Sports

Michigan looking to secure Big Ten home ice against Notre Dame


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Approaching the final weekend of the regular season, the entire season is on the line. 

No, that’s not really the case for the No. 4 Michigan hockey team. Currently sitting at third place in the Pairwise rankings, the Wolverines have all but punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Even if they get swept by No. 20 Notre Dame this weekend and then lose in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, they almost certainly would still make it to a regional.

But depending on how Michigan fares against the Fighting Irish, it can finish anywhere from second to fifth place in the Big Ten, meaning home ice for the first two rounds of the upcoming Big Ten Tournament hangs in the balance. That’s a big deal.

“We’re desperate too,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said Monday. “We want to get second place. We want to have the best path to the Big Ten championship game and/or the NCAA Tournament.”

That path starts with home ice, whether that’s for one round or two. 

Granted, there’s only a slim chance that the Wolverines find themselves traveling for the first round of the conference tournament. With six points in hand on both the Irish and current sixth-place team Penn State, all Michigan needs to guarantee itself a top-three finish is take one out of six possible points from Notre Dame at home this weekend — certainly a doable task.

Under the assumption that the Wolverines can pull that off, the focus then turns to pulling off the slightly taller task of leapfrogging No. 8 Ohio State for second place. Currently, Michigan is tied with the Buckeyes at 37 conference points apiece, but Ohio State holds the head-to-head tiebreaker. Therefore, the Wolverines simply must earn more points against the Irish than the Buckeyes pick up at No. 1 Minnesota this weekend. 

Again, that’s very doable. Beating the Golden Gophers at Mariucci is one of the hardest tasks in college hockey this season, if not the hardest — as Michigan knows all too well. And while Notre Dame is no slouch either, the Wolverines already knocked off the Irish earlier this season, taking four out of six points on the road. 

But if Michigan can’t handle the task, the difficulty of its path to the Big Ten Championship Game may increase exponentially. Instead of getting to play the semifinal game in front of a raucous Yost Ice Arena crowd, the Wolverines risk traveling to Ohio State’s hostile Schottenstein Center — where in their past 11 tries, they’ve fared just 3-8. 

Playing in front of a hostile crowd isn’t foreign to Michigan. When the Wolverines go on the road, their opponents often set some kind of attendance record

But that doesn’t make it any easier. 

“The Big Ten is so deep this year that every game feels like a playoff atmosphere — and it will this weekend,” Naurato said. “Think about the Penn State comeback, Notre Dame when we played on that Friday night and the fights, the Michigan State game. Every game for us is crazy like that.”

Battle-tested or not, the Michigan prefers to play at home. While it has won on the road and experienced a playoff-like atmosphere, that doesn’t mean the Wolverines want to have to do it again. Undoubtedly, a first-round matchup with bottom-feeder Wisconsin and a semifinal at home is the ideal path to winning the Big Ten Championship. 

So while the season doesn’t exactly come down to beating the Irish, the complexion of the postseason does.



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