Thursday, March 16, 2017

2017 Big Ten Hockey Tournament Preview

Photo from 2015

A quick and dirty Big Ten preview prior to the games beginning later this afternoon in Detroit, Michigan.

Favorite: Minnesota

As the 2016-17 Big Ten regular champions, the Gophers enter as the favorite and in the precarious position of not needing to play for a NCAA Tournament bid. Minnesota has one wrapped up regardless. However, the Gophers do have an incentive to win the 2017 Big Ten tournament. The team is playing for a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Minnesota needs a win or two to accomplish.

With an offense that can utilize three lines when healthy, a Hobey Baker top-ten finalist in Tyler Sheehy and a goaltender in Eric Schierhorn who has a .934 save percentage over his last eight games there are several ways for Minnesota to win. Nursing injuries, not being in desperate and playing in a locale without home fans (albeit a building the Gophers took home the championship in 2015) are obstacles, though. Most notably losing Ryan Lindgren for the remainder of the season will be something Minnesota needs to figure out how to replace this weekend.

Dark Horse: Michigan

Over a single weekend tournament there usually ends up being a team or two that surprises. Right now the smart money is on Michigan. While the Wolverines finished the season fifth in the Big Ten, Michigan enters the conference tournament on a high note, having won four of its last five games.

Two things have helped. First, Michigan is getting much-needed senior leadership on a team that suffered more early departures than any other one in the Big Ten. Zach Nagelvoort has a pair of shutouts in goal over his last three games and appears to be Red Berenson's choice in net down the stretch. Alex Kile, the lone holdover from a top-six that all graduated or left early, is playing well with others and, along with captain Nolan De Jong, is in the words of Red Berenson, "playing desperate hockey."

Second, the Wolverines are healthy. Injuries have been as much a constant as anything for Michigan. Kile, Will Lockwood, Cooper Marody (who also missed half the season due to being academically ineligible) and Dexter Dancs have all been injured at points this season. Michigan will have to win three games in three days.

If not, then the Wolverines will say goodbye to their season, Joe Louis Arena and possibly Berenson all at once.

Playing for their season: Penn State, Ohio State

Thursday's first round shines attention upon two teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Both Penn State (13th) and Ohio State (14th) enter the Big Ten tournament needing at least one win to boost their Pairwise chances. PSU's chances of making the NCAAs go from ~25% to 75% with a win over a Michigan team that swept the Nittany Lions last weekend. Two wins (Michigan and Minnesota) would nearly cement a bid (97%).

Ohio State, the only team that has won at least one game in each of the three tournaments, is in a little worse shape than PSU, however, the same deal applies. If not for Michigan and being tough to play in the event year in and year out the Buckeyes would be a dark horse.

Wild card: Wisconsin

By finishing second the Badgers get an advantage of not playing Thursday. That should help Wisconsin, which thanks to being swept last weekend by Ohio State needs to win the tournament to get the automatic bid. No team has won the Big Ten tournament by winning three games. In fact, the past two have been won by the #2 seed (which Wisconsin is).

Still, the Badgers enter the tournament having lost its last three games and will have to turn things around. There's the talent and an advantage, but enough possibilities to make Wisconsin a wild card.

The other: Michigan State

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