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Big Ten preview: More great things expected of the Gophers with Wolverines, Fighting Irish close behind

The Minnesota Gophers begin their Big Ten title defense this weekend, as the 10th season of the conference's foray into hockey is underway. There are six other teams hoping to hang a banner this season, with Michigan and Notre Dame likely to provide Minnesota's stiffest challenges.

Wisconsin vs Minnesota
Members of the Minnesota Gophers held the Big Ten regular season champions trophy aloft before a noisy audience at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis after a 8-0 win over Wisconsin on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022.
Matt Krohn / University of Minnesota Athletics

MINNEAPOLIS – At Michigan State, the Spartans recently celebrated the 15th anniversary of their 2007 NCAA title, won in the final minute of regulation in an upset of a powerful Boston College team. As the MSU program moves forward with a new coach and a impressively remodeled home rink, it was an important look back for their program.

And as the Big Ten begins its 10th season as the first major multi-sport conference to encompass hockey, the celebration serves as a reminder to the Big Ten hockey haters out there – of which there are many – that it has been 15 years since a team in the current conference was the last one left on the ice on a Saturday night in April.

Twice, including last season, the Big Ten has sent two teams to the Frozen Four, and twice the conference has sent a team to the NCAA title game, but none of them have hoisted the game’s most coveted trophy just yet.

The Minnesota Gophers are the defending Big Ten champs and have dominated the first nine years of conference play, winning five regular season titles and just missing a sixth when a mathematical formula was used to crown Wisconsin the champs in 2021, after COVID-19 played havoc with the schedules. In the preseason polls, the league’s coaches picked Minnesota to repeat.

As the Gophers begin their Big Ten title defense at Ohio State this weekend, here’s a quick look at the league’s seven contenders, in alphabetical order:


2022 Frozen Four - Michigan vs Denver
Michigan Wolverines' goalie Erick Portillo deflects a shot by the Denver Pioneers in a 2022 Division I Men’s Frozen Four semifinal game Thursday, April 7, 2022, at TD Garden in Boston, MA.
Jim Rosvold / The Rink Live

Michigan Wolverines

2021-22 records: 31-10-0 overall, 16-8-0-0-3-0 Big Ten (2nd place). Coaches predicted finish: 3rd.

Yost Ice Arena, the old brick barn that houses the maize and blue and their rabid fan base, can be a noisy place. For the Wolverines in 2022-23, one goal may be to drown out the off-season noise and just focus on hockey. Despite a run to the Big Ten tournament title and the Frozen Four last season, Michigan fired coach Mel Pearson over the summer, following an in-depth investigation into his program which revealed cultural issues that needed fixing.

The Wolverines are off to a 5-1-0 start while dealing with the loss of first-round draft pick forward Frank Nazar until February due to injury. And there was a recent death in the Wolverines family, as longtime equipment manager Ian Hume lost a lengthy battle with cancer. While several members of last season’s team went straight to the NHL, interim head coach Brandon Naurato, a former Wolverine who is reportedly well-liked by his players – inherited a ton of returning talent and arguably the conference’s top goaltender in Erik Portillo.

After three years at Notre Dame and one at Quinnipiac, goalie Dylan St. Cyr (37) returned to the Big Ten for his final season of hockey and saw the bulk of Michigan State's minutes in the crease during October 2022.
Contributed / MSU Athletic Communications

Michigan State Spartans

2021-22 records: 12-23-1 overall, 6-18-0-1-0-0 Big Ten (7th place). Coaches predicted finish: 7th.

It is a new era for hockey in East Lansing, with former Spartan Adam Nightingale taking over the reins of the program after Danton Cole was dismissed in April. In five seasons at the helm of the Spartans, Cole’s teams produced some impressive individual talent, but did not reach the .500 mark. Nightingale has had coaching stints at Shattuck-St. Mary’s and with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program – two outstanding sources of college hockey talent.

Off to a 4-2-0 start this season, the Spartans are being led by three new faces. In goal, mainstay Dylan St. Cyr switched Big Ten teams after four seasons at Notre Dame and one with Quinnipiac. Offensively, freshmen Daniel Russel and Karsen Dorwart have been the go-to sources of goals early in the season. And those who watch college hockey’s future note the significance of Nightingale bringing Jared DeMichel on as an assistant coach after DeMichel was the recruiting force behind the 2021 NCAA title won by UMass.


With teammates Jaxon Nelson, Brock Faber and Luke Mittelstadt converging to help, Minnesota Gophers goalie Justen Close watched a puck glide over the net in the team's 3-2 loss at Minnesota State Mankato on Saturday, October 8, 2022 at the Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center in Mankato, Minn.
Mansoor Ahmad / MSU Athletics

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2021-22 records: 26-13-0 overall, 18-6-0-1-2-0 Big Ten (1st place). Coaches predicted finish: 1st.

Gophers coach Bob Motzko has a problem, and it is one that most opposing coaches would envy. When blue line stars Brock Faber, Ryan Johnson and Jackson LaCombe all decided to return for another season of college hockey, rather than collect a paycheck from the Wild, Sabres and Ducks, respectively, it left the Gophers with a glut of talent on defense. That trio, coupled with goalie Justen Close, combined for the Big Ten’s fewest goals allowed last season, and have helped the team to a 4-2-0 start and the top ranking in the nation.

Then you add newcomers like forward Logan Cooley – the third overall pick in last summer’s NHL Draft – to the mix and one can see why the expectations have never been higher as Motzko’s fifth season running the Gophers program gets underway. Over the summer, Motzko added assistant coach Steve Miller to the mix, after Miller played a key coaching and recruiting role in two NCAA titles won by Denver and another won by Providence, as well as Ohio State’s lone Big Ten title in 2019.

The duo coached together at Hamline for six seasons and under Brad Frost with the Minnesota Gophers for a season. They take over a Pioneers program that was among Minnesota's best in 2022-23.
The New Prague native is a two-time U18 gold medalist and was a prep standout before producing 146 points in 160 games over five seasons in maroon and gold.
In an unexpected move, the two-time national champion player will not be back with the U of M after two seasons working for head coach Brad Frost and helping her alma mater to the Frozen Four.
With much of his offense returning, we expect coach Bob Motzko will add three forwards, three defensemen and a goalie to a roster that was within a few minutes of winning the NCAA title in April.
After leading the Gophers offensively in his final college season, some thought NHL success was inevitable for the Finnish forward. After battling injuries in the AHL, he is back in Europe.
Larson has international experience from his stint as an Olympic assistant coach in 2022, while Miller will be working his seventh World Juniors for Team USA, and looking for his third gold medal.
A prep state champion as a sophomore, Begley spent parts of the last two seasons in the NAHL, most recently with the Wisconsin Windigo where he was the team's top-scoring defenseman.
Starting next season, men's and women's season-ticket holders for the Minnesota Gophers will be able to return seats they cannot use and get credit for future season ticket purchases.
The defenseman originally from southern California was a four-year regular on the U of M blue line, and a first-round pick of Buffalo in 2019.
Transfers from St. Lawrence, Princeton and UMD will help bolster the Gophers on the back end next season as they try to find a way back to the Frozen Four and repeat as WCHA tourney champs.
The Minnesota Gophers center led the team in scoring on the way to a Big Ten title and a trip to the NCAA title game, and recently announced he will return for a sophomore college hockey season.
Fargo native Trent Wiemken has gone 8-1-1 in the Robertson Cup playoffs as the mainstay goalie for the Austin Bruins playoffs while working with former Minnesota Gophers goalie Nick Lehr's coaching.

Minnesota defenseman Mike Koster (right) battled for a loose puck with Notre Dame forward Solag Bakich during a 3-0 Gophers win at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Indiana on February 13, 2021.
Mike Miller / Fighting Irish Media

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

2021-22 records: 28-12-0 overall, 17-7-0-5-1-0 Big Ten (3rd place). Coaches predicted finish: 2nd.

A relatively nondescript season for the Irish in 2021-22 had them beating North Dakota in the NCAA tournament and coming within two goals of the Frozen Four (they were blanked 1-0 by Minnesota State Mankato in the Albany Regional finale). There’s no secret to coach Jeff Jackson’s formula at Notre Dame. They win with puck possession and defense, and are doing so again this season.


The Irish are off to a 3-2-1 start, with Ryan Bischel, the former Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Fargo Force standout, carrying the load in goal. Offensively, veterans Ryder Rolston and Trevor Janicke are the go-to players for a team that has always been content to take a 2-1 lead and then lock things down defensively. The Irish won the Big Ten title in 2017-18, which was their first season as an affiliate member of the conference, and went to the national title game, falling to Minnesota Duluth in the final. Anything short of a return to the NCAA tournament this season would be a failure to meet expectations.

Minnesota forward Rhett Pitlick reached for a loose puck while Ohio State goalie Jakub Dobes made a save during the Gophers' 5-1 win over the Buckeyes on Saturday, February 12, 2022 at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio.
Kirk Irwin / Ohio State Athletics

Ohio State Buckeyes

2021-22 records: 22-13-2 overall, 13-9-2-1-1-1 Big Ten (4th place). Coaches predicted finish: 5th.

Picked for the conference cellar a year ago, the Buckeyes were the Big Ten’s feel-good surprise team until about Valentine’s Day. They hit a wall late in the season, going just 1-6-0 in their last seven, falling to Penn State in a best-of-three playoff series and just missing an invite to the NCAA tournament.

Off to a 6-1-1 start and ranked 11th nationally headed into their series with Minnesota, the Buckeyes are getting stellar goaltending from sophomore Jakub Dobes, who burst onto the college hockey scene a year ago after arriving from the Czech Republic by way of Topeka in the NAHL and Omaha in the USHL. Offensively, they have gotten an early season boost from rookie Stephen Halliday, a fourth-round pick of the Ottawa Senators, who played three seasons for Dubuque in the USHL and is averaging nearly an assist per game.

Perhaps the biggest need for St. Paul native Steve Rohlik as he begins his 10th season as head coach at Ohio State is for the school to stop talking about building a real on-campus hockey facility for the Buckeyes men and women (the defending national champs) and put shovels in the ground.

With defenseman Ryan Johnson (23) standing guard, Minnesota goalie Justen Close fought off traffic from Penn State's Carson Dyck (7) and Xander Lamppa (9) in the Gophers' 6-4 win over the Nittany Lions on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022 at Pegula Ice Arena in State College, Pa.
Heather Weikel / The Rink Live

Penn State Nittany Lions

2021-22 records: 17-20-1 overall, 6-17-1-5-1-0 Big Ten (5th place tie). Coaches predicted finish: 6th.


There was some real anger and disappointment expressed by Nittany Lions coach Guy Gadowsky on a Saturday night last March in Minneapolis after a late Gophers goal lifted the home team to a 3-2 win in a Big Ten tournament semifinal game, and ended Penn State’s season. Despite a sub-.500 record, the conference’s newest program built things the right way and is far from satisfied with anything less than a NCAA tournament trip these days.

As the kind of photo negative to defense-first Notre Dame, the Lions are known for their propensity to shoot the puck from anywhere and everywhere at any time, and for the Roar Zone – a boisterous student section inside Pegula Ice Arena that makes the long trip only the second-hardest thing for visitors to Hockey Valley.

Off to a 6-0-0 start, the Lions have found a nice new offensive weapon in transfer Ture Linden, who is averaging better than an assist per game since coming over from RPI in the portal.

college hockey players play ice hockey
Wisconsin goaltender Jared Moe (35) stares down the puck after losing his helmet during play against Minnesota Duluth at Amsoil Arena on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Wisconsin Badgers

2021-22 records: 10-24-3 overall, 6-17-1-1-2-0 Big Ten (5th place tie). Coaches predicted finish: 4th.

Off to a 2-4-0 start, the Badgers have already swept Minnesota Duluth on the road and have been swept by St. Cloud State in Madison, meaning they would maybe finish in the middle of the pack in the NCHC. If they finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, one wonders if it will be enough to prevent Wisconsin from making a coaching change in six months or so. Tony Granato is beginning his seventh at his alma mater and in that time the Badgers have won one conference title, claimed the 2021 Hobey Baker Award and have gone 0-1 in the NCAA tournament.

If the Badgers are to take a step forward this season, two Minnesota kids with connections to the Gophers will be the key. Freshman forward Cruz Lucius, who committed to Minnesota at 13, but switched to the other side of the Border Battle last summer, leads the Badgers with three goals so far. Their go-to guy in goal is Jared Moe , who played two seasons in maroon and gold before transferring to Wisconsin at the start of his junior year.


Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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