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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.