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Big Ten Hockey Conference Race: Contenders and Pretenders

Bill Rapai

There is about a month left in the Big Ten season. As we hit the home stretch, the league seems to have separated itself into two distinct categories. In one, the three teams are fighting for a conference title and potentially a bid to the NCAA Tournament. In the other, the three teams are fighting for respectability, or least minimizing the embarrassment of another ugly season.

Here's how the final month of Big Ten hockey schedule breaks down:

The Contenders

1. Minnesota--27 points, 12 games played

Remaining series: at Ohio State, vs. Michigan, at Michigan State, vs. Wisconsin

2. Michigan--27 points, 12 games played

Remaining series: at Wisconsin, at Minnesota, H/H vs. Ohio State, vs. Penn State

3. Penn State--21 points, 12 games played

Remaining series: at Michigan State, vs. Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Michigan

I'm mostly humoring Penn State by including them in what is almost certainly a two-team race for the title between Minnesota and Michigan. The Nittany Lions are two games back, but more importantly, have two teams to pass if they want to take home whatever this thing is. They've got three series against the dreck of the league coming up though, which could keep them in mathematical contention heading into that last weekend with Michigan. Needing a sweep at Yost is a tough proposition, but Penn State has always had surprising success against Michigan. They would then likely need some help from the Badgers on the final weekend against Minnesota. Good luck with that.

So most likely, this will be a race between Minnesota and Michigan. The two teams are tied right now, with the Gophers holding the tiebreaker by virtue of having more non-shootout wins. I would also give Minnesota the slight edge in schedule, given Michigan still has a series against Penn State left. The biggest factor will be the series February 25-26 when the Gophers host Michigan. Playing those games at Mariucci should be a huge advantage for Minnesota. A sweep by the Gophers likely locks up a third straight Big Ten title.

The Rest

4. Ohio State--12 points, 10 games played

Remaining series: vs. Minnesota, at Penn State, vs. Wisconsin, H/H vs. Michigan, at Michigan State

5. Michigan State--9 points, 12 games played

Remaining series: vs. Penn State, at Wisconsin, vs. Minnesota, vs. Ohio State

6. Wisconsin--6 points, 10 games played

Remaining series: vs. Michigan, vs. Michigan State, at Ohio State, vs. Penn State, at Minnesota

Normally, there would be no reason to care about these bottom-feeders. There's no "home ice" in the Big Ten playoffs because everybody plays in the same empty arena in the playoffs.

If there is any intrigue in this group, it is with the coaches fighting, and likely failing, to keep their job. The word before the season was that a finish of fourth or better in the Big Ten was what Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos needed to earn another season in East Lansing. The Buckeyes have a three-point lead and a series in hand on the Spartans, but the Buckeyes' extra series comes against Michigan, which is no guarantee for points. That final series against Ohio State at home could be big in that regard. Then again, a brutal 1-14-1 stretch through the middle of the season may have done enough damage that the die is cast even if the Spartans are able to squeak out a top-4 finish.

There haven't been any firm rumors about Mike Eaves' job status, but one would think a second straight last-place finish would be the breaking point. However, if the Badgers can play well enough down the stretch to dig themselves out of last place, that late season improvement may be enough to show things are starting to head in the right direction