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Smorgasbord of scenarios in play as Big Ten regular season concludes this weekend

The top (Minnesota) and the bottom (Wisconsin) are settled, but there are myriad things that could happen to places two through six in the Big Ten table with just six regular season games to play.

Michigan goalie Erik Portillo (1) looked stunned after Ohio State scored one of their four goals in a win over the Wolverines outdoors at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio, on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023.
Contributed / Ohio State Athletics

MINNEAPOLIS – A college hockey season is a journey, filled with challenges. For the Ohio State Buckeyes, who have all but mathematically wrapped up home ice for round one of the Big Ten playoffs, the journey might be one of their biggest challenges this week.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the travel plans for coach Steve Rohlik and company were still pending. While the forecast for Columbus on Thursday showed sunshine and temperatures above 70, the Buckeyes were scheduled for a pair of games in the polar vortex of the Twin Cities on Friday and Saturday, where snow, wind and cold were making the solidity of winter’s grip on the State of Hockey a factor.

“We’ve been communicating through text and I said ‘Don’t worry, you’re not going to have any problem getting here.’ I’m not a meteorologist, I just think there’s going to be a window and they’re going to be fine to get in here,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said on Wednesday of his pre-series communication with Rohlik. “That’s part of being on the road too. We all have to deal with it.”

Minnesota Gophers forward Logan Cooley (left) was congratulated by his teammates after one of the five points he recorded in the second period of his team's 7-2 win over Penn State on Friday, Feb. 17, 2022 at Pegula Ice Arena in State College, Pa.
Craig Houtz / Penn State Athletics

With six games remaining in the Big Ten season, the races to the top and the bottom are done. Minnesota (51 Big Ten points) clinched the title last week and will be idle in round one of the playoffs, awaiting the lowest remaining seed which will come to 3M Arena at Mariucci on March 11 for a one-game semifinal.

The Wisconsin Badgers celebrate during a game against the Minnesota Gophers on Feb. 11, 2023 at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis.
Larry Radloff / The Rink Live

Wisconsin (15 points) has seventh place locked down. The Badgers travel to Penn State this weekend, and will visit the eventual second-place finisher the following weekend.


The rest of the conference standings are in flux, with Notre Dame visiting Michigan, along with the other two series.

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 Athletics

Michigan State (34 points) is idle and can finish as high as fourth place, which would mean home ice for the Spartans in round one. MSU owns the tiebreaker with both Notre Dame and Penn State, and needs both of those teams to earn three points or less this weekend to finish fourth. If either Penn State or Notre Dame gets four points or more this weekend, the Spartans are going on the road.

Minnesota's Charlie Strobel fought for open ice while sandwiched between a pair of Michigan defenders in the first period of the Gophers win over the Wolverines on Friday, November 18, 2022 at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Contributed / Big Ten Hockey

Currently tied for second place, Michigan (36 points) can clinch home ice with one point this weekend. The Wolverines were one of college hockey’s hottest teams prior to one week ago, when they tied and lost versus arch rival Ohio State, and health continues to be an issue for interim head coach Brandon Naurato’s team. After the boost of Frank Nazar III and Steven Holtz returning to the lineup, star defenseman Luke Hughes left last weekend’s series early, and his status versus the Irish is in question.

Minnesota Gophers forward Bryce Brodzinski (left) looked for the puck amid a crowd of Buckeyes during a 6-4 loss to Ohio State on Friday, October 28, 2022 at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio.
Contributed / Ohio State Athletics

Once Ohio State (36 points) braves the weather and gets to Minneapolis, the Buckeyes are in good shape to get to stay at home for round one of the playoffs. Even facing the nation’s top-ranked Gophers, the only scenario which would have the Buckeyes finishing fifth would require them to lose twice at Minnesota, Penn State sweeps the Badgers and Notre Dame gets five or more points at Michigan. Not impossible, just unlikely. A split at Minnesota this weekend would put Ohio State in a strong position to finish as high as second and host Wisconsin in the playoffs.

Penn State vs Minnesota
Minnesota Gophers forward Sammy Walker battled traffic in front of Penn State goalie Liam Souliere in the Gophers' 3-2 win over the Nittany Lions in their Big Ten semifinal playoff game on Saturday, March 12, 2022 at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.
Brad Rempel / University of Minnesota Athletics

Penn State (31 points) can finish as high as third if they sweep the Badgers and Ohio State gets swept in Minnesota. A more likely scenario has them finishing fourth if they can beat Wisconsin twice and Notre Dame splits or gets swept at Michigan.

Minnesota goalie Justen Close thwarted a scoring chance by Notre Dame forward Justin Janicke during the second period between the Golden Gophers and Fighting Irish on Saturday, January 14, 2023 at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Ind.
Dani Meersman / Notre Dame Athletics

Still, Notre Dame (31 points) isn’t going to be counted out that easily. The Irish beat Michigan twice to close the regular season a year ago, opening the door for Minnesota to win the 2022 title, and head to Ann Arbor still able to finish as high as second if they can beat the Wolverines twice and Ohio State loses twice at Minnesota.

When all of that dust is settled on Saturday night, we will have the second-place team hosting Wisconsin, the third-place team hosting the sixth-place finisher and the fourth-place team hosting the fifth place team. All Big Ten first-round playoff series are best of three and will be played March 3-4 and 5 if necessary. The lowest-remaining seed after round one will travel to Minnesota for a one-game semifinal, with the other two advancing teams playing each other in the higher seed’s building for the other semifinal.

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Of the two teams remaining after the semifinals, the highest seed will host the Big Ten tournament title game on Saturday, March 18.


Weekend predictions

Wisconsin at Penn State – The Nittany Lions played a solid top-to-bottom game last Saturday versus Minnesota and emerged with just one point thanks to the late-game heroics of the Gophers’ eye-popping top line. Wisconsin, in getting a pair of Saturday home wins the last two weekends, has played about as well as these Badgers can play. Hard to see them getting a win in the Lions’ den. Penn State sweeps.

Notre Dame at Michigan – The Wolverines have shown that when they are clicking, they are one of college hockey’s top teams. But early leads have led to mid-game lulls lately, and that has been troublesome. Add to that the questions about Michigan’s health, and we can see the Fighting Irish stealing one on Friday, before the Wolverines rally for a big win at home on senior night to close the series. A split at Yost.

Ohio State at Minnesota – The Buckeyes were responsible for Minnesota’s most lifeless loss of the season, way back in October when the Gophers were coming off an emotional series with North Dakota and were an emotional no-show for their series opener in Columbus. But these Buckeyes are playing great hockey late, and we can see them forcing overtime in Minneapolis in this series opener. Can we see them winning on Saturday? No chance. Gophers with their second consecutive “OT win, regulation win” sweep.

If all of that comes to pass, the first round of the Big Ten playoffs looks like this:

  • Wisconsin at Michigan
  • Notre Dame at Ohio State
  • Michigan State at Penn State

Stay tuned.

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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