Today kicks off the inaugural Big Ten Conference Hockey Tournament at Xcel Energy Center and one of the great times of the year. The postseason is here. This weekend crowns six champions and goes straight into NCAA Tournament coverage full blast the following week.
However, it is different this year. One reason why this weekend has been great in past years was what role the WCHA Final Five has played. Every region has a special event and the Final Five, which brought in fans from all over the Upper Midwest, Rocky Mountains and some dedicated Alaskans, was it. Nothing else matched the Final Five at Xcel Energy Center as far as conference tournaments went.
Not atmosphere. Certainly not attendance.
But that's in the past, one of the victims of conference realignment. Instead of one big tournament forever in the West, there are three this weekend. The Big Ten gets the old house, WCHA the name (and part-time custody of the X - this year is in Grand Rapids, MI with next year's tournament in St. Paul) and NCHC most of the local teams. The latter has uprooted all of 9 miles, heading across the Mississippi to Minneapolis and Target Center.
[Check out the Big Ten final standings and bracket with times and games HERE]
Even though there has been a year since the final "goodbye" and other attempts to maintain and begin new traditions (i.e. North Star College Cup), let's not kid ourselves. This weekend is still a little weird. After so many years together, having North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin fans continually separated by bodies of water and arenas seems wrong.
It's not all bad. There have been positives with the Big Ten tournament this year, including all five games (beginning today at 2 pm. CT with Michigan-Penn State) airing on BTN.
Plenty of great writers and reporters have stepped up covering the conference and college hockey in general (full disclosure: I'm a writer - I've written this piece and others).
What all that means for attendance is another matter.
Right now there isn't a perfect solution to place the Big Ten Conference Hockey Tournament because we're in Year 1. Everything is spread out and it's hard to know what that means for attendance in St. Paul. Will people travel? (In a perfect world, I'd love to see a rotation of St. Paul, Detroit and a neutral site like Big Ten homebase Chicago.)
1. Tournament Format
The actual format is similar to what the Final Five had used recently (or the NFL Playoffs still uses) in that six teams play single-elimination games with the top two seeds getting a first round byes. That means every team is in and at worst 3 games away from the NCAA Tournament. Not since the CHA folded has a regular season meant so little.
While there were other options on the table (first overall seed hosts, 3-6 play best out of three series), the Big Ten decided on having everyone make the conference tournament without a first round series. The goal is attendance-based. Also, several coaches brought up that having single-elimination is good since the format mimics the NCAA Tournament structure where one loss and you are gone.
Still, not everyone likes it. Michigan head coach Red Berenson is a fan of having games on campus.
"We're used to playing on campus sites. I think it's good for the fans," he said. "Any team can win a one-game series. Typically in hockey you don't have a one-game playoff."
Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, who knows a thing or two about the format, also mentioned that "the edge almost goes on Friday to the teams that have played the day before."
Will this format work? Can a team that wouldn't be close to making the tournament (Penn State, which is around 50th in Pairwise, along with Michigan State and Ohio State need to win to get into the Big Dance) pull off the major upset? Although last weekend saw several 3 game series upsets, it's more prevalent over sixty minutes.
Strange things can happen in a single-elimination format
2. Can Minnesota win as favorites/regain momentum?
Speaking of one game, Minnesota would have looked good if last weekend was just a single game. The Gophers defeated Michigan in overtime 3-2 Friday. Saturday was a different story. The team rested several players and fekk 6-2 for a series split. This has been a great season for Minnesota, which culminated in the Big Ten championship and several individual honors this week, and the team has used its depth to its advantage by finding several different ways to win.
From Kyle Rau having a nose for overtime winners to Adam Wilcox's goaltending and a defense that is third in the nation (giving up 2 goals per game) to Mike Reilly being a catalyst from the blue line to Hudson Fasching using his size on the big ice to Minnesota's third line utilizing physicality, few, if any team in the nation, has as many options.
Still, there's an odd feeling that comes with Saturday's loss and locking up the #1 overall seed. Minnesota, returning to Xcel Energy Center after claiming the first NSCC Trophy in January, hasn't had the best success lately in conference tournament - especially when contrasted to a Wisconsin squad that is on a 6 game Xcel Energy Center win streak, including all 3 games last year as the six seed - and was upset by Colorado College in the Friday night game last year. (Minnesota then fell to eventual national champion Yale in the first round of last year's NCAA Tournament, which didn't help either. The Gophers, like this year, had one of the best chances and teams to get through in 2013.)
It may be because of the past that there is paranoia here. There are many reasons why 25-5-6 Gophers could add a second piece of B1G hardware and right now it's the only thing Lucia and his team are focusing upon.
"We take on the next chapter, which is the Big Ten tournament," he said. "When this weekend is over, this chapter is closed."
3. Michigan needs a win to get into the tournament while Penn State has had its number
This weekend's biggest stakes fall to Michigan. The third-seeded Wolverines, coming off that do-or-die home win against Minnesota, are on the NCAA Tournament bubble. The team finds itself alone there - Minnesota and Wisconsin are already locks while everyone else needs the automatic bid. Although Michigan can get in without a win 22% of the time, according to Jim Dahl, a win over Penn State almost guarantees a return to the NCAAs for the 22nd time in 23 years.
Standing in its way is sixth seed Penn State, whose three conference wins include two against Michigan. This is a new experience for PSU (and actually everyone), however, the opening game has major stakes. For Penn State to make it three wins, it is going to have to shut down several streaking Wolverines that include forwards Phil Di Giuseppe and Big Ten freshman of the year JT Compher, among others.
Michigan isn't the only team that has streaking players, though.
"When you talk about the second half, (PSU sophomore) Casey Bailey has made the biggest strides from the first half to the second half," Nittany Lions head coach Guy Gadowsky said.
"For us to be successful, we can't rely on one or two guys. We have to get it from everybody."
4. Who wins between Michigan State-Ohio State since it can't end in a tie?
The games between MSU and the Buckeyes this season have been hard fought. Three of the four have ended in shootouts with both games at Munn being 2-2 ties. The one exception, a 5-3 OSU win in January, was the difference between fourth and fifth place.
"I guess the teams are pretty similar, when it comes down to 3 games and 3 shootouts," said Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik. "They don't give you much, their goaltender has been well this whole year."
Is that enough for Rohlik's team, which came back with two last-minute goals to tie in one of the games, to put together a dominant combination among conference leading point scorer Ryan Dzingel, Mike McCormick, Tanner Fritz and a goaltender duo of Christian Frey and Matt Tomkins? At this time of the year, Michigan State is the first of several teams that stand in its way.
"Our concentration is coming up on Thursday and playing the best game possible against Michigan State. If you get too far ahead of yourself, all of a sudden the season is over," Rohlik said. "Really focused on doing the best we can against the Spartans."
5. Big Ten goaltending and who is this year's dark horse?
One of the consistent themes this time of year is getting good goaltending to advance. In a single-elimination tournament, a hot goalie can win a title.
This season has seen several outstanding goaltending performances in the Big Ten. Almost every team has had a goalie take over for stretches. Two conference goaltenders - Adam Wilcox and Wisconsin's Joel Rumpel - were among the five finalists for the Mike Richter Award given to the most outstanding goalie in college hockey. Three others - OSU's Christian Frey, Michigan's Zach Nagelvoort and Michigan State's Jake Hildebrand - had save percentages above .920%.
"For us, we need to go out and compete hard. Our goaltending has to be good. We need to generate some offense. Of late, we've been gaining some confidence," Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos said. "We've demonstrated that our team is getting better. The key to get some success is for us to defend well."
Even Dzingel, who led the defensively-focused conference in points by a wide margin, was praised by his head coach for taking over penalty killing duties and growing as a player defensively.
Credit to Wilcox, Rumpel to the others because the quality of goaltending in the league makes this year's Big Ten tournament wide open. My money would be on the top two teams. It wouldn't be shocking to see a Michigan or Michigan State win three games and leave St. Paul with the trophy, however.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate