What to look forward to this weekend in the Big Ten? No playoffs. At least not yet.
One side effect of only having six teams and three days of postseason play is that Big Ten regular season hockey continues for two more weekends. Whereas every other conference begins its tournament or wrapping up this weekend, there are two weeks remaining before Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State travel to St. Paul.
Still, there are 3 conference series this weekend that can play a role in the postseason. Minnesota travels to Ohio State. Wisconsin travels to Penn State for the first time. And Michigan State travels to Michigan tonight before the two take the 90 minute trip back up US-23 and Interstate 96 to East Lansing (side note: one time I did that trip and got lost in Brighton. Outlet store was nice, though. The more you know...).
The Wolverines and Spartans rivalry is easily the highlight of this weekend. With every series remaining affecting seeding and Minnesota having a chance to clinch the Big Ten title this weekend, here is what's at stake (in reverse order). But first the current Big Ten standings for March 7, 2014.
Big Ten Standings
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
6. Penn State (highest possible 6, lowest possible 6)
What's at stake: Beating Wisconsin at home and avenging a sweep this year. Upsetting the Badgers late for the second straight season. Seeing Buckeyes skate.
Honestly, there isn't much left for Penn State which hasn't been decided. In other words, welcome to the cellar. Even if the Nittany Lions win out and Michigan State gets swept by both Michigan and Wisconsin, the Spartans take the tiebreaker.
The good news for Penn State is that Michigan, after taking 4 of 6 points against Ohio State last weekend, currently is in third place and would face the Nittany Lions. Playing a Wolverines team that PSU has beaten twice this year, the only two conference wins so far, in a single elimination postseason tournament, is about the best case scenario.
5. Michigan State (highest possible 3, lowest possible 5)
What's at state: Great Lake State bragging rights, Michigan hating, more Michigan hating, a later chance to avenge a sweep against Wisconsin.
Michigan State realistically has the best chance to move up this weekend out of any team. The Spartans,facing Michigan, are 3 points out of fourth place while Ohio State faces first-place Minnesota (more on this later). Of course, the battle between fourth and fifth place is essentially for last change in a couple Thursdays. It doesn't change the opponent. Odds are the Spartans and Buckeyes play one another.
4. Ohio State (highest possible 2, lowest possible 5)
What's at stake: Playing spoiler for Wisconsin, Ryan Dzingel becoming conference scoring champ, hoping to get some help from others while facing Minnesota and Penn State
Here's where the fun begins. Technically Ohio State could still get a bye. To do so would require every underdog to pull off a sweep while the Buckeyes do the same to Minnesota and Penn State. Even with the Wolverines' six points against the Gophers next weekend, OSU would come one point ahead. (That same scenario would drop Wisconsin to fourth place.)
In all likelihood, Ohio State's 4-3 loss to Michigan on Sunday took away that slim chance to grab a bye while giving the Wolverines a 5 point cushion between third and fourth place. If that game, following a shootout win for the Buckeyes in the series opener, went the other way (and there were plenty of chances in the last 9 minutes), Ohio State would be in third place. Now fifth place is closer than third.
The Buckeyes instead must be fans of Minnesota next weekend. Outside of having 2-3 things going right (i.e. the first scenario), the only way Ohio State moves up is entering the final two games within 6 points of Michigan and hoping the Gophers help out OSU.
3. Michigan (highest possible 1, lowest possible 5)
What's at stake: Great Lake State bragging rights, avenging sweep at Minnesota, NCAA Tournament hopes
The Wolverines have the most to gain and lose over the last two weekends and it's fitting that, sitting 12th place in the Pairwise rankings, Michigan is also looking to solidify a return to the NCAA Tournament after a year absence. Theoretically the win over Ohio State kept Michigan in the Big Ten title hunt albeit having everything go right. Those two losses to Penn State really hurt.
The good news is that Red Berenson's club does control its destiny the last weekend at home against Minnesota. Whether it plays spoiler or even faces a Gopher squad that clinched the weekend before and has nothing to play for, the remaining four regular season games are of the utmost importance. Michigan is four points from second place and a decent showing mixed with a Badgers upset or two would give it Thursday off.
Worst-case scenario sees Michigan fans behind Ohio State and having an eye to keep on the Pairwise. This is a battle that, win or lose, will continue through the Big Ten tournament.
2. Wisconsin (highest possible 1, lowest possible 4)
What's at stake: Proving the Badgers can win on the road, maintaining a bye, hoping Ohio State or Michigan trips up Minnesota...oh and the Big Ten title
Wisconsin's title chances took a dip during its final bye week when the Gophers used the two remaining games in hand to sweep Penn State. It's entirely possible for the Badgers, who have the best chance to wrench the inaugural regular season title (and the...unique trophy) from rival Minnesota, that the deficit doesn't matter if the Gophers stumble.
However, Wisconsin now trails first place by 7 points, or one more than can be gained in a weekend.
The deficit is beyond needing Minnesota to lose in a shootout mixed with a loss. The Badgers need either Ohio State or Michigan to join it in the "we beat the Gophers in Big Ten play " club. Right now meetings are strictly in Madison.
A couple wins over Penn State and a Michigan defeat or shootout loss this weekend would clinch a first round bye. (Side note: If the top two seeds hold course, I'm interested to see attendance for the Thursday games with the closest schools, and ones within driving distance, having byes.)
Whether or not Wisconsin can improve its position may not matter. Having the last four games on the road gives it a chance to prove it can win away from Kohl Center; where the Badgers were 17-2-1. UW has only won twice on the road this season and if that streak continues, against Penn State and Michigan State, the door opens for the Wolverines.
1. Minnesota (highest possible 1, lowest possible 3)
What's at stake: Adding another banner to the bunch, keeping the #1 overall seed in Pairwise rankings
Odds are the Gophers, whose NCAA Tournament berth is all but assured, can rest in a couple Thursdays after tonight or Saturday. Minnesota needs 2 points or 1 dropped point by the Wolverines to clinch a first round bye in its last 4 games. It's hard to not see that happen - fun scenarios where Minnesota blows an 11 point lead aside.
Sitting in the top spot of college hockey following Boston College's loss to Notre Dame last weekend, the Gophers control its own destiny. A sweep of Ohio State this weekend would give Minnesota the Big Ten regular season title regardless of how Wisconsin does. A win tonight and a loss clinches the title and shootout defeat by Wisconsin would clinch a share.
Ohio State can't be counted out. Neither can Wisconsin. There are several ways for the championship to go down to the final weekend. Until the math counts every team out, nothing is guaranteed for the Gophers.
That said: Like Michigan, Minnesota's more interesting battle is with the NCAA Tournament. It already will be playing the West Regional at Xcel Energy Center as host. Whether or not the Gophers will be #1 seed and facing the Atlantic Hockey champion instead of an at-large team is a big difference. Look at last year - #15 Yale upset #2 Minnesota and went on to win the entire tournament.
Single elimination tournaments are funny like that. We'll see the first in a couple weeks.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate