Deep Big Ten likely best conference in NCAA hockey

Wisconsin went 3-2 against Ohio State last season, including a win in the Big Ten Conference Tournament semifinals. 

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

What happens when the deepest top-to-bottom conference in the country adds a top-five team from the year before? The seven teams in the Big Ten will answer that question when they take the ice for a conference season that could be one for the ages.

With four teams ranked in the top-12 of the USCHO.com preseason poll, and five in the top 20, the margin of error for any team will be slim, and a bad stretch of play could result in a string of losses for even the conference’s strongest teams.

Leading the pack at the start of the year is Minnesota, the defending regular season conference champion, which enters the season ranked No. 3 nationally and first in the Big Ten. The Golden Gophers lost heart-breakers to Penn State and Notre Dame in the postseason last year that denied them a conference tournament title and Frozen Four appearance, but they’ll have plenty of chances to avenge those defeats with the Fighting Irish joining the conference.

Minnesota returns plenty of top-shelf talent from last year including junior forward Tyler Sheehy, the reigning conference player of the year, and junior goaltender Eric Schierhorn, the two-time defending Big Ten goaltender of the year. With Schierhorn back in the crease, the Gophers should once again boast the conference’s best defense. Still, they’ll need to replace the goal scoring of departed forwards Justin Kloos and Vinni Lettieri. Opening the season with a trip to No. 6 Minnesota Duluth will provide an early test of their status as a national title contender.

If Minnesota fails to live up to expectations, expect Penn State, Notre Dame and Wisconsin to vie for the conference championship. The Nittany Lions enter the season with no glaring holes or significant questions about their roster, but they’ll have to solve the consistency issues that relegated them to a fourth-place finish in the regular season last year.

Those issues were on full display for sophomore goaltender Peyton Jones in the season’s final three games, where he allowed only a single goal on 51 shots against Wisconsin to seal a conference tournament title before allowing eight goals on 44 shots in two NCAA tournament games. Jones’ play and leadership, along with sophomore forward Denis Smirnov, will be crucial for Penn State to avoid another midseason slide.

Notre Dame, the conference’s newest team, is also its biggest unknown. Gone are star forward Anders Bjork and goaltender Cal Petersen, but the Fighting Irish return almost every other player from a team that reached the Frozen Four last season. A pair of 40-point forwards from last season — senior Jake Evans and junior Andrew Oglevie — should make up for some of Bjork’s dominance, but Petersen’s impact will be harder to replace. The star netminder led the NCAA in minutes in 2016-’17, and finished his career with 90 consecutive starts. In his place will be freshman Dylan St. Cyr. If St. Cyr can approximate Petersen’s level of performance, Notre Dame could challenge Minnesota for the conference’s top spot. If not, the Fighting Irish could be fighting for a postseason berth.

Rounding out the conference’s ranked teams is Ohio State, No. 18 in the USCHO poll and fifth in the Big Ten coaches poll. The Buckeyes return the conference’s top scorer, junior forward Mason Jobst, but lose 45 goals from forwards Nick Schilkey and David Gust, along with all three goaltenders from last season’s roster. Jobst will likely challenge Minnesota’s Sheehy as the conference’s best player, and could even make a run at the Hobey Baker. Still, the Buckeyes will have an uphill battle to challenge the conference’s top teams.

After combining for just nine conference wins last year, Michigan and Michigan State will be looking for bounce-back seasons in 2017-’18. The Wolverines placed two freshmen on the Big Ten preseason watch list: forward Josh Norris and defenseman Quinn Hughes. If the Wolverines’ freshmen can live up to the hype, Michigan could echo last season’s Badgers and make a surprise postseason run. The Spartans, coming off a three-win conference season, have no such reinforcements and could easily fall short of that total against such consistently strong opponents.

Top-to-bottom, the Big Ten looks to be the best conference in college hockey, with multiple teams that could make legitimate Frozen Four runs.

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