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No one laughing at Big Ten now as 3 teams in Frozen Four

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Ohio State head hockey coach Steve Rohlik addresses his team Thursday, March 23, 2017, during practice for the NCAA West Regional hockey tournament at Scheels Arena in Fargo. Forum News Service file photo2 / 2

DULUTH, Minn.—In its first four seasons of existence, the Big Ten hockey conference was often the butt of jokes come NCAA tournament time.

Not anymore.

After getting one team out of the regional rounds in its first four seasons, the Big Ten accounts for three-fourths of this year's NCAA Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

No. 1 Ohio State (26-9-5) takes on No. 3 Minnesota Duluth (23-16-3) at 5 p.m. Thursday, April 5, in the first national semifinal, with No. 1 Notre Dame (27-9-2) and No. 2 Michigan (22-14-3) meeting in the second semifinal at 8:30 p.m.

If the Buckeyes beat the Bulldogs, the league will be guaranteed its first national title after nearly winning one in its inaugural season when Minnesota lost 7-4 to Union in the NCAA championship.

"This is what everyone envisioned when the new leagues started to form, that the Big Ten would be like this," said Michigan coach Mel Pearson on Tuesday during a pre-Frozen Four coaches' conference call. He's in his first season with the Wolverines after six seasons at Michigan Tech. "Everyone thought it would be a pretty darn good hockey league, if not the best hockey league in college hockey."

Outside of the Golden Gophers that first season, much of the league has struggled to not only get into the NCAA tournament, but advance.

The league had combined for just five NCAA tournament wins in its first four seasons, with three of those victories coming during Minnesota's run to the national championship game in 2014.

Minnesota was one of two teams along with Wisconsin to get into the NCAA tournament during the league's first two seasons. In 2014-15 and 15-16, the Big Ten was a one-bid league before landing three teams in last year's tournament. No Big Ten team in the last three years has reached the Frozen Four.

Now the Big Ten is making history. The 2018 Frozen Four is the fifth to feature three or more teams from the same league — the WCHA in 2005 is the only league to claim all four spots — beating the NCHC to the club after it put two teams in each of the last three Frozen Fours.

While those outside the Big Ten may be shocked by the league's success this season, its members are not.

"Am I surprised? Not at all," said Buckeyes coach Steve Rohlik, a former UMD assistant under Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin. "The depth in our league from top to bottom was outstanding, and it's a credit to the coaches in our league and the institutions."

The Big Ten has undergone a number of significant changes since it first began play in 2013-14.

After rotating its conference tournament between Xcel Energy Center and Joe Louis Arena in Detroit for the first four seasons, the league went on-campus this season with regular-season champion Notre Dame beating second-seeded Ohio State 3-2 in overtime — a result that snuck UMD into the NCAA tournament and prevented the league from getting the Gophers in as a fifth team.

With Bob Motzko's hiring on Tuesday at Minnesota, the league now has seen four of its original six head coaches all replaced in the last three seasons. Only Rohlik and Penn State's Guy Gadowsky, who were both hired as head coaches for that first season of Big Ten play, remain.

The biggest change for the Big Ten was adding a seventh member in Notre Dame, which spent four seasons in Hockey East after the CCHA disbanded. The Fighting Irish came to the Big Ten having played in three of the previous four NCAA tournaments and last year lost to eventual national champion Denver in the Frozen Four.

Notre Dame won its first 13 Big Ten games before finishing 4-6-1 to win the regular-season title by just eight points.

"The conference this year was outstanding," said Jeff Jackson, who has coached the Irish since 2005-06. "Every team in the conference got better and it made it more challenging for us as the season progressed. We were very fortunate to get the lead we had in the regular season with that winning streak that we had. We found out in the second half how challenging the conference is and how much better it got."

2018 NCAA Frozen Four

At Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul

Thursday, April 5, Semifinals

Minnesota Duluth (23-16-2) vs. Ohio State (26-9-5), 5 p.m. (ESPN2)

Notre Dame (27-9-2) vs. Michigan (22-14-3), 8:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

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