As other conferences begin postseason play this weekend, Big Ten hockey moves full steam ahead.
There are two more regular season series for each of the six conference teams leading up to the Big Ten tournament in Detroit. Six total. Although the stretch run for the conference is not the most interesting in terms of national relevance or Pairwise rankings, it is in the standings. With 16 games down and 4 to go, the final two weekends of Big Ten play have four teams within 8 points of one another.
Games are all worth three points. A team takes three for a regulation/OT win, two for a shootout win, one for a shootout loss and zero for a regulation/OT loss.
Michigan (33) holds a three point lead over Minnesota (30). Two points behind the Gophers is Michigan State (28), which kept its regular season title hopes alive last week with a road split against Minnesota. Three points behind them is Penn State (25). The Nittany Lions have a tough road ahead, but with series against Michigan and Minnesota remaining Guy Gadowsky's team still controls its own destiny.
With so much still at stake - and almost none of it broadcast on television or given a second thought to promote thanks to the Big Ten basketball tournaments* With that in mind, here are the remaining six Big Ten conference series ranked from least important to most important in affecting the conference title race.
6. Ohio State @ Wisconsin (March 13-14)
It's fairly easy to choose the least-desirable of the six series when the fifth and sixth place teams (out of six teams) play one another. Sorry Buckeyes and Badgers. This is The Leftovers series of the final weekend. Every other team has a chance to get a bye or win the conference and Wisconsin and Ohio State are trying to further figure out meaning. Throw in the fact that both teams could be locked into spots when the series takes place and there literally could be nothing on the line other than which team leaves first to Detroit. (Wisconsin. It's Wisconsin.)
4-5 Minnesota @Ohio State, Wisconsin @ Michigan State (March 6-7)
Both series, both of which are taking place this weekend, have similar stakes in that they are placeholders for both teams with Ohio State and the Badgers happily playing spoiler. Neither is a guaranteed six points by any means - something the Spartans know all too well, splitting Wisconsin in Madison two weeks ago - yet both need to avoid the upset to keep their places in the standings before the final weekend.
Minnesota, treading water at 11th in the Pairwise rankings, is looking for a pair of wins against Ohio State to stay ahead of the Spartans and keep an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament alive. It's a tougher task of the two series with the Buckeyes having recent wins at home against Penn State and Michigan. Only the Gophers and Wolverines (15 and currently very on the bubble) have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament as at-large bid. The rest are looking to spend the next two weeks to get in good position in the standings because they need to win the Big Ten conference tournament to earn the automatic bid.
Michigan State, meanwhile, could jump into a bye spot if Minnesota stumbles against the Buckeyes with a pair of wins over a Badgers team that has 4 victories. (This would be a first-round Big Ten tournament match-up if the two teams hold steady.) A second loss or not being to come away with the maximum number of points takes away that chance; or worse, any championship dreams.
3. Michigan @ Penn State (March 6-7)
Penn State's home finale against Michigan this weekend comes at a time when the Nittany Lions, coming off being swept by Ohio State in Columbus, needs to turn things around. PSU will get the chance against the first place team in a building where the Nittany Lions have lost only twice this entire season. A dominant performance by Penn State will put it in position for a bye with the chance to take the title in a week. One by Michigan could put the Wolverines into the NCAA Tournament and separate it from the rest of the teams chasing.
One way or another, this series will have ramifications in the standings for the final weekend.
2. Penn State @ Minnesota
Depending on the Nittany Lions and Gophers' performance, this could be a battle between 1 and 2 in the Big Ten next weekend. If that scenario does happen the finale at Mariucci Arena would obviously be the top series. The teams split a pair of close games at Pegula two weeks ago.
With Minnesota presently in position for a bye and Big Ten title and Penn State possibly in the same, the Nittany Lions would not be playing spoiler regardless of how things turn out before the series. Both teams have something to play for in the final weekend.
1. Michigan vs. Michigan State (March 13-14)
Not only could Michigan and Michigan State be playing for a Big Ten title in a home-and-home series (Friday's game is at Munn and Saturday's is in Ann Arbor at Yost), but the final series of the Big Ten season is a rivalry-fueled one between the two Michigan schools. Even if things go awry this weekend - the Spartans fall to fourth and/or Michigan enters tied or behind Minnesota - there is something built in which the rest of the remaining series do not have. That aspect, the rivalry one, makes it compelling without stakes.
With stakes Michigan-Michigan State cannot be caught.
*Or what is broadcast is on at weird times to fit the games on TV. It's college hockey. At the very least only broadcasting to fill time and little promotion is a nice chicken and the egg argument for another day.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate