We are just weeks away from the start of the postseason for both the Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s and women’s hockey teams. The men have one final regular season Big Ten series before they depart for their conference tournament at Notre Dame, while the women’s regular season is complete and they are just awaiting to see who they will play at the WCHA Final Faceoff at Ridder Arena in a week in a half. Both teams should be in good positioning to make their respective NCAA Tournaments, but in a crazy year where the normal means of selecting the fields is completely out the window—well we need to be prepared for weird things to happen. So here is a look at where each team sits in both their conference and NCAA tournament positions with the regular season coming to a close.
Gopher Men-- Can they hang on and hang a banner?
The Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s team is in the better position of the two. The Gophers sit in first place in the Big Ten four points ahead of second place Wisconsin. Which would be great and all except that the Big Ten will be scrapping the point system and moving to winning percentage to determine the regular season champion and tournament seeding thanks to the now inbalanced nature of the schedule. Both Michigan and Penn State have had COVID pauses that have reeked havoc on the rest of the conference schedule. With two weeks left in the regular season only two teams are slated to play the full 24 conference games in Wisconsin and Notre Dame. Thus, based upon criteria set back in November when they originally set the schedule, the Big Ten will move to a winning percentage means of comparing the teams, effectively rendering any shootout points earned or dropped during the regular season meaningless.
So where does that set us? The Gophers still are atop the conference with a .750 winning percentage, Wisconsin is second with a.675 percentage and Michigan is well back at .566. So it is a two team race for the Big Ten regular season title and the direct bye into the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament.
The Gophers have just two regular season games left when they host Michigan next weekend at Mariucci. They were slated to play at Penn State this weekend, but that series was cancelled due to COVID issues with the Nittany Lions. Wisconsin has four games left all against the bottom of the conference. This weekend Wisconsin hosts last place Ohio State, and next weekend they head to 6th place Michigan State to complete their schedule.
The way the scenarios break down is this. If Wisconsin goes 4-0 in their final four games then Minnesota needs a win and at least a tie to win the Big Ten. Any less and the Badgers take the title. If Wisconsin drops one game in their final four, then the Gophers need just one tie in their final two games against the Wolverines to win the regular season championship. If somehow the Badgers drop two or more of their final four games, it doesn’t matter what Minnesota does, they hang the banner next fall.
As of now, the winner of the Big Ten regular season championship will get a significant advantage in the Big Ten Tournament. They would get a bye directly into the semifinals while teams 2-7 would need to play three games in three days to win the tournament. The tournament will be hosted by Notre Dame and is currently scheduled for Thursday/Saturday March 18-20, but that is going to change. It has been all but officially announced that the tournament will at the very least be moved up in that week since no teams will be playing the weekend of the 12th and 13th. This is to give teams who make the NCAA Tournament more rest time before the tournament would start the weekend of the 26th and 27th. Additionally it is possible there may be even more changes regarding the format/ timing etc. Those changes are expected to be announced by the Big Ten at some point this week according to several media members.
**EDIT. On Thursday the Big Ten announced those changes moving the tournament up to Sunday March 14-Tuesday March 16th. The #2 through #7 teams will still play three games in three days with 3 quarterfinals Sunday, the two semifinals Monday and the Championship game Tuesday night all aired on BTN.
As we sit today the Gophers appear to be in a very safe position to earn an NCAA Tournament berth. The tournament is slated to operate in a normal fashion with the four regionals (Fargo, Loveland, CO, Bridgeport, CT, and Albany) feeding into the Frozen Four held this year in Pittsburgh. How the teams are determined will be very different. In a normal year the Pairwise rankings are used to determine the field of 16. However, due to the lack of out of conference games this season...the pairwise rankings when it comes to comparing teams from different conferences are utterly useless. However, they can be used to compare teams in the same conference. From what the NCAA has said the committee will use those rankings to determine in what order teams are considered from each conference—and then compared with the top available school from the other conferences. It’s going to be a throwback to the days of the old smoky room and somehow you end up with a tournament field, but there aren’t a lot of other options. In either case the Gophers are currently atop the pairwise standings in the Big Ten with Wisconsin right behind. Should Minnesota not earn the conference’s automatic bid by winning the Big Ten tournament, they are safely an at-large team.
The next question then comes to seeding and travel and how that will work. That is a much tougher question and one that has not been fully answered. Will the NCAA try and keep the western two regionals full of western teams and visa versa to cut down on travel? With Minnesota, North Dakota, Minnesota-State Mankato, Wisconsin, St. Cloud State, and UMD all ranked in the top ten in the USCHO poll in the west that might be one heck of a gauntlet to make it to Pittsburgh. North Dakota will head to the Fargo regional as the host, and barring an epic collapse down the stretch will have the #1 seed there. Thus the next few weeks will determine who will have the best shot at the other western #1 seed in Loveland. Minnesota is definitely a contender as is Mankato or even UMD or St. Cloud if they can make a run at the NCHC title. In either case, fans should be prepared for no easy games in the NCAA Tournament this season—but as the number of 4 vs 1 upsets have skyrocketed in recent seasons...there really aren’t easy tournament games anymore.
How about the Gopher Women?
Minnesota currently sits in fourth place in the WCHA and was the victim of the unbalanced schedule this season in the conference. Minnesota was 2-7-1 in ten games against #1 Wisconsin and #3 Ohio State this season. They were a perfect 9-0 against the other four teams in the conference. UMD who has a chance at the WCHA title should they sweep Wisconsin this weekend has played the Badgers and Buckeyes....twice up to this weekend. Bit unbalanced to say the least.
But the Gophers remain the #4 ranked team in the nation in the polls despite their struggles against the Badgers and Buckeyes. If they want to advance in either the WCHA or NCAA Tournaments they will probably need to beat one or the other of them.
Minnesota’s regular season is done and they are locked into either the #3 or #4 seed in the WCHA Final Face-off depending on the results of the Bulldogs/Badgers series this weekend. If Wisconsin can sweep UMD in regulation or OT both games, then the badgers lock up the #1 seed, UMD falls to #4 and the Gophers get the #3 and face Ohio State in a semifinal next weekend. If UMD can earn at least one point, they are guaranteed to finish ahead of the Gophers locking them into the #4 seed and a likely date with the Badgers in the semis. If UMD can sweep Wisconsin—not likley I know, then they win the conference and would play the Gophers in the semis. IN either case the WCHA Final Faceoff semifinals will be Saturday March 6th and the Championship game March 7th from Ridder Arena.
NCAA or Naw?
While some media members have said that the Gophers are on the bubble for the NCAA tournament after their struggles against OSU and WI, I don’t agree. I think Minnesota is in the NCAA Tournament unless there are some significant upsets in the conference tournaments eliminating bids. The NCAA Tournament will take place all in one location this season in Erie, PA. The dates of the quarterfinals have yet to be announced, but the Frozen Four semis will take place Thursday March 18, and the Championship Game Saturday the 20th. ESPN just announced Tuesday that they will air the later semi and the championship game on ESPN U this season.
Only eight teams get in the women’s NCAA Tournament with four conference auto bids and four at large bids. The at large bids like the men’s tournament appear to be up for grabs on a conference nominee by nominee basis while the committee ranks the teams in their various conferences. One at-large bid is guaranteed for the WCHA runner-up whether that be Wisconsin or Ohio State, with two bids going to them in the case either the Gophers or UMD wins the auto bid. Northeastern is the overwhelming favorite in Hockey East, either Colgate or Clarkson are the top in ECAC and someone from Atlantic Hockey will get in.
Thus, if Minnesota doesn’t win the WCHA Tournament they are fighting for one of three open bids, and should be the third team from the WCHA discussed over UMD—unless the Bulldogs do something crazy over the next couple of weeks. Minnesota matches up will with the ECAC runner up, and the Gophers have a better case than any of the next teams in Hockey East after Northeastern...so the path for Minnesota’s 14th consecutive (13 if you don’t count last year that never happened) NCAA trip appears clear. But once again with the disclaimer that this is a weird year and people can make weird decisions.
TL;DR—Can you summarize that?
Both teams should feel pretty safe making their respective NCAA Tournaments. The Men can win the Big Ten regular season with any combination of a win vs Michigan/ WI loss to OSU or MSU AND at least one more tie from either team. The women can really help their case with at least a WCHA semifinal win, but it will most likely be against one of their two achilles heels this season.