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Saturday, March 2, 2024
The Observer

Where will Notre Dame hockey play in the Big Ten tournament?

One weekend remains in the regular season. Five of the seven Big Ten hockey seeding positions will come down to six games on Friday and Saturday. After taking five of six available points from No. 8 Ohio State two weekends ago, No. 20 Notre Dame is firmly in the mix. The Irish currently sit tied for sixth with Penn State, yet could jump all the way to second with some good fortune. With such potential for change in positioning, scenarios for the first round of the conference tournament are all over the place. Here’s what it all means for Notre Dame.

Dropping the puck

Some context is important before the chaotic analysis begins. There are seven teams in the Big Ten, and all of them qualify for the end-of-season tournament. No. 1 Minnesota has already secured the top seed with 51 points, so it will have a first-round bye. Meanwhile, teams two through seven will play best-of-three series to set up the semifinals, with seeds two through four hosting. Currently, the standings are as follows (points in parentheses): Ohio State and No. 4 Michigan (36), No. 18 Michigan State (34), Notre Dame and No. 10 Penn State (31). With 15 points, Wisconsin will occupy the seventh position no matter what. Regarding this weekend’s series, there will be three conference matchups. Notre Dame will visit Michigan, Minnesota will host Ohio State and Penn State will welcome in Wisconsin. 

As you might expect, Big Ten tie-breaking procedures will be necessary. We only need to consider the first three levels, which are as follows: points percentage against other tied teams, most regulation wins and least regulation losses. Based on this method, Notre Dame has the edge on Ohio State but not Michigan State. At the moment, the Irish have Penn State beaten on regulation losses, but PSU could steal the tiebreaker with more regulation wins than ND this weekend. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume Notre Dame will keep it. Other impactful two-team spots are Ohio State over Michigan and Ohio State over Penn State. Fortunately, the three possible three-way ties are easy to sort out. The head-to-head procedures would sort them as ND-PSU-OSU, OSU-MICH-PSU and MSU-PSU-ND.

Coming home to Compton?

After last Saturday’s senior night shootout, who wouldn’t want one last Irish hurrah at home? Without question, the tournament’s opening round can flip to Compton Family Ice Arena. However, the odds are indisputably below 50%. Put simply, Notre Dame must do two things to make it happen: the Irish must take at least four of six points in Ann Arbor and at least match Penn State’s point output against Wisconsin. This would push the Irish past the idle Michigan State and keep it tied or out in front of PSU. 

Alas, there is one exception to this rule. If Notre Dame takes five points, Penn State grabs six and Ohio State goes empty, the Irish would host the Buckeyes by virtue of the tie-breaker with OSU. Of course, if the Irish sweeps Michigan outright, it would host no matter what. All in all, there are 89 outcomes which would bring MSU to South Bend, 48 for PSU, 14 for Wisconsin and one for Ohio State.

The bottom line is this: If you are a Notre Dame fan, say a quick ‘thank you’ to Wisconsin. By upsetting Michigan State on Saturday, the Badgers held the Spartans to a three-point lead over the Irish. As a result, Notre Dame’s home ice prospects are far more feasible with MSU still able to be passed.

Columbus, East Lansing, Ann Arbor, oh my!

In all likelihood, the Irish will end up away from home for the first round. They could travel to OSU (86 outcomes), MSU (66), Michigan (41) or PSU (22). Given Notre Dame’s five-point performance against the Buckeyes two weeks ago, Columbus appears to be the ideal candidate. The Schottenstein Center is also least hostile arena of the four on the table, constructed primarily for larger basketball crowds. Michigan State is the lowest-ranked among the four teams listed, but it could pose major problems for the Irish. The Spartans swept the Irish to open February and will be coming off an extra week of rest. 

Depending on this weekend’s result, Michigan could be a rough draw as well. Pure talent runs abundant in Ann Arbor, and it remains to be seen how Notre Dame will stack up to Michigan’s top forward lines without junior forward Ryder Rolston. On the contrary, Notre Dame matches up extremely well with Penn State. The Nittany Lions’ offense is built around firing pucks at the net from all angles, but Notre Dame has the right man for that. Irish senior goaltender Ryan Bischel leads Division I with 1,015 saves. Furthermore, in Notre Dame's two victories over PSU, he turned away a combined 99 shots.

Likeliest outcomes

College hockey is never easy to predict, but this weekend’s slate is manageable with the higher-ranked team at home in all three series. Penn State should handle business and earn six points against Wisconsin. However, Notre Dame and Ohio State have better chances to steal a game on the road. Let’s consider the situations where Notre Dame and OSU take zero or three points, given six from PSU. If the Buckeyes go pointless, the Irish would visit Happy Valley with zero or three at Michigan. With an Ohio State win, Notre Dame would stay in Ann Arbor with three points or travel to Columbus, Ohio with zero. 

NCAA Tournament hopes

Regardless of where they end up, the Irish will almost certainly need to win their opening series. Sixteen teams qualify for the dance, and Notre Dame is sitting right on the bubble. Additionally, the Irish still have not demonstrated an ability to consistently beat top teams away from home. Success in Ann Arbor or in the conference tournament would check that box with ease.

Just remember two things. First, for home ice, Notre Dame needs four points at Michigan and some help from Wisconsin once again. A Minnesota sweep of Ohio State wouldn’t hurt, too. Second, this is where college hockey is at its best, and the Big Ten is as good as we’ll ever see it. Enjoy the drama, and embrace the chaos.