The Daily predicts Michigan hockey's fate in the Big Ten Tournament

Friday, March 6, 2020 - 4:37pm

The Michigan hockey team will play Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament.

The Michigan hockey team will play Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament. Buy this photo
Miles Macklin/Daily

In wake of the Big Ten Tournament, the Michigan Daily hockey beat sat down and discussed their thoughts on how the tournament would play out.

With a field of Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Minnesota, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Wisconsin, respectively ordered in how they placed in the Big Ten standings, anything could happen in the well-balanced conference battles.

Here are the beat writers’ predicted winners:

Bailey Johnson: Wisconsin

This is a hot take, I know. But I’ve got reasoning for it. 

After a dismal start to the Big Ten season, the Badgers were 2-5-1-1 in the Big Ten at the Christmas break. By early February, they’d wrapped up last place in the conference and seemed set to limp their way to the finish line. Despite having the most talent of arguably any team in college hockey with three first round draft picks — K’Andre Miller, Alex Turcotte and Cole Caufield — and another that will likely be a first round pick in 2020 in Dylan Holloway, Wisconsin just couldn’t put it all together for most of the year. 

But in the last three weeks, against a trio of top-10 teams, the Badgers have gone 4-1-1, with the lone loss coming on Feb. 15 a 3-2 game against then-No. 9 Penn State. The following weekend, Wisconsin swept then-No. 9 Arizona State at home, and then went on the road to Ohio State, which at the time was the tenth-ranked team in the country. 

The Badgers earned the 3-2 victory Friday and came back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game at three goals apiece and take the extra standings point in double overtime on Saturday. No longer were they content to limp to the finish line and get ready for next year. 

Here’s where the reasoning for the pick comes in: Wisconsin is heading back to Columbus for the first round of the Big Ten Tournament this weekend. In the regular season series, the Badgers went 2-1-1 against the Buckeyes. Wisconsin has a good amount of momentum and just pulled off a win and a tie — though that double-overtime extra point game feels like a win in the locker room — against these very same Buckeyes. If they can get decent goaltending, as they did in the last series, it’s hard to bet against them. 

The Badgers would then go to Penn State for a single semifinal game. The Nittany Lions will have gone three full weeks without a game by the time the puck drops on that game, so there’s sure to be quite a bit of rust. In a single game, anything can happen, and I’d pick a hot Wisconsin team over a Penn State team that hasn’t played in three weeks any day. 

After that, the Badgers would be just one win away from a Big Ten title, and who am I to say they couldn’t make it happen?

Rohan Kumar: Wisconsin

Why would I pick the team that finished last in the Big Ten during the regular season to win the conference tournament? I have my reasons.

The Badgers are as hot as anyone in the league right now. They split a series against Penn State — a team that’s supposed to be the best in the conference — then swept a solid Arizona State team. And on the road last weekend they took five out of six points against Ohio State, which is also quite good. Those three opponents all sit top-12 in the PairWise Rankings right now.

The way I see it, Wisconsin has a favorable draw in the tournament despite finishing last. So much for seeding, right? The Badgers head back to Columbus for the opening round, and I have a hard time believing the result will be any different than last weekend. 

In the second round, they’d be tested by the Nittany Lions. But Penn State didn’t play in the regular season’s final weekend and has a first-round bye, too. With all that time off from hockey, the team could be a bit rusty. Also, the Nittany Lions likely don’t need to win to make the NCAA Tournament, so they might not be as motivated. The second round is single elimination and there’s limited room for error, so I think Wisconsin will sneak one by Penn State.

It’s unclear who the Badgers will face in the championship. But I think they’ll keep riding the hot streak, seizing the trophy for an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. Heck of a comeback story, I’d say.

Tien Le: Michigan

My belief is that in hockey, the most important thing for a postseason run is the hot hand.

You see it all the time where teams that clicked later in the season have more success. The St. Louis Blues were in last place in the NHL to start the year last year, and they went on to win the Stanley Cup. The Nashville Predators made the finals riding Pekka Rinne’s hot hand despite being the eighth seed and the underdogs in every series.

Michigan has both a clicking offense and a hot goaltender. As abysmal of a start as the Wolverines had in conference play — 0-6-1 — the fact that they put themselves in contending position means at some point, they figured it out. 

You probably already heard about the turnaround plenty. Going 9-3-2, which trademark wins over Penn State and Notre Dame on the road, to pull into third place after being dead last is no easy task. But the deciding factor that convinced me the Wolverines would come out on top of the Big Ten Tournament was in Minneapolis, when they clashed with Minnesota, the other hot hand in the conference.

When they had their backs against the wall and had to get at least five points to get home ice, they prevailed with a mixture of Strauss Mann’s goaltending heroics and clutch scoring, two ingredients for success.

Wisconsin’s too inconsistent, with their goaltending being the prevalent issue in its losses. Penn State has the rust of not playing for three weeks, and Michigan has also shown they can handle the high-powered offense. Michigan State’s strong start depended on its goaltending, but now that it has cooled off, the Spartans have shown to be vulnerable defensively, something the Wolverines exploited in their most recent matchups. Minnesota has a very similar team composition, but as shown in a must-win series, Michigan has the clutch to pull out on top.

Ohio State and Notre Dame are the two matchups I think the Wolverines don’t want to see, and if the Badgers can pull off a similar feat to last weekend’s, where they essentially won both games in Columbus, Michigan’s odds of winning skyrockets.

Molly Shea: 50 percent Wisconsin, 50 percent Who knows

A long time ago, I predicted Wisconsin would win the Big Ten Tournament when the Daily released its faceoff edition. It wasn’t really an educated pick. It was rash. I saw Cole Caufield and Alex Turcotte’s names on the roster and thought, hmm this feels right.

And then Badgers finished last in the conference — a spot they claimed a few weeks before the season was even over.

But the pick still feels plausible. Wisconsin has had back to back sweeps the last two weekends. For the most part the team is healthy. Turcotte and Roman Ahcan have returned and made instant impacts. But it’s missing solid goaltending. Both its netminders are teetering below .900. Not to mention that as the seventh seed, the road to the conference tournament title — its only chance into the NCAA Tournament — is a lot more complicated. Every game would be on the road. And so, the prideful part of me wants to stick with my early October pick and say Wisconsin.

The logical part says it’s really up for grabs. Penn State earned a first round bye, and it's a team that’s dominated all season long, both in and out of conference play. So it feels like it’s the Nittany Lions’ tournament to lose. Michigan’s lost just three games in the second half, all of them on home ice which it earned last weekend against Minnesota. Ohio State is just on the edge of maintaining an at-large tournament bid, so it’ll have that as a motivating factor to at least make it out of the quarterfinals. That and the fact that Wisconsin, the Buckeyes’ first round opponent, swept them at home last weekend. Minnesota’s another team that has had a strong second half, but its last two weekends weren’t great. Notre Dame’s always dangerous, especially with Cale Morris between the pipes. Michigan State finished sixth, but only three points behind the second place teams. 

If betting on college hockey is a thing, don’t take my advice on it. There’s a 50 percent percent chance Wisconsin dominates in the tournament and shows that its talented roster can come together and redeem the last-place finish. Fifty percent chance literally anything else happens.