The No. 2 Michigan hockey team might win the Big Ten. It might not.
It really doesn’t matter
Going into the Wolverines’ face-off against No. 11 Ohio State, it seemed like there was a lot on the line. Michigan stood at the top of the conference with two points over No. 5 Minnesota and three over the Buckeyes. It looked like a couple of decisive wins might propel the Wolverines out of reach and solidify them as de facto Big Ten champions.
But, despite handily sweeping Ohio State and picking up six points in the process, the Golden Gophers have maintained the two-point distance. With matching 16-6 Big Ten records and each team having one series remaining — Minnesota will face Wisconsin at home while Michigan will take on No. 12 Notre Dame on the road — it’s still anyone’s season.
“It’s playoff hockey right now,” sophomore forward Phillip Lapointe said after Saturday’s game. “It’s getting down to the nitty gritty. Standings are close. We’re harping on making good plays, being good defensively and having good habits for playoff hockey down the stretch.”
But, in all honesty, who cares?
The question, of course, is rhetorical and obviously an exageration. The players care. Michigan coach Mel Pearson cares. Fans care. But, with this sweep — and the many that have come before it — Michigan has shown it has potential far beyond the Big Ten regular season.
The Wolverines currently stand second in the USCHO rankings. The only other ranked teams in the conference are the Gophers, Ohio State and the Fighting Irish, coming in at No. 5, 11 and 12, respectively. A month ago, Michigan was predicted to be the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and, considering the team hasn’t lost a game since, it’s unlikely they’ll fall below the top four.
If the Wolverines win the conference title, it’s another feather in their cap. If not, they’ll go to the Big Ten Tournament, likely still host a regional and probably make a serious run in the NCAA Tournament nonetheless.
None of this is to say that next weekend’s series is unimportant — exactly the opposite. Battling Notre Dame in South Bend will be one of the toughest challenges Michigan has faced this season. The Fighting Irish are the only team in the conference that the Wolverines have yet to beat after two overtime losses in November.
Next weekend presents an opportunity not just to win the Big Ten but to prove that the Wolverines can handle the pressure of a do-or-die scenario.
Outside of conference play, Michigan has shown its ability to handle a challenge. Early in the season, the Wolverines trounced then-No. 5 Minnesota Duluth, 5-1. The next day, they edged out No. 1 Minnesota State. The week after that, Michigan battled then-No. 17 — now No. 6 — Western Michigan for a gritty, overtime win on the road after losing to the Broncos at Yost.
But, the Wolverines have very little experience with the pressure of the postseason. Last year, Michigan was forced to pull out of the NCAA Tournament just hours before its first game due to COVID-related issues within the program. The year before, the tournament was canceled before it had even begun. The year before that, the Wolverines didn’t even qualify.
That means that only of Michigan’s players, fifth-year senior forward Michael Pastujov, has NCAA Tournament experience.
“That’s a concern,” Pearson told reporters in September prior to the season. “The last two years, we were right on the brink (of playing in the tournament). … That’s one of the things we’re concerned about. I can’t go down to the 7-Eleven just down on Main Street and buy NCAA Tournament experience. I can’t scratch off a lottery ticket that I might buy later on and (get) NCAA Tournament experience. You can’t get that.
“Hopefully our schedule and the teams that we’ve played and the situations we’ve been in in the last couple of years will help us, but when you get to that one-and-done tournament, it’s a different baby.”
The way the Wolverines tackled this weekend’s emotional matchups was a start, but the stakes only get higher from here.
Next weekend, Michigan won’t just be playing for the Big Ten — it’ll be playing to prove that it has what it takes to make it in April.