The weather here in Minnesota may not feel like it today with double digit below zero temperatures, but spring is nearly here. With that, there are only three weekends left in the inaugural Big Ten regular season. By the end of this weekend's games a lion will come in. Soon after, there will be a lamb followed by a new national champion.
Before all that, however, there are eight total remaining series that can shape the Big Ten tournament next month in St. Paul.
The eight series are not equal. Some have more impact on the conference race. Others are the leftovers to rivalry-fueled dinners.
Eight is enough to rank the end of the season, though. With factors like rivalry, importance to conference race down the final stretch, time, games on national TV, fun factor, stats and my biased opinion, here is the importance of every Big Ten hockey series from Friday prior to the March 20-22 conference tournament in St. Paul ranked 1-8.
Currently, the Big Ten standings see Minnesota and Wisconsin occupying the top 2 spots. That's important because the first and second-place teams during the regular season get a bye in the first round of the Big Ten conference tournament.
Big Ten Standings
|Points||Wins||Losses||Ties||Shootout Wins||Games Remaining|
B1G point structure: 3 points for a regulation/OT win, 1 for a tie, 1 for a shootout win (SW = 2 for 1 game), 0 for a loss
8. Ohio State at Penn State (Mar. 14-15)
Someone has to be last. Given the other two final week series, lack of a hockey rivalry, no national games - or any games - on TV and the main selling point (right now) being if Buckeyes junior Ryan Dzingel (Ottawa Senators draft pick) can be the conference scoring leader, Ohio State at Penn State lags behind.
7. Minnesota at Ohio State (Mar. 7-8)
So does this one. Minnesota has plenty to play for, as could Ohio State, yet not against one another. There also isn't much hockey history with the Buckeyes not participating in the College Hockey Showcase and the two teams being in separate conferences. With all of that, however, Ohio State does have recent history of being swept by the Gophers in an outdoor/indoor series last month. OSU would love to return the favor at home.
6. Wisconsin at Penn State (Mar. 7-8)
The Badgers making the team's first trip to Hockey Valley has some value. Wisconsin used its loss to Penn State last season to fuel a WCHA tournament championship run and NCAA Tournament appearance. The Nittany Lions used that road win to end its inaugural D1 season on a high note. Matching up again gives that another chance even if it's not on television. At the same time, the stakes between the second-place Badgers and Penn State (who needs a miracle run to jump out of the Big Ten cellar) also depend upon the fifth-ranked game.
5. Penn State at Minnesota (Feb. 28-Mar. 1)
On the flip side the Nittany Lions travel to Mariucci Arena for the first time in the only remaining regular season series played in the Central Time Zone. No really. Wisconsin had Senior Night last weekend while the Gophers hold one Saturday.
This series features the biggest disparity between first and last place yet the Gophers have something besides newness on the line. Minnesota, off last week, uses its two games in hand on an idle Wisconsin against Penn State. Any points add to the 1 point lead Minnesota has and sets the race for the Big Ten championship in motion.
Other than that....
4. Wisconsin at Michigan State (Mar. 14-15)
...this series finishes it for Wisconsin. Michigan State is likely to finish fifth, or at best, get last change in the 4-5 game during Thursday of the Big Ten Tournament. The Badgers, meanwhile, possibly have first or third place on the line in the final weekend of the regular season. Where Wisconsin finishes depends upon how it plays on the road, which hasn't been the Badgers' best friend this season.
The team is a paltry 2-7-1 away from Kohl Center (where Wisconsin finished 17-2-1, including sweeping the Spartans last weekend). If Wisconsin is going to win the Big Ten, it is going to need more road wins.
3. Michigan vs. Michigan State (home and home) Mar. 7-8
A few things became apparent while ranking these series. One is that Michigan has an intriguing final three weeks of the season.
The Wolverines have two home-and-home series against its two biggest rivals in back-to-back weeks. Next weekend's in-state Michigan battle is always a big one. At worst, it's the second-best hockey rivalry in the Big Ten and there's a decent argument that it's first. Michigan and Michigan State have combined for 12 national championships and a plethora of individual and team achievements. Both kicked off the outdoor craze in 2001 (and continued it this year in Detroit during the GLI). So why is it third?
2. Michigan vs. Ohio State (home and home) Feb. 28-Mar. 2
This weekend's series has more on the line for this year. Ohio State and Michigan are rivals although The Game and hatred hasn't translated as well from football to hockey. This year sees the Wolverines and Buckeyes, who were swept by Michigan to begin the conference, in third and fourth place. Both need good weekends to change.
After splitting the season series with Penn State - PSU has 1 combined point from the other 4 teams - cost Michigan the chance to pass Wisconsin with its games in hand this weekend, the Wolverines need a sweep this weekend and help from PSU and Michigan State to grab a bye. Ohio State, however, isn't out of it either. The Buckeyes can leapfrog its neighbor to the north with 5 or 6 points this weekend and take over third place.
1. Minnesota at Michigan (Mar. 14-15)
While it isn't a guarantee (see above), the Gophers traveling to Ann Arbor is the only remaining game featuring two of the top three teams in the league. This series being on the final weekend also likely has championship stakes or Big Ten byes on the line. Michigan could still have incentive for a bye or help Wisconsin by playing spoiler. Minnesota swept the Wolverines earlier this month. Unless the Gophers win the preceding four games, it is likely going to have to take at least one point at Yost to claim the first Big Ten title.
Agree? Disagree? Horribly disagree? Leave it in the comments.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate