We’re into the last month of the regular season and while the cold and snow has brought a chill throughout most of the United States, the temperature is rising in men’s college hockey. Also rising is the Big Ten Conference. 

New addition Notre Dame has been a dominant force and tops both the conference standings, but they’re far from alone in the national tournament hunt. In this week’s bracketology, there are three Big Ten teams in the mix including Ohio State and Minnesota. Meanwhile, both Penn State and Michigan are on the bubble and were just nudged out of spots by auto-bid teams. Wisconsin remains in the hunt as well. The way things are shaking out, many eyes across the nation will be on the next three weeks of games among Big Ten teams.

Notre Dame has rightfully gotten a lot of the attention, but Ohio State is having a great season with an 18-6-4 record. The Buckeyes are in second place in the Big Ten and No. 6 on the most recent Pairwise rankings and looking good for a second-straight tournament appearance. This would mark the first time since a three-year run from 2003 to 2005 that the Buckeyes appear in consecutive tournaments. Ohio State has been led by sophomore forward Tanner Laczynski, who has 37 points in 28 games so far. The Philadelphia Flyers draft pick has at least put himself in the Hobey Baker conversation with his play, while upper-classmen like Matthew Weis and Mason Jobst have been crucial to the team’s success as well.

Meanwhile, Minnesota has recovered from a bit of a mid-season swoon. Earning series splits with both Notre Dame and St. Cloud State, the top two teams in the Pairwise currently, was huge for the Gophers who will face off against Wisconsin in a Border Battle with potentially huge implications this weekend. Minnesota has been led by a dynamic duo of Rem Pitlick and Casey Mittelstadt. The pair has combined for 44 points. Additionally, sophomore goalie Mat Robson has made an impact with his new team after sitting out the first half. He has a .935 save percentage in seven appearances since Dec. 9.

Right now, the rest of the teams in the Big Ten are looking to pick up key wins against each other. Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin and Minnesota have all battled inconsistency throughout the season particularly in conference games. However, early-season non-conference wins have helped keep their stock high for a potential tournament berth.

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As you’ll see in this week’s bracketology, just like two weeks ago, we could be headed for a very Western-heavy national tournament. Six NCHC teams are in the mix, three from the Big Ten and another from the WCHA, leaving just six spots for Eastern-based teams. It’s going to be a wild ride to the finish.

Here’s what I came up with this week…

Reminder: Check out a full breakdown on how the committee makes its decisions here. For the purposes of this Bracketology, we’re using the teams with the best in-conference winning percentage as of today as proxies for the tournament champions receiving autobids. RPI is used as a tiebreaker for teams with similar resumes. 

The Results

Here’s a look at the 16 teams considered for this week’s Bracketology. (Conference names in parenthesis denote mock conference tournament champion)

1. Notre Dame (Big Ten)
2. St. Cloud State (NCHC)
3. Denver
4. Cornell (ECAC)
5. Minnesota State (WCHA)
6. Ohio State
7. Clarkson
8. North Dakota
9. Minnesota
10. Nebraska Omaha
11. Providence
12. Minnesota Duluth
13. Northeastern
14. Western Michigan
15. Boston College (Hockey East)
16. Canisius (Atlantic Hockey)

Step 1: Placing the seeds

No. 1 seeds: Notre Dame, St. Cloud State, Denver, Cornell

No. 2: Minnesota State, Ohio State, Clarkson, North Dakota

No. 3: Minnesota, Omaha, Providence, Minnesota Duluth

No. 4: Northeastern, Western Michigan, Boston College, Canisius

Step 2: Placing regional hosts

Penn State, hosting the Midwest Regional in Allentown, is just outside in this week’s Bracketology due to being knocked out by our mock Hockey East and Atlantic Hockey champions. That leaves West regional host North Dakota, once again, as the only required placement this week. 

Step 3: Avoid in-conference matchups

Once again, we’re faced with six NCHC teams in the mix this week. Unlike last week, however, the teams are falling in such a way that we should more easily be able to avoid in-conference opponents in the first round. The only in-conference matchup that comes via a natural bracket this week would be No. 3 Denver vs. No. 14 Western Michigan. The committee is within their rights to keep that one as is due to the number of NCHC teams, but I think they’d lean towards moving it as it wouldn’t require a dramatic shuffling of the deck. By swapping Western and Northeastern from their natural positions, we’re left with no in-conference matchups in the first round and a bracket that is very close to a natural one-through-16 bracket.

So here’s what that looks like.

West: Sioux Falls, S.D.

1. Notre Dame vs. 16. Canisius

8. North Dakota vs. 9. Minnesota

Rationale: I’ve thought through this whole process that Notre Dame can pretty much go to any of the regionals. While I think there’d be a good chance to see St. Cloud State stay closer to home, I went with bracket integrity over convenience. Attendance is not a concern for Sioux Falls, especially with the host team, North Dakota, locked in. Minnesota also conveniently falls right in place to take on one of their biggest historic rivals.

Midwest: Allentown, Pa.  

4. Cornell vs. 14. Western Michigan

5. Minnesota State vs. 12. Minnesota Duluth

Rationale: This one stays pretty simple. Cornell is the closest top seed to Allentown. Western Michigan had to be moved from an in-conference matchup, so they swap with Northeastern. Meanwhile, two Minnesota schools have to go a long way from home to play an in-state foe.

East: Bridgeport, Conn.

2. St. Cloud State vs. 15. Boston College

7. Clarkson vs. 10. Nebraska Omaha

Rationale: Moving St. Cloud State out of the more convenient West was a tough call, but keeping Boston College, our mock Hockey East champion, out east is a nice benefit. They’re not quite in their backyard here, like they would be in Worcester, but they could attract fans to Bridgeport. Additionally, we get to keep this a natural No. 2 overall seed bracket. 

Northeast: Worcester, Mass.

3. Denver vs. 13. Northeastern

6. Ohio State vs. 11. Providence

Rationale: Aside from Northeastern swapping spots with Western Michigan to avoid that all-NCHC matchup, things don’t get too jumbled to close out this bracket. Northeastern and Providence both get to stay close to home, which should make things convenient for their fans to come out. Meanwhile, Denver remains a well-traveled NCAA tournament team as they so often are this time of year.