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Michigan, Big Ten midseason hockey update

Where do the Wolverines stand at the break and what do their chances look like for the NCAA Tournament?

COLLEGE HOCKEY: FEB 19 Ohio State at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Big Ten is one of the two best conferences in college hockey this season, with only the Hockey East challenging them for college superiority. Currently, the Big Ten has three teams ranked in the top 10 (No. 2 Minnesota, No. 5 Penn State, No. 7 Michigan), and six teams ranked in the top 20 (No. 11 Michigan State, No. 14 Ohio State, No. 19 Notre Dame).

Even Wisconsin, the only conference team not ranked, has shown signs of life recently. After a dreadful 2-8 start to the season and an exhibition loss to Lakehead, the Badgers have fought their way back to a 7-11 record at the winter break.

Last season, the Big Ten was represented by three teams in the NCAA Tournament (Michigan, Minnesota, Notre Dame), with Michigan and Minnesota each reaching the Frozen Four. Betting odds for this season closely resemble those results from 2022.

The Michigan Wolverines — according to DraftKings Sportsbook — currently have the third-best odds to win the national championship (+750), and only trail last year’s winner Denver (+700) and conference rival and front runner Minnesota (+500).

Unlike last year, however, the Big Ten is poised to have four or five teams make the NCAA Tournament, which would be the most of any conference. The Wolverines currently sit in fourth in the Big Ten, but there is still a lot of hockey to be played.

Let’s take a mid-season look at the conference standings and the trajectories of the seven teams.

No. 3 Minnesota (15-5-0; 10-2)

The best offense in college hockey is led by a pair of first round freshmen and one of the savviest sophomores in the country. No. 3 overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft Logan Cooley (10 G, 15 A; 25 PTS) and No. 23 overall pick Jimmy Snuggerud (12G, 15A; 27 PTS) are both in the top-five nationally in points. Second-year player and preseason Big Ten Player of the Year favorite, Matthew Knies (11 G, 11 A; 22 PTS), is nipping at their heels and has a timely knack for the spectacular.

Minnesota has only scored less than three goals in two games this season, and those games account for two of the its five losses. The Gophers swept the Wolverines in dominant fashion at Yost earlier last month but in fairness, Michigan had been devastated by illness and was forced to play without several key players.

Regardless, Minnesota is the class of the division, winners of four straight and can enjoy an eight-point lead in the conference standings. The Gophers welcome the revenge and, fingers-crossed, healthy Wolverines to town on the weekend of Jan. 20-21.

No. 5 Penn State (15-5-0; 7-5)

Penn State has already won more conference games than did all of last season (six). The Nittany Lions are one of the most exciting teams in the country and get the job done through a complete team effort.

No player on their team has scored more than 16 points this season, but 10 different players have accounted for 10 or more. This is an electric team with a “team of destiny” type of feeling surrounding them.

Michigan split the road series with Penn State, but did give the Nittany Lions their first loss of the season. Penn State will travel to Ann Arbor the last weekend of January.

No. 11 Michigan State (12-7-1; 6-5-1)

The biggest surprise in the conference, and one of the biggest in the country, is the turnaround of Michigan State’s program by first-year head coach Adam Nightingale. He has already led his team to equal their conference (six) and overall (12) win totals from last year.

While Michigan State’s top line is one of best in the conference, the story for the Spartans has been the outstanding play of goaltender Dylan St. Cyr. The former Michigan recruit, St. Cyr is tied for the conference lead with a .925 save percentage and is only one save off the conference’s top spot.

The insect-sized netminder (5-foot-8) has used his elite reflexes and technique to mitigate the below-average defensive presence in front of him, and keep the Spartans in games they have no business being in.

Michigan split with the Spartans in a home-and-home series to close the first half of the season and will meet again on Feb. 10-11, for another home-and-home.

No. 6 Michigan (12-7-1; 4-6-0)

You know what’s going on with the Wolverines — a team on the precipice of greatness that is only lacking consistency and experience. They could win a national championship, or lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Now, I want to take this time to rant.

No coach has dealt with the adversity that INTERIM first-year head coach Brandon Naurato has faced. From the last-minute August promotion after the egregiously prolonged Mel Pearson decision, to replacing nine players — including their five most prominent centers — from a Frozen Four team, Naurato has had his back against the wall from day one and responded like very few could.

Naurato has rebuilt a fractured culture from his predecessor and dealt with injuries — Frankie Nazar has still not played — and an illness that wiped out half his team, even hospitalizing one.

Given the hand he was dealt and the constant interruptions he has faced along the way, Naurato has been one of, if not the best coach in the country this season. Oh, and he already has an elite freshman class on the way next year headlined by several five-stars.

Stop the shenanigans, Warde Manuel — remove the interim tag and let Naurato build a dynasty.

No. 14 Ohio State (10-7-1; 5-5-0)

The Buckeyes are one of the most balanced teams in the country and surprisingly, that could ultimately be their undoing. Ohio State is not bad anywhere, but the Buckeyes are also not exceptionally good anywhere.

Currently ranked No. 16 nationally in scoring offense and defense, the Buckeyes have attempted to be a defense-first team in an offense-driven conference and are experiencing middling results. Ohio State started the season off hot but has steadily cooled.

Ohio State was 7-2-1 entering November, but finished out the first half of the season 3-5, including a sweep by Michigan State. The Buckeyes are a fringe contender to make the NCAA Tournament, but have to find a strength to accentuate if they are going to play in the postseason.

Michigan will welcome the Buckeyes to Yost in the first conference action after the break on Jan. 13-14. In February, the two teams will face-off outdoors in Cleveland on Feb. 16, and again in Columbus on Feb. 18.

No. 19 Notre Dame (8-8-2; 4-5-1)

Notre Dame is fighting like hell to be the team it was last year: physical, disciplined and opportunistic. The only problem is the lack of roster talent, experience and defensive cohesion from a team that made the NCAA Tournament and held a 4-1 record against the Wolverines.

Despite the excellence of goaltender Ryan Bischel, who is currently leading the conference in saves (570) and sharing the save percentage lead (.925) with St. Cyr, the defensive effort in front of him has been loose and full of holes. The Irish are 3-3 in their last six and look to be trending to a .500 record the remainder of the season.

Michigan split with Notre Dame in South Bend, and only fell after lazily blowing a two-goal lead. The Irish come to Ann Arbor to close out the regular season Feb. 24-25.

Wisconsin (7-11-0; 1-9)

Wisconsin has steadily turned things around, but still remains a long-shot to upset the established hierarchy in the conference.

The Badgers struggle to score and are currently tied with Notre Dame for the worst offense in the conference, but the only thing is Wisconsin is not stylistically built or schematically designed like the Irish.

With their inability to consistently score and defend, it will be an uphill battle for the Badgers to reach .500 overall this season. After January, Wisconsin will be playing for next season.

Michigan — Wisconsin’s only conference victory — will welcome the Badgers to Yost the first weekend of February.