. One game and you go from third place to seventh place.”
With the way the conference schedule is set up, there are likely four teams vying for the three home-ice spots in the first round: Minnesota, Notre Dame (31 points), Michigan (30) and Penn State (29). Though Michigan State is close behind with 27 points, the Spartans only have one series to make up ground, while the three teams directly above them all have two. To make matters worse for the Spartans, that series is in Columbus.
As long as the Wolverines win at least one of its last four games or Michigan State loses one of its games to the Buckeyes, Michigan will finish above the Spartans. And if the Wolverines take one game against Wisconsin, that would put the Badgers at an eight-point deficit to Michigan — meaning that the Wolverines would be safe from slipping below Wisconsin if the Badgers lose at least one other game.
That is, by no means, is a given. Though Michigan picked up a win in Columbus themselves and could have walked out with a sweep if not for a third-period meltdown in the second game, Ohio State is currently the only Big Ten team in the top ten for a reason — it’s by far the most consistent team in the conference. Even Wisconsin gave Michigan all it could handle in two extra-time games at Yost.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Wolverines lose out, so that likely leaves them jockeying for position with Penn State, Notre Dame and Minnesota. The calculus gets a little twisted from there — head to head, Michigan is tied with the Fighting Irish, up only one point to the Nittany Lions, and down one to the Golden Gophers. Notre Dame hosts Penn State and travels to Minnesota, but the Gophers play one series in the span while the other teams in the race all play two.
“It’s hard to make up points because everybody’s playing the same teams,” Pearson said. "Everybody is playing each other. Someone’s gonna win, someone’s gonna lose, so it’s important if you can string a sweep together.”
Still, any scenario where the Wolverines don’t get at least three points against the Buckeyes this weekend would likely spell doom for Michigan’s chances at second place. That, coupled with a Penn State sweep over Wisconsin, would drop the Wolverines to the No. 5 seed. However, a scenario where Michigan sweeps its season-ending slate would likely put it in a good position for the No. 2 seed. That’s something it hasn't done in conference play until it notched its first sweep of the season against Michigan State last weekend.
“(The sweep was) huge,” said junior forward Will Lockwood. “It’s coming down to the wire right now and we have to take advantage of every opportunity we get,”
Even with all of the chaos going on around it, that might be all Michigan can do.