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Men's College Hockey: Big Ten offers intrigue with one-and-done tournament

By John Shipley

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Of all the major sports, hockey is perhaps the least appropriate for a one-game playoff. In a game that routinely features lucky bounces, a hot goaltender and two-player advantages, one-and-done isn’t always an effective way to determine the best team.

Nevertheless, it’s how the NCAA champion is determined, and it’s how the winner of the inaugural Big Ten Conference tournament will be determined this weekend at Xcel Energy Center.

“For a team like we have, a rebuilding program, it’s a format where there might be a potential benefit,” said Michigan State coach Tom Anastos. His Spartans (11-17-7) need to win the tournament and the conference’s automatic NCAA tournament bid to extend their season.

“You go into something like this and certainly everybody has a chance.”

Some conferences, such as Minnesota’s old home the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, start their tournaments with an on-campus, best-of-three-games series. Not the Big Ten, whose six-team membership alone seems to have made that decision easy.

Another factor was the difficulty in promoting a new tournament.

“The Big Ten is spread out, and this way fans have the opportunity to know at the beginning of the year, if they want to come to St. Paul, or next year go to Detroit, ‘Hey, my team is going to be there,’ ” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “That’s a positive. If we had campus series, and we didn’t make it this year ... you might have a tough time drawing a crowd.”

That would have been unlikely. Lucia’s Gophers (25-5-6) bring the tournament’s top seed and nation’s top ranking into their Friday semifinal against the winner of Thursday’s game between Ohio State (16-13-5) and Michigan State.

No. 2 seed Wisconsin (22-10-2) will play Friday against the winner of Thursday’s other game, between Michigan (18-12-4) and Penn State (7-25-2).

“I’m a big fan of campus playoffs before moving on to a major, Final Four-type rink,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “Anybody can win a one-game series, and typically the better team will win a best-of-three series, especially if you’re on home ice.”

Berenson’s apprehension is justified. The Wolverines enter the tournament No. 11 in the Pairwise rankings and likely needing to at least beat the Nittany Lions to remain in the hunt for one of the 10 at-large bids to the 16-team NCAA tournament. The Wolverines finished 2-2 vs. the Nittany Lions during the regular season.

Penn State only won one other Big Ten game, last Saturday’s 4-2 victory over Ohio State. Nittany Lions coach Guy Gadowsky said his team is playing its best hockey and is keenly aware that an NCAA berth is available if they win their next three games.

Already, Boston College, then ranked No. 2, and then-No. 4 St. Cloud State, have been knocked out of their conference tournaments without a victory. That wouldn’t be an issue for Minnesota, which has been ranked No. 1 for most of the season and is all but guaranteed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament — likely in the West Regional at Xcel Energy Center on March 28-30.

Likewise, Wisconsin, ranked fifth in the Pairwise, is probably safe as the Big Ten’s second lock.

Still, every tournament upset brings one team closer to an automatic NCAA berth, and narrows the field for the at-large bids.

“Every team is talking about that, regardless of where you finish,” said Gadowsky, a St. Paul native and longtime Minnesota-Duluth assistant coach. “That’s why you play the games, whether it’s a three-game series, a seven-game series or a one-game series. Anything can happen in the playoffs.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.