At last, the Big Ten season is coming to an end.
After a grueling schedule, constant weekend challenges and all-American performances, Big Ten hockey will conclude Saturday night when No. 4 Michigan travels to Minneapolis for a showdown with No. 2 Minnesota.
Implications are at an all-time high for this matchup. For the Wolverines, it’s a chance to improve upon their 2-2 record against the Golden Gophers (including one loss in overtime) and capture that elusive championship — something they haven’t done since 2016, when Red Berenson was still at the helm. For Minnesota, it’s a chance to solidify itself atop the national rankings and build momentum going into the tournament.
Both teams are talented, deep and hungry. For Michigan coach Mel Pearson, he sees these as contributions to the magnitude of the game — not something to shy away from.
“Well, I wish I could just be a fan and relax and watch the game,” Pearson said. “I think it’s going to be a heck of a hockey game.”
But there’s a reward that outweighs the conference trophy. The winner will potentially gain a significant boost in its PairWise ranking.
PairWise — the tool used to determine the NCAA Tournament seedings — currently ranks the Wolverines second and the Golden Gophers fourth. If either wants to cement their spot as a No. 1 seed in their respective regional, winning the Big Ten title would be instrumental.
This game will affect both teams’ paths to their intended goal: the Frozen Four. A loss on Saturday could result in a steeper climb to college hockey’s most celebrated summit.
In order for this to happen, Michigan will have to overcome one of its strongest foes. The last time they met up, the Wolverines fell in the first game of the series in an overtime heartbreaker. But, the next day, Michigan redeemed itself with an impressive 4-1 win.
Surviving Minneapolis with four points should be a sign of encouragement for their upcoming game. Saturday will be yet another opportunity to dethrone its talented rival on the road.
Minnesota is an extremely deep team with 16 skaters having reached double-digit points. It’s led by forwards Ben Meyers (16 goals, 20 assists), Blake McLaughlin (12 goals, 19 assists) and freshman star Matthew Knies (10 goals, 17 assists). In net, Justen Close (1.74 goals allowed average, 93.3 save percentage) has filled in for former Wolverine goaltender Jack LaFontaine (2.69 GAA, 90.0 save percentage), who left midseason to join the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes.
Beyond those names, though, is a roster filled with high-motor and skilled players. For Pearson, it’s eerily similar to his own squad.
“When you look at them, it’s like looking in the mirror,” Pearson said. “They’ve got talent up front. They’re deep up front. They’ve got a defense like us that can chip in offensively but are very mobile, great skaters.”
After exercising their demons against No. 9 Notre Dame, Michigan should have as much confidence as ever. The Fighting Irish were the only hurdle yet to be jumped by the Wolverines. Before last Saturday’s victory, Michigan was winless in its four contests against Notre Dame.
Now, the Wolverines have defeated each of their opponents at least once. For the younger players, it’s crucial that they enter the postseason with the belief that no team is out of reach.
Michigan’s playoff inexperience is one of its few weaknesses.
“They’re good, they’re deep,” Pearson said. “The main difference is they’re older. They’ve got experience and some of their best players are their older kids … where we’re relying on a lot of freshmen and sophomores.”
The atmosphere and loyal Golden Gopher crowd should be as loud as ever on Saturday. Despite the underclassmen’s success this season, nothing can prepare them for a game this important.
Every shift will feel that much more valuable. Every battle won down low could change the course of the game.
Saturday will be the difference between a good season and a great one.