Michigan enters the Big Ten hockey tournament as the hottest team in the field, earning the right to host Wisconsin in a best-of-three quarterfinal series starting Friday night at Yost Arena.
Notre Dame (23-9-2, 17-6-1) is the regular-season champion, owning a quarterfinal bye. The Irish will host a semifinal game against the lowest remaining seed Saturday March 10 in South Bend. The championship game will be played at the site of the highest remaining seed March 17.
No. 3 seed Michigan will host No. 6 seed Wisconsin while No. 7 seed Michigan State plays at No. 2 seed Ohio State and No. 5 seed Minnesota travels to No. 4 seed Penn State.
If Michigan wins the quarterfinal series, the Wolverines will be in great position to earn an at-large bid for the 16-team NCAA Tournament, which starts March 23.
The Wolverines are 10-3-1 since getting swept by Notre Dame in a pair of 2-1 games back on Jan. 5-7. Michigan swept the Irish 4-2 and 1-0 Feb. 16 and 18 in a home-and-home series to help it to a No. 12 national ranking and, more importantly, a No. 9 spot in the PairWise rankings.
Michigan first-year coach Mel Pearson feels the turnaround started when he named sophomore Hayden Lavigne as the No. 1 goaltender. He responded by helping Michigan limit opponents to 37 goals during the last 16 games or an average of 2.3 goals.
“I like the change in the format, I went through it last year at Michigan Tech and thought it was great not only for your players, but more importantly your fans, to bring the game back on campus in such important games, I think it’s exciting,” said Pearson, who guided Michigan Tech to the WCHA tournament title last season with a 3-2 double OT win over Bowling Green in Houghton. Penn State defeated Wisconsin 2-1 in OT to claim the Big Ten title at Joe Louis Arena.
“We’ve been led by our goaltender Hayden Lavigne, who has really put together a strong second half, and we’ve gotten more contributions from some of our younger players that maybe the first half were finding their way and that’s added to the depth of our team.”
Pearson has the luxury of owning the top line in the Big Ten in Cooper Marody (12 goals, 29 assists, 41 points), Tony Calderone (19-14-33) and Dexter Dancs (8-12-20), but the Wolverines also have Jake Slaker (12-11-23) and freshman Jack Becker, a former Wisconsin commit, who scored a goal in each of the games against the Badgers the last time the teams played.
Still, Michigan’s success or failures start with Lavigne.
“First of all, anytime you have a new coach, a new philosophy, it takes some time and I think Mel has certainly done a great job there,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson of the Wolverines.
“When we played them in early January, I thought they played extremely well then. The biggest difference I see for them right now is that Hayden Lavigne has really come into his own. I think they’ve always had real good depth up front. They’ve got one of the top lines in college hockey, but the biggest difference for me is that Lavigne is playing as well as he’s played during his time at Michigan.”
While the Wolverines (18-13-3, 11-10-3) are on a roll, entering the league tournament with a five-game winning streak, Wisconsin limps in with a four-game losing streak.
In fact, Wisconsin (14-17-4, 8-13-3) hasn’t won in almost a month with its last win coming at Michigan, 4-2, on Feb. 3, a day after losing to the Wolverines, 5-3. The Badgers have been swept by Minnesota (4-2, 7-1) and Ohio State (6-2, 4-0) in their last two series.
No doubt, Michigan State will have its hands full against an Ohio State team that’s ranked No. 6 and comes in with a 7-3-1 run in its last 10 games.
MSU first-year coach Danton Cole has the Spartans (12-20-2, 6-16-2) playing much better during the last month, splitting series with Ohio State (21-8-5, 14-8-2), including a 6-3 win over the Buckeyes Feb. 3 in Columbus, Penn State and Notre Dame. The Spartans have played their last 14 games against teams ranked in the USCHO Top-20.
“We’re excited about it,” said Cole of the tournament. “We beat Ohio State a few weeks ago, we beat Penn State two weeks ago and we beat Notre Dame last weekend, now we have to figure out a way how to beat a team two out of three times.
“We knew we’d be young coming in with 19 freshmen and sophomores, so it would be a challenging season, but I think the guys have done a good job, the last seven games we’ve been 3-3-1 and there’s not a lot of quit in them.
“We had a lot of young guys and a new coaching staff and when you try to implement stuff, there was a lot that guys had to learn and I think lately that a lot of the habits and concepts and things that we’ve been talking about our guys do a little more automatically and that makes the game easier and you get more accomplished. It’s made our offense a little better and our defense a little more effective.”
The Spartans are led by sophomore Taro Hirose, who ranks second in the Big Ten in both points (40) and assists (28) with his assists being the most by an MSU player since Olympian Jim Slater (32) in 2004-05.
Freshman Mitchell Lewandowski is tied for the Big Ten lead in goals with 19, matching Calderone.
The Spartans’ KHL line — sophomore Patrick Khodorenko (11 goals, 29 points), Hirose and Lewandowski — has 102 points.
Ohio State has received outstanding goaltending by junior Sean Romeo (17-8-5, 2.06 GAA, .928 save percentage) and 6-foot-3 freshman Tommy Nappier (4-0, 1.33, .956).
BIG TEN HOCKEY TOURNAMENT
Best-of-three quarterfinal series
When: Games Friday, Saturday and Sunday
Where: Campus sites
No. 3 seed Michigan hosts No. 6 Wisconsin; all games at 7:30 p.m.
No. 7 seed Michigan State plays at No. 2 Ohio State; all games at 7 p.m.
Notable: No. 4 Penn State hosts No. 5 Minnesota in the third quarterfinal series. No. 1 Notre Dame receives a bye into the March 10 semifinals.