The first season of Michigan Hockey under new Head Coach Mel Pearson has gone better than expected. After a dreadful 13-19-3 campaign in the final year of Red Berenson’s legendary tenure, Pearson has engineered a successful turnaround for the Wolverines, with the team currently sitting at 14-13-3 and ranked #18 in the country. As the team enters the final home stretch (last 4 games of the regular season), it begs a few questions about the ending of the season. What does the end of the season look like? Where will the Wolverines finish in Big Ten standings? And can this team make the NCAA Tournament? Let’s investigate.
What does the final 4 games hold?
The final four games of the regular season include the last two Big Ten games, against #1 Notre Dame (one at home and one on the road), and then a two game set at home against Arizona State. For those casual college hockey fans or those unfamiliar with the sport, yes Arizona State has a hockey team. They are in their second full season of Division I play as a program, and as a result, are not very good. So basically, Michigan has two difficult games and two easy games.
Where will the Wolverines finish in Big Ten standings?
Well, let’s first take a look at the current standings:
1. Notre Dame, 50 points, 4 games remaining, 62 max possible points
2. Ohio State, 37 points, 4 games remaining, 49 max possible points
3. Michigan, 32 points, 2 games remaining, 38 max possible points
4. Minnesota, 29 points, 4 games remaining, 41 max possible points
5. Wisconisn, 28 points, 2 games remaining, 34 max possible points
6. Penn State, 25 points, 4 games remaining, 37 max possible points
7. Michigan State, 15 points, 4 games remaining, 27 max possible points
Notre Dame is the clear #1, with the Conference Regular Season Title wrapped up, and likely on their way to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. However, since starting conference play at a blazing 12-0-0, they’ve gone just 4-3-1-1 over their last 8. Regardless, that first half of the season buried the conference chase before it started. Ohio State is the clear #2 and Michigan State is the clear #7. So that leaves this peculiar pileup of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Penn State in the middle. The Big Ten is going with a new (and better) conference tournament format in 2018, where the #1 seed gets a first round bye with 2/7, 3/6, 4/5 matchups playing best 2-out-of-3 series hosted by the higher seeds. The winners from those three, plus #1, play a single elimination, 1 game semifinal and then final, with the venue hosted by the higher seeds. So, Michigan needs to get in the top 4 of the standings if they want to host a first round B1G Tournament series.
That probably requires beating Notre Dame once this weekend. Of the teams chasing them, Wisconsin is least likely to catch them because a) one Michigan win eliminates them and b) Wisconsin’s remaining two games are against OSU. That leaves Penn State and Minnesota. PSU gets MSU and Minnesota to close, while Minnesota gets OSU and PSU to close. There is a legitimate chance that Michigan could lose both games to Notre Dame and still host a playoff series, given the potential for this deep Big Ten to beat each other up. But on the flip side, if they are able to beat Notre Dame, that all but clinches a home game (it would take a lot of weird things to happen to make it not the clincher).
Can Michigan Make The NCAA Tournament?
The answer is absolutely. And it probably comes down to defending home ice, which is nice considering Yost Ice Arena is one of the best home ice advantages in college hockey (see: how the NCAA won’t let Michigan host NCAA tourney games anymore). If they beat Notre Dame at home and sweep the Sun Devils, that puts them in good position. It would also give them that aforementioned home series in the B1G tourney. Taking 2 out of 3 from whoever they play would, in all likelihood, put them in the tournament. So if Michigan can play well at home, they should get in. But let’s break down the probabilities more thoroughly. MGoBlog did an excellent article on this earlier in the week, which I will reference throughout.
To fans unfamiliar with college hockey, there is no selection committee for the NCAA Tournament like in basketball, but rather a formula, called PairWise, which determines who gets in. The top 16 teams in PairWise get into the NCAA Tournament*. But that asterisk denotes the fact that, like in basketball, the bubble can get screwed up thanks to autobids. The winner of each conference tournament (there are six conferences) automatically gets in, regardless of ranking. That means that if there are upsets and bad teams steal spots in the field thanks to winning their conference tourney, those teams in the 13-16 range can get bumped out. Thus, you typically want to be 14 or higher entering the late stages of the conference tourney to avoid chaos knocking you out.
Michigan enters this final stretch at #15 in PairWise, so right on the razor’s edge. The first and most obvious fact is that beating Notre Dame would be simply huge. A win over a top 5 team would boost Michigan’s standing big time. Then there’s the simple fact that Michigan has to sweep Arizona State. Unlike in college basketball, beating bad teams doesn’t hurt your RPI (and thus, PW) in college hockey. But losing to them really does. ASU is #56 out of 60 teams in PW. Their record is 7-18-5. Michigan cannot lose to them, especially not at home. So, going 3-1 in the last 4 would put Michigan in a nice spot entering the Big Ten tournament. Winning a first round series would almost certainly get the Wolverines in. A loss in the first round puts them right back on the bubble. Getting swept by Notre Dame this weekend but sweeping a first round series against Wisconsin would put them on the bubble. So yeah, beat Notre Dame. And don’t lose to ASU or this whole section is probably irrelevant.
So, can they do it? I like Michigan’s chances. Since the Great Lakes Invitational over New Year’s, the Wolverines have been much better, going 6-5-1 versus 8-8-2 before. Now that doesn’t sound like drastic improvement, but that 8-8-2 was bolstered by playing four games combined against bad Vermont and Ferris State teams at home, and not playing Notre Dame. Against Big Ten opponents in the first half, Michigan was 3-5-2-1. In the second half, they’ve been 6-5-1-1. But even in their losses, they’ve been impressive, with their two defeats against Notre Dame in January being one goal defeats where they outplayed the Irish, which should be encouraging entering this weekend’s rematch. They also significantly outshot MSU in their tie/shootout win, and OSU in one of their losses. That earlier series against ND, along with the Irish’s less-than-terrific play recently, makes me like Michigan’s chances of taking a game from The Irish. And in a B1G First Round series at home, I’m taking the Wolverines.
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