With three games remaining in the 2020-2021 college hockey season, the Michigan Wolverines are beginning to look towards the Big Ten Tournament. If the season ended today, the Wolverines would finish third in the Big Ten and would face off against either Penn State or Notre Dame.
Although the season isn’t quite over yet, no teams are threatening Michigan’s seeding in the Big Ten. Penn State and Notre Dame are the only teams that are relatively close to threatening Michigan’s place but even then, there aren’t enough games left for them to overtake Michigan’s spot in the Big Ten.
Also on this note, it does not appear that Michigan will have enough games left to overtake Minnesota or Wisconsin for the one and two seed, so it looks like they will finish third in the conference heading into the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan has played some of their best hockey this season, and they will need to continue that trend if they want to hail victorious and return to Ann Arbor as Big Ten Champions.
No matter their seeding or how well they played this season, Michigan needs to be prepared to play their best hockey of the season. With the Big Ten deciding to go back to a single-elimination style tournament, all it takes is one bad game for the Wolverines to go home. They need to win this tournament for several reasons, but none are more important than the three on this list.
1. Bragging Rights
If there is one thing that the Big Ten is known for, it’s that rivalries run deep, and to have bragging rights amongst the conference is almost coveted more than an actual trophy. To win the tournament means that for the next year, Michigan will live up to its proclamation in their fight song as the “Leaders and Best” in the Big Ten.
The Big Ten Tournament is relatively new in hockey, only having formed in 2014. This was the first year that the Big Ten began to have inner conference play, so it seemed fitting to have a tournament. While hockey is considered a major sport in the United States, not many universities have teams that compete competitively.
There are only six Big Ten colleges that have collegiate hockey, with Notre Dame being the seventh college to participate in Big Ten play. For some reason or another they are allowed to play hockey in the Big Ten conference while playing basketball in the ACC, and the remainder of their sports, including football, is played as an independent conference member. Just another reason to hate the Irish.
Since the tournament and inner conference play are so new, Michigan has an opportunity to position itself as the most dominant team in Big Ten college hockey. For Michigan to have bragging rights among their most hated rivals, would be another way for Michigan to set itself apart as the "best university in the world".
2. Establishment of the hockey program
If the Wolverines make it to the championship game, they will have been to three Big Ten championship games, and if they win, they will have won two Big Ten titles outright in only a matter of eight years. They are also the 2020 Big Ten Co-Champions with Penn State, Ohio State, and Minnesota since they could not finish last year’s tournament due to Covid-19.
As of right now, Notre Dame sits atop of the Big Ten with two outright titles. There is a four-way tie for second with Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Minnesota all winning one Big Ten Title. The Buckeyes are the lone team that has not yet won a Big Ten Championship, going 0-2 in championship games. What a shame.
With this tournament win, Michigan will establish itself as one of the best college hockey programs in the Big Ten. The Wolverines have established themselves as one of the best hockey programs in the country, but since inner conference play is so new to the Big Ten, they have not had the opportunity to establish that same status among the Big Ten. This will allow Michigan to set a precedence. Notre Dame has gotten off to a great start in Big Ten play, but in this year's contest, Michigan has a chance to change all of that.
Whether the fans from the other Big Ten schools will count it or not, Michigan does technically have another Big Ten Championship thanks to last year’s tournament being canceled due to Covid, so they already have two Big Ten titles. If this logic is used, then Penn State and Minnesota also have two titles, and that also means that Ohio State has one, which is unfortunate, but this logic can be used for Michigan’s benefit as well.
If Michigan wins this year’s tournament, they will technically have three Big Ten titles, which puts them over Notre Dame with the most conference titles in the Big Ten. If Michigan can achieve this, they will have more than bragging rights - They will have established their program as the best in the Big Ten.
3. Automatic Birth to Frozen Four Tournament
The NCAA Frozen Four Tournament is set up in such a way that the qualifying conference winners from each of the six conferences that participate, will automatically have a place in the tournament. This means that if Michigan can win the Big Ten Tournament, they will have a place in the Frozen Four tournament and have a chance to win the national championship.
The Frozen Four tournament only includes 16 spots, and with six of them awarded to the conference champions, that means that if Michigan doesn’t win the conference, they will need to be better than the next 10 collegiate teams trying to qualify. This number includes a couple of Big Ten teams like Wisconsin and Minnesota.
As of right now, Michigan is tied with Boston College for the most Frozen Four Tournament appearances, and they also have the most tournament titles of any school, with nine Frozen Four titles.
The Wolverines have established themselves as one of the most dominating college hockey programs in the country, but it’s been a while since they won a title, and they are beginning to lose prominence among the other schools. The last time that Michigan won a Frozen Four Championship was in 1998. They have made six tournament appearances since then, which is not bad, but Michigan isn’t a university that prides itself on appearances. Championship banners hang in the rafters, not appearance banners.
If Michigan won the Big Ten, it would give them another shot at winning their 10th Frozen Four title. They have not been to the tournament since 2018, and while that doesn’t seem like that long ago, other teams are beginning to threaten their status as college hockey’s best program.
Both North Dakota and Denver each have eight titles, and while Denver doesn’t appear to have a good enough record to make the Frozen Four tournament, North Dakota does. For Michigan to keep its status as college hockey’s best program, they will need to qualify for the Frozen Four Tournament and win their tenth title, but it all starts with U-M winning the Big Ten.