ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Some extra notes before the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team opens the Big Ten Conference playoffs in Game 1 of a best-of-three series against No. 12 Michigan on Friday (6:30 p.m., no TV, BTN Plus pay stream, 1310 AM):
The B1G five
In year five, the Big Ten men's hockey league is poised for an unprecedented presence in the NCAA tournament.
Five Big Ten teams are in the top 13 of the PairWise Rankings, so there's a chance the league will have the largest representation of any league in the 16-team field.
The Big Ten had three teams in the tournament last season after qualifying two, one and one over the first three, respectively.
After a few years as the punch line for jokes around college hockey because of the lack of national success for big-name programs, the conference could have an answer this year.
"I think the Big Ten has finally got to the point where we thought it would be when it started," Michigan coach Mel Pearson said.
Big Ten teams had the best non-conference record of any league at 47-19-5, topping the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (47-22-15) and Hockey East (49-45-11).
Notre Dame (second), Ohio State (sixth), Minnesota (ninth), Michigan (10th) and Penn State (13th) started Friday in potential qualifying positions in the PairWise.
Since only four teams will be left playing in the Big Ten postseason next week, at least one of them will be sitting idle for two weeks before the tournament starts. That's not a great situation for the teams that are left out, but it's something the Big Ten coaches had to know was a possibility when they approved the change to the playoff format that's in place this season.
Instead of the single-site, single-weekend tournament that was in play in the first four seasons of the Big Ten's hockey league, the 2018 playoffs are being played over three weekends and all at campus sites.
The addition of Notre Dame before this season to make the league a seven-team group brought another rising program into the mix. The Fighting Irish, a Frozen Four team last season, won 16 straight games in the middle of this season to run away with the league and establish itself as a national title contender.
The depth continues through the league.
"Every game that we play, no matter who we play against in our conference, it seems like we're going against the top team in the country," Badgers coach Tony Granato said. "Obviously, Notre Dame coming into the league added that skill and speed and elite play. And I think all of the other teams got better as the year went on.
"I think our conference deserves a ton of respect nationally with the teams that we have in it, with the skill of the players that we have in it. And that's why every weekend's a battle. I think it's only going to continue to get better."
Will Johnson on the series
Badgers forward Will Johnson talks about the playoffs, playing Michigan and sitting out last Saturday's game at Ohio State in this interview:
New groups for playoffs
With UW on a four-game losing streak, it's no surprise that it will throw some new line combinations and power-play units over the boards Friday.
None of the four forward lines that were together either last Friday or Saturday were back this week as the Badgers searched for a lineup that will help them break out of a scoring slump.
Max Zimmer is on the left side of the top line with Trent Frederic and Ryan Wagner, and Matthew Freytag joined Seamus Malone and Linus Weissbach.
Cameron Hughes is centering Matt Ustaski and Will Johnson, and Tarek Baker's line includes Jason Ford and Sean Dhooghe.
The Badgers' power play, which has been unsuccessful on its last 19 tries since starting a Feb. 3 game against Michigan 2-for-2, had three different looks in practice this week.
The first unit had Frederic, Wagner, Malone, Weissbach and defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk.
Hughes and defensemen Tim Davison and Jake Linhart were on the second group, with Johnson and Ustaski joining them on one shift and Sean Dhooghe and Zimmer the next.
Michigan wrapped up its 24-game regular-season schedule by sweeping league champion Notre Dame two weeks ago, and the result left an impression on Fighting Irish coach Jeff Jackson.
"The biggest difference I see for them right now is I think (goaltender) Hayden Lavigne has really come into his own," Jackson said. "I think they've always had real good depth up front. They've got one of the top lines in college hockey. But the biggest difference for me is I think Lavigne is playing as well as he's played in his time at Michigan."
The Badgers will try to get to the goaltender in the same way that they did the last time they faced him.
On Feb. 3, UW chased Lavigne from the game by scoring four times in 23:27. Since then, Michigan is 5-0-1 and Lavigne, a sophomore, has a .940 save percentage and 1.81 goals-against average.
Pearson said the big reason why Lavigne has been successful is that he has known he's going to be the team's goalie in the next game regardless of whether he allows a few goals.
"I think that takes some pressure off you as a goaltender, versus having, 'Boy, I better have a good game tonight or else I'm not going to be in tomorrow,'" Pearson said. "I think that can put a lot of pressure on a young man.
"And I think once we told him, 'Hey, Hayden, you know what, you've got the weekend, just play,' I think that took a lot of heat off of him. And then once he started playing he had some success and got some confidence. Once you get that confidence, that changes everything."
It's interesting to compare that to the goaltending situation at UW, where Kyle Hayton and Jack Berry have gone back and forth with starts, and a loss often has meant a change for the next game.
Neither Hayton nor Berry has started more than four straight games since the start of December, and neither has gained long-term confidence.
This and that
• The Badgers brought all 27 healthy players on the trip plus injured defenseman Josh Ess, who is still a few weeks away from being able to play after suffering an upper-body injury against Minnesota on Feb. 10. Ess skated with the team on Wednesday and Thursday without pads.
• The other Big Ten first-round series have Michigan State playing at Ohio State and Minnesota playing at Penn State. UW is the only first-round visiting team that has a winning record this season against its opponent.
The Badgers think they have a playoff run in them, but Granato said it's time to stop talking and "show up and play."
In The Daily Cardinal, Ethan Levy writes that the Badgers are taking a clean-slate approach to the playoffs.
The first round of the Big Ten playoffs brings intriguing matchups, USCHO's Paula C. Weston writes.
Michigan has put an emphasis on puck possession, not just getting pucks to the net,, College Hockey News' Joe Meloni writes.
The Detroit Free Press' George Sipple takes a look at the Hughes family, the present and, potentially, future of Michigan hockey.
David Goricki of The Detroit News has more on Lavigne.
Randy Johnson of the Star Tribune takes a look at the Big Ten playoffs.