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A new champion, a strong argument for the Hobey Baker Award, and a single NCAA entry

Holy smokes! I was so caught up in re-entry into the non-college hockey world — i.e., my day job — that I completely forgot about this morning’s blog. Here are three things from the Big Ten tournament that stay with me today.

1. The Wolverines showed why they should be B1G champs.

With three third-period goals, Michigan defeated Minnesota 5-3 and became the third different Big Ten playoff championship team in the league’s first three seasons. Four players, especially, showed why they are top-notch players for the Wolverines with championship totals for the two games: junior forwards JT Compher (1-7–8) and Tyler Motte (2-2–4), sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski (1-5–6) and freshman forward Kyle Connor (5-3–8).

The Wolverines played to their strengths, outgunning Penn State in the 7-2 semifinal win — with Steve Racine making 40 saves in the contest — and relying on their belief in their third period to catch and overcome the Golden Gophers in Saturday’s title match. For the season, Michigan has outscored opponents 74-24 in the third period.

2. Kyle Connor is making a strong case for the Hobey Baker Award.

I’ll be completely honest: I have been in the Tyler Motte camp for the Hobey all season. I’d still argue that Motte is a better all-around player — at this point — than is Connor, but Connor’s offensive output in very big games last weekend is impressive. Connor (34-35–6) has improved significantly as the season has progressed and is showing signs of being the kind of on-the-spot player that is needed when there’s a lot on the line. People seem to forget that Motte (31-23–54) has been steadier all season and has only three fewer goals than his linemate, but it’s hard to argue with Connor’s numbers and — especially — his timing. We shall see how he and the Wolverines perform in the NCAA tournament.

3. The Big Ten has one representative in the NCAA tournament — again.

Given how the season went, I’m okay with that. Only Michigan was effective enough in early nonconference play to ensure that it wasn’t in PairWise danger heading into St. Paul last weekend. Minnesota is young and promising, but that youth led to inconsistency. Penn State can score but likewise stumbled a bit down the stretch. Ohio State began to peak too late. No one, from start to finish, had a more solid season than did the Wolverines — and even they needed to solidify defensively at the end of the campaign. We’ll see how they do next weekend in Cincinnati. I’m hoping they can win more than one game.

Pickin’ the Big Ten championship game: March 19, 2016

This is it, our last Big Ten picks blog of 2015-16. Where did the season go?

Yesterday, the top two teams advanced, which means that Drew Claussen went 1-1 and I went 2-0 with picks for the day.

Season
Drew: 80-54-19 (.585)
Paula: 82-52-19 (.598)

Big Ten championship game

Today’s game begins at 7:00 p.m. in the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., and is televised by the Big Ten Network.

No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 1 Minnesota

Drew: Both times the Gophers have beaten Michigan this year it came after a disappointing loss in the first game of the series. The Gophers don’t have the luxury of a two-game series today. Michigan may not have a whole lot on the line today, but no team wants to go into the NCAA Tournament on a loss. I can’t pick against Michigan after yesterday’s offensive showing. I think the Wolverines jump out quick and stave off a Minnesota comeback.

Paula: Once again, I must respectfully disagree with my colleague-in-writing. Michigan most certainly does have a lot on the line today. It doesn’t matter that the Wolverines are a lock for the NCAA tournament; they want to win the Big Ten title. Looking beyond today’s game is potentially damaging for either of these teams. While the Golden Gophers need a win today to return to the NCAA tournament, you can believe that they’ll be focusing just as much on defending the Big Ten playoff championship. Yesterday, Minnesota needed to come from behind against a tough Ohio State team, while the Wolverines manhandled Penn State. The danger for Michigan is to think it will come too easily today. The danger for Minnesota is looking past today to next week. Drew and I agree on the outcome, for sure.

Drew’s pick: Michigan 5-3.
Paula’s pick: Michigan 5-4, perhaps needing overtime

Pickin’ the Big Ten semifinals: March 18, 2016

The Nittany Lions and Buckeyes advance from yesterday’s quarterfinals. That means that Drew Claussen went 2-0 (1.000) and I went 1-1 (.500) in our picks.

Season
Drew: 79-53-19 (.586)
Paula: 80-52-19 (.593)

Big Ten championship tournament

This year, the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul., Minn., hosts the Big Ten tourney. Penn State plays Michigan at 4:00 p.m. and Ohio State plays Minnesota at 7:30 p.m. Games are Central Time and are televised by the Big Ten Network.

No. 3 Penn State vs. No. 2 Michigan

Drew: I’m going to pick a rested Michigan team to beat Penn State again. Wouldn’t mind seeing an upset, but I think Michigan is the favorite that will advance to the finals.

Paula: The Nittany Lions beat the Badgers yesterday, 5-2, to advance to this semifinal game. Last weekend, Michigan swept Penn State in Ann Arbor, 7-1 and 6-1. I don’t think the score will be that lopsided today, but I also think the Wolverines will prevail.

Drew’ pick: Michigan 6-3.
Paula’s pick: Michigan 4-3.

No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 1 Minnesota

Drew: The Buckeyes have come close to beating the Gophers multiple times this season. I think they get it done when it really counts.

Paula: I love that Drew believes in my old friends from Columbus and I love that his picks set up an all-CCHA final tomorrow. Minnesota swept Ohio State this season with four one-goal games, three of which went to overtime. The Buckeyes needed overtime to beat Michigan State yesterday, 4-3, a game in which OSU looked pretty dominant except for the three second-period power-play goals they gave up. In goal, Christian Frey made some fancy saves. Last weekend, the Gophers split at home with Wisconsin but did enough to take the regular-season title. I think this game will be dandy. I think Minnesota makes it a 5-0 year vs. Ohio State, though, when all is said and done.

Drew’s pick: Ohio State 5-2.
Paula’s pick: Minnesota 4-3.

Pickin’ the Big Ten quarterfinals: March 17, 2016

For the Big Ten championship tournament, Drew Claussen and I have decided to make our picks day by day. First, our running totals:

Last week
Drew: 3-2-1 (.583)
Paula: 4-1-1 (.750)

Season
Drew: 77-53-19 (.581)
Paula: 79-51-19 (.594)

Big Ten championship tournament

This year, the Big Ten tournament is played March 17 through March 19 in the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. The quarterfinals Thursday feature the No. 3 seed vs. the No. 6 seed in the 4:00 p.m. game and the No. 4 seed vs. the No. 5 seed at 7:30 p.m. As we know, No. 1 Minnesota and No. 2 Michigan each have a first-round bye. Minnesota plays the winner of the Michigan State-Ohio State game late Friday. Michigan plays the winner of the Wisconsin-Penn State game early Friday.

To advance to the NCAA tournament, every team in the field needs the autobid that comes with the playoff championship except for Michigan.

The Big Ten Network is carrying the entire tournament. Drew and I will have our semifinal picks early Friday morning.

No. 6 Wisconsin vs. No. 3 Penn State

Drew: Penn State has lost three in a row to close out the regular season, and one of those defeats came against the Badgers. Will that happen again on Thursday? Probably not. With the season on the line for both teams, I think the Nittany Lions will be able to conjure up a better performance and mercifully end Wisconsin’s second consecutive nightmare season.

Paula: Every one of the four teams playing in the quarterfinals can advance to the semifinals. Of the four, however, Wisconsin is the team least likely to be able to sustain the level of play necessary to reach the title game. Last weekend, the Badgers split on the road against Minnesota, and Wisconsin is 2-6-2 in its last 10 games. Penn State dropped two on the road to Michigan to end the regular season last weekend, outscored 13-2 in two games; the Nittany Lions are 4-5-1 in their last 10 games. My favorite note of the weekend so far: Wisconsin is undefeated in its last eight games in the Xcel Energy Center. Those are odds I don’t want to chance the first night.

Drew’s pick: Penn State 4-2.
Paula’s pick: Wisconsin 4-3.

No. 5 Michigan State vs. No. 4 Ohio State

Drew: If last weekend was any indication, and it should be, this game should be Thursday’s highlight. Ohio State is similar to Michigan in that it can score a lot of goals but can also give up a lot of goals. So my key to the game is Jake Hildebrand; if he and the Spartans’ defense can frustrate the Buckeyes’ offense, MSU can win the game. I don’t think the Spartans will fare well if the game turns into a goal fest.

Paula: Of the four teams playing in the quarterfinals, I think Ohio State is the team that has the best shot of advancing to a title game Saturday — if goaltender Christian Frey plays big. He can, and the Buckeyes’ defense can play big in front of him, but consistency has been an issue with Ohio State. These two teams played in East Lansing last weekend, with Ohio State winning 6-5 in overtime Friday and the teams tying, 1-1 Saturday. The Spartans are 4-4-2 in their last 10 games; the Buckeyes are 5-3-2 in their last 10 but are undefeated in their last seven games (5-0-2).

Drew’s pick: Ohio State 5-2.
Paula’s pick: Ohio State 4-3.

Gophers are the champions but Michigan is still the favorite

The regular season is officially in the books. The final weekend wasn’t necessarily very dramatic, but there were two series that could have changed the seeding of the conference tournament and another that was a preview of the only predetermined matchup that is going to happen in St. Paul. In the end the seeding was the same coming out of the weekend as they were going in.

Here’s how things ended up:

  • Minnesota and Wisconsin split their series in Minneapolis
  • Michigan swept Penn State at home
  • Ohio State won an overtime game against Michigan State on Friday and the Spartans came back and got a shootout victory on Saturday

Here’s three things from the regular-season finale:

1. Minnesota hangs another banner

Congrats to the Gophers on their fourth consecutive regular-season championship. Quite the impressive feat. Is Minnesota the best team in the Big Ten? Probably not, but the Gophers are a team that played their best hockey against conference opponents and they earned the regular-season trophy.

The Gophers made it interesting. Wisconsin picked up a 4-3 victory on Friday, despite a strong comeback effort from Minnesota. Saturday’s game was close, too, until Minnesota scored three unanswered goals in the third period to pull away for a 4-1 victory.

With the split, Minnesota is officially on the on the outside looking in when it comes to the PairWise Rankings meaning than it will need to win the Big Ten Tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament. That’s not a position that most conference champions are used to being in, but the Gophers do have a couple things working in their favor. They nabbed the top seed in the tournament, so they will play the winner of the Ohio State and Michigan State game. Minnesota is a combined 7-1 against those two teams this season.

This year’s tournament will also take place in St. Paul, a stone’s throw from Minnesota’s campus, so Minnesota can expect a decent crowd to go along with the luxury of not having to travel.

2. Michigan got back on track

Michigan made a valiant effort to jump the Gophers in the final weekend, but the Wolverines couldn’t overcome their two losses to Ohio State last weekend.

Michigan did lock up the second seed in the conference tournament by winning two impressive games against an opponent it will probably face again on Friday. The Wolverines beat Penn State 7-1 on Friday and 6-1 on Saturday.

While the offensive production was impressive, we’ve seen that for most of the season. What may give Michigan fans hope heading into the postseason was that the Wolverines held a Penn State team with a pretty good offense to two one-goal games. Especially after the debacle against Ohio State, that was a site for sore eyes.

3. Who do you got?

The match ups are set. Penn State against Wisconsin with Michigan taking on the winner and Ohio State against Michigan State with Minnesota facing off against the victor. If the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions and Buckeyes are able to move on they will get another shot against a team that beat them four times this season. The cliche says that it’s hard to end another team’s season, and it’s also difficult to beat a team five times in a row.

I would personally be surprised if we saw a Minnesota-Michigan final. Upsets have been a theme this year in the Big Ten, especially as of late, so it would be surprising if things go according to plan this weekend.

 

Pickin’ the Big Ten: March 11-12

It’s the last weekend of regular-season play. It’s not the last weekend, however, for Drew Claussen and me to predict how B1G teams will fare.

Last week
Drew: 2-4-0 (.333)
Paula: 2-4-0 (.333)

Season
Drew: 74-51-18 (.580)
Paula: 75-50-18 (.587)

This week

Last weekend was a weekend of missed opportunities for the top three Big Ten teams. While it’s possible for Michigan to finish ahead of Minnesota when all is said and done, it’s unlikely given that the first-place Gophers play the last-place Badgers. It is entirely possible, though, for third-place Penn State to overtake second-place Michigan. It’s also possible for fifth-place Michigan State to sweep Ohio State and tie the Buckeyes in points at the end of the season and take the tiebreaker to finish fourth.

A single win by Minnesota gives the Gophers their third consecutive Big Ten regular-season championship.

A single win by Michigan gives the Wolverines a second-place finish and a first-round bye for the Big Ten championship tournament next weekend.

A single win by Ohio State would secure fourth place for the Buckeyes.

A single win by Michigan State would do nothing for the Spartans in the standings, but would bolster their confidence as they face off against Ohio State again next weekend in St. Paul, Minn.

A single win by Wisconsin would give the Badgers three B1G wins this season, one more than they had in 2014-15.

Ohio State at Michigan State

Drew: Not much to be determined here, except maybe what color jerseys each team wears when they face off at the Big Ten Tournament. I’m sure both teams, and their fan bases, would take getting swept this weekend if it meant that they would get a win on Thursday in St. Paul.

Ohio State is coming off of an impressive sweep of Michigan. The Buckeyes finally won a close game on Sunday and I think they will be one of the more dangerous teams that has to play three games at the tournament. They made it to the finals in the first year of the Big Ten Tournament and it wouldn’t surprise me if they made another run. Ohio State can score with anyone; the problem is that the Buckeyes are also prone to letting a lot of pucks into their own net. Michigan State had a nice rebound win against Minnesota on Saturday and will try to keep that home magic going. Jake Hildebrand got the shutout last Saturday and the Spartans will need him to do his best brick wall impression to do well the rest of the way.

Paula: The Buckeyes scored 13 goals last weekend against the Wolverines and were rewarded for it — a nice change of pace for OSU after having scored 11 against Michigan in December and only earning two points for the effort. Ohio State has averaged six goals per game in its last five contests, all against B1G teams that can give up a lot of goals — Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan — but allowed 4.4 goals on average in those games. In that stretch, OSU is 4-0-1. The Spartans are averaging 3.2 goals per game in their last five while allowing 2.0 goals, with a record of 3-1-1 in that span.

The Spartans and Buckeyes split a pair of one-goal games (one with an ENG) in Columbus at the end of January. Michigan State is 4-3-3 in its last 10 against Ohio State, and the Spartans were 3-1-0 against the Buckeyes last season. Games are at 7:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday night and are untelevised.

Drew’s picks: Ohio State 5-2, Michigan State 3-2.
Paula’s picks: Ohio State 4-2, Michigan State 4-2.

Penn State at Michigan

Drew: Missed opportunities for each of these teams last weekend. Michigan missed out on the opportunity to keep the pressure on Minnesota when the Wolverines got swept by Ohio State. Penn State missed out on making this series very, very interesting when it couldn’t solve Wisconsin’s Matt Jurusik in the third period of Saturday’s loss to the Badgers. A win there would have meant that both of these teams would have come into the weekend with 35 points. As it stands, Penn State needs a sweep or a win and a shootout win to jump Michigan this weekend. The Wolverines swept Penn State when the two played earlier this season. The first game of that series was a home game for PSU with the second being a neutral-site contest at Madison Square Garden.

I see this one going as a split. Ohio State had to have been a wake-up call for Michigan and the Wolverines will want to get on a roll heading into the playoffs. I think Penn State is good enough to capture a win this weekend, but I can’t see the Nittany Lions going into Ann Arbor and sweeping.

Paula: The Nittany Lions came from behind against Wisconsin last weekend in that 4-3 loss, scoring two late in the third period but — as Drew said — Jurusik was the difference, as PSU put up 49 shots on goal to UW’s 26 in that contest. If the Nittany Lions do the same this weekend, the Wolverines’ team defense may be exposed again. During the second period of their 7-4 loss to Ohio State last Friday, the Wolverines played horribly — there is no other word for it. While the Buckeyes won both of those games outright, the Wolverines did very little to further their cause.

After their losses last weekend, the Wolverines slipped from sixth to a tie for eighth in the PairWise Rankings. After their single loss to Wisconsin, though, the Nittany Lions officially became a team no longer under consideration; while still on the PWR bubble, Penn State now ties Minnesota for 17th in the PWR, so the Nittany Lions know that they need to win the Big Ten championship outright to get their first invitation to the NCAA tournament. Besting the Wolverines in points this weekend would help them tremendously in St. Paul.

Michigan knows, though, that a loss to Penn State will hurt the Wolverines’ chances to go to the NCAA tournament as well. This is the first Michigan team that I’ve covered in 21 years of college hockey reporting that has no NCAA tournament experience. While a first-time bid for PSU’s program is a mighty motivator, the Wolverines will be no less motivated — especially since this the last year of Red Berenson’s contract. Games are at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday night, and each game is carried by Comcast Cable.

Drew’s picks: Michigan 5-3, Penn State 3-1.
Paula’s picks: Michigan 5-4, 5-4.

Wisconsin at Minnesota

Drew: This series made me think back to the series between the same two teams that ended the 2011-2012 season. The Gophers faced the Badgers at home with a chance to clinch the MacNaughton Cup. Wisconsin took Friday’s game before Nate Schmidt made a great individual play to keep the puck in the offensive zone, elude a defender and launch a rocket for the game-winning goal in the third period of Saturday’s game. The video doesn’t exactly do it justice, but that was the loudest I have ever personally heard Mariucci Arena.

In two ways this weekend’s series will be similar; Minnesota has a chance to lock up the regular-season championship for its conference and the Gophers play Wisconsin. It’s just not the same, though. Wisconsin is terrible and has been for two seasons now. While the Gophers are leading the conference, their play hasn’t been great this year either. Minnesota has been downright bad at times.

Oh, and that loud arena. I’m sure attendance will be announced as more than 9,000, but I’d be surprised if the building is more than 75 percent full.

Minnesota killed Wisconsin when the two teams played at Kohl Center and there’s no reason to predict anything but a Gophers sweep this time around. Which, of course, means that the Badgers will sweep.

Paula: Both of these teams surprised me this season. Minnesota’s young team is loaded with talent, but the Gophers’ season-long learning curve wasn’t something that I expected. Conversely, I am impressed with how hard the Badgers play. At the start of the season, coach Mike Eaves said that his seniors would be motivated by “redemption” in 2015-16. That attempt at redemption hasn’t shown up on the wins and losses ledger, but the Badgers work hard as consistently as they can. I know that fans of each team are frustrated, but both the Gophers and Badgers have been interesting to watch for reasons beyond their numbers this season.

All of that having been said, I think Minnesota sweeps this weekend, too. Friday’s 7:00 p.m. start is carried by ESPNews and Saturday’s 7:00 p.m. game is televised by the Big Ten Network.

Drew’s picks: Minnesota 4-1, 5-3.
Paula’s picks: Minnesota 4-2, 4-2.

With two games left, chances lost and the importance of the number 3

What a wild weekend in the Big Ten. While other conferences were engaging in playoff hockey, B1G teams were playing their second-to-last weekend of regular-season play and showing us that nothing is predictable for this league this season.

Congratulations to Ohio State for completing its first sweep of Michigan since 2011, and congrats to Wisconsin for its second Big Ten win of the season.

The three things I take away from this weekend have everything to do with the number 3.

1. Three points never seemed so elusive.

Had the Golden Gophers won Saturday, they’d have captured their third regular-season Big Ten title by the time sun set Sunday by way of Michigan’s loss to Ohio State. The Spartans, however, had another narrative in mind. Before Saturday’s match between Minnesota and Michigan State was a minute old, the Spartans led 1-0 and then never looked back. It was Mason Appleton scoring on the first shot of the game at :46 to give State that lead, and the Gophers never really had much of a sniff in the contest because Michigan State senior goaltender Jake Hildebrand didn’t give them one as he stopped all 28 shots for his third shut out of the season.

Now the Gophers still need three points to guarantee that third consecutive regular-season B1G championships. And given their loss to a team not under PairWise consideration, the Gophers have dropped to a two-way tie with Penn State for the 17th spot in the PWR, so Minnesota will likely need to win the Big Ten tournament to return to the NCAA tournament.

2. Three points never seemed so elusive, Part 2.

After beating Wisconsin 2-1 Friday night, the Nittany Lions pulled to within three points of second-place Michigan. Penn State had an opportunity Saturday to tie Michigan for points in the standings and have an upper hand with the tiebreaker; had the Nittany Lions beat the Badgers Saturday night, PSU would have had one more win than Michigan — given the Wolverines’ 6-5 loss to Ohio State Sunday — heading into next weekend’s series between the two teams in Yost Ice Arena.

But the Nittany Lions didn’t win. Instead, after scoring early in the first period to take a 1-0 lead, PSU allowed four unanswered Wisconsin goals, two to end the first and two in the second. Freshman goaltender Matt Jurusik put in an heroic 46-save performance for the Badgers to help guarantee that win in Wisconsin’s last home game of the season.

Freshman Chris Funkey saw his third game action of the season for Penn State, playing the final 33:22 of the contest.

Now the Nittany Lions need to sweep Michigan in Yost next weekend to capture second place in the final B1G standings and a first-round bye in the championship tournament, and — like Minnesota — Penn State will likely need to win the Big Ten tournament outright to get to the NCAA tournament.

3. 3×4=12, enough to beat Michigan twice.

The Buckeyes scored six unanswered goals in Friday’s 7-4 road win over the Wolverines — three to end the first period, three to begin the second — and then scored three unanswered goals in the second half of the first period in Sunday’s 6-5 overtime win on their way to sweeping Michigan. It was a nice turn of events for Ohio State, a team that scored six goals against Michigan in Yost Arena earlier in the season and lost. It’s also an interesting reversal of fortune for the Wolverines, who netted 10 goals two games and lost both.

Sunday’s game marked Michigan’s third consecutive loss, the first time that’s happened to the Wolverines this season. And what a lost opportunity to pull within a point of the Golden Gophers in the standings, knowing that Minnesota had dropped that game to Michigan State the night before.

Other interesting numbers following the Friday-Sunday series:

• OSU and UM combined for eight power-play goals, three scored by Ohio State.

•Seven different Buckeyes scored in the 7-4 win and five different Buckeyes scored in regulation in the 6-5 win. Nick Schilkey is the only OSU player to net two goals, both in Sunday’s game including the winning goal at 2:54 in OT.

•The Buckeyes have scored 30 goals in their last five games, going 4-0-1 in that span.

•Michigan drops to a two-way tie for eighth with Boston University (from sixth) in the PWR following the losses.

With a single win next weekend against Penn State — three points — the Wolverines guarantee a conference finish no lower than second place and a first-round bye in the Big Ten championship tournament.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: March 4-6

We are getting down to it. Last week, I was bitten by the wrong-way split in the Michigan-Minnesota series. Drew Claussen, however, was not.

Last week
Drew: 2-1-1 (.400)
Paula: 1-2-0 (.400)

Season
Drew: 72-47-18 (.555)
Paula: 73-46-18 (.599)

This week

Everyone plays in this penultimate week of the regular season. Minnesota still holds first place by a single point ahead of Michigan, who’s six points in front of Penn State. Neither Drew nor I see that changing.

Minnesota at Michigan State

Drew: Each Big Ten team has a possible 12 conference points on the table. I think the Gophers will need to get at least 10 to finish ahead of Michigan. A rivalry series against Wisconsin on the season’s final weekend should be an easy one for Minnesota to get up for next weekend, but it is crucial that the Gophers don’t give away points against Michigan State. Minnesota has proved this season that it is good at rebounding after a loss, but when you close the season playing the bottom two teams in the conference you can’t afford to lose those games.

Michigan State will need to lean on Jake Hildebrand. If the Spartans are able to jump out to a quick lead they could lean on their home crowd and make life more difficult for the Gophers heading into the final weekend. I’m picking the Gophers to sweep.

Paula: There’s more at stake than the regular-season championship, and the Gophers know that. Minnesota cannot afford to lose to Michigan State or Wisconsin and expect to stay viable in the PairWise Rankings. Minnesota did what it needed to do last weekend to remain in first place, beating Michigan 3-2 in overtime Friday after Thursday’s 6-2 loss. The Spartans come into this weekend rested, having last played Feb. 19-20, a road sweep of Wisconsin. Michigan State is 5-4-1 in their last 10 games; Minnesota is 6-4-0. The Gophers swept the Spartans at home Jan. 15-16 with 5-2 and 3-1 scores. I’m with Drew, though. I don’t see Minnesota losing this weekend. Games begin at 7:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Friday’s contest is carried by both Fox Sports Detroit and Fox Sports North.

Drew’s picks: Minnesota 4-2, 4-2.
Paula’s picks: Minnesota 3-2, 5-2.

Ohio State vs. Michigan

Drew: The Gophers have the “luxury” of playing their final four games against the conference’s bottom teams, but Michigan gets to play its final three contests at home. Will either of these things matter much? Probably not. Truth is this conference has been wide open all season; there’s probably pretty equal chances that Minnesota or Michigan win out, lose out or go 2-2.

Michigan will need to let cooler heads prevail this weekend against Ohio State. I know these two schools don’t like each other very much, but taking a dumb penalty or — worse — getting suspended could kill a team’s chances this time of year. I like Michigan to outscore the Buckeyes this weekend, even though Minnesota slowed down the Wolverines’ offense last time out.

The key game will be Friday’s contest. Ohio State has proven that it can score when the offense is hot, but I feel like if Michigan is able to get that home win on Friday it will be able to roll the momentum into Sunday’s game on the road.

Paula: I agree. I think a win Friday night at home for Michigan fuels the Wolverines in Columbus on Sunday. This is such a big season for the Wolverines. They can taste a share of the regular-season title and, for the first time since 2012, are nearly assured an NCAA tournament berth. Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss against Minnesota was one of the best games I’ve seen this season, and Michigan looked mighty fine indeed; the loss wasn’t for lack of trying, and the Wolverines didn’t make many mistakes. Play like that this weekend will nearly guarantee Michigan two wins as the Wolverines have returned to a form that fans haven’t seen in years.

That doesn’t mean that Ohio State doesn’t have game or that the Buckeyes will make anything about this weekend easy. Drew’s right about OSU’s offense; when the Buckeyes roll, they can score with the best of them, and when the whole OSU team plays as a cohesive unit, it’s a pretty darned good one. At home last Friday and Saturday, Ohio State tied Wisconsin 4-4 and beat the Badgers 6-5. The Buckeyes are in fourth place, three points ahead of fifth-place Michigan State and 10 points behind Penn State. The Wolverines took four of six points from the Buckeyes in their previous Friday-Sunday, home-and-home series in mid-January. Friday’s game in Ann Arbor begins at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday’s rematch in Columbus starts at 3:00 p.m. Surprisingly, neither of these games is televised.

Drew’s picks: Michigan 5-3, 4-1.
Paula’s picks: Michigan 5-2, 4-2.

Penn State at Wisconsin

Drew: Our editor, Todd Milewski, wrote a great piece for The Capital Times this week about the state of Wisconsin Hockey. It’s a great read that touches on just how bad things have gotten in Madison. This year is not going to end mercifully for the Badgers. They play two nationally-ranked teams that dealt them four consecutive losses in January.

Other than the fact that they want to be playing well going into the playoffs, the Nittany Lions don’t have much on the line for the final weekends. Penn State is six points behind second-place Michigan but PSU has a 10-point cushion on fourth-place Ohio State. Two convincing victories this weekend against Wisconsin, a team Penn State will probably meet in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, could help its confidence going into the match up. I’d like to pick a Wisconsin victory for those home fans that actually are still showing up, but I think Penn State wins a close game and a blowout.

Paula: I respectfully disagree with Drew that the Nittany Lions have little at stake this weekend or next. Like Minnesota, Penn State needs to beat teams that are not under consideration to remain viable for the NCAA tournament. No. 14 in the PWR is not a very comfortable spot, and a loss to Wisconsin could hurt the Nittany Lions. Also, Penn State is still trying to catch second-place Michigan, a team that is just six point ahead of PSU. Keeping pace with the Wolverines is vitally important, as a first-round Big Ten tournament bye is on the line. I think the Nittany Lions will be exceptionally driven this weekend — especially since they end the season in Ann Arbor next weekend.

The trick for PSU, of course, is not to look past the Badgers to the Wolverines. The Nittany Lions had a bye last weekend, having last played Feb. 19-20, a split against the Buckeyes in which they won the opener 6-1 before losing their final home game of the season 7-4. That loss, no doubt, will be another thing that fuels Penn State this weekend. The Nittany Lions beat the Badgers at home Jan. 15-16, but the first game took overtime. Both games Friday and Saturday begin at 7:00 p.m., and Saturday’s contest is carried by the American Sports Network.

Drew’s picks: Penn State 3-2, 6-1.
Paula’s picks: Penn State 5-1, 5-2.

Minnesota rebounds again, setting up a wild finish to the regular season

Greetings from the Twin Cities where I’m spending a day off from work in preparation for seeing Bruce Springsteen tonight. Sorry, I had to brag, I’m very excited. Back to hockey, four teams were in action this weekend and after the contests we are, for the most part, right back where we started. Here’s how things played out:

  • Minnesota and Michigan split a series at Mariucci Arena
  • Ohio State took four of six points at home against Wisconsin

Here is a look at the standings:

  1. Minnesota (36 points)
  2. Michigan (35)
  3. Penn State (29)
  4. Ohio State (19)
  5. Michigan State (16)
  6. Wisconsin (9)

Here are three things I saw this weekend:

1. Michigan failed to sweep Minnesota, again 

Minnesota needed a rebound after Thursday night. Hudson Fasching saved the Gophers’ weekend, and possibly their chances as winning the regular-season title, with an overtime snip on Friday night.

Fashing’s goal came after Michigan and Minnesota each traded goals in the first and second periods. Neither team found the back of the net in the third period before the Gophers claimed the series split nearly one minute into the overtime period.

Friday’s game was more defense-orientated than most Michigan games are, Minnesota had the 27-25 shot advantage in the game. Each team surrendered a one-goal lead in the game. It was similar to the two-game set at Yost in December where Michigan lit up the scoreboard in the first game, but was brought back to earth the next night by Minnesota.

The win was, obviously, crucial for the Gophers. The series split means that Minnesota still owns a one-point lead in the Big Ten standings with each team having four games remaining.

2. The Wolverines will need help down the stretch

Michigan scored six unanswered goals on Thursday night and looked to be in a primed position to sweep a crucial series against Minnesota and control its own destiny down the stretch. Fasching’s overtime goal on Saturday, however, means that the Wolverines are going to need some help to capture their first Big Ten regular season  championship. 

Michigan has a home-and-home series with Ohio State next weekend and closes out the regular season with two games at home against Penn State. For comparison’s sake, Minnesota will travel to Michigan State next weekend and host Wisconsin for the regular-season finale.

Friday’s game was an opportunity missed for the Wolverines. Michigan will now need to win most, if not all, of its final four games and rely on the conference’s bottom two teams to trip on Minnesota to win the regular-season title.

Berenson told MLive he was confident in saying that he wouldn’t be scared in seeing the Gophers, or any team for that matter, in the Big Ten Tournament. Minnesota is 2-2 against the Wolverines this season but has won both games after dropping the opening game in the series. The Gophers won’t have the luxury of being able to rebound after a loss in the postseason.

3. Close races at the top and bottom

Minnesota and Michigan are the headlining act for the final two weekends, but the way the other seeds for the Big Ten Tournament play out will also be interesting. Penn State and Wisconsin look to be pretty set in their respective spots in the standings but, with each team have a potential 12 conference points still on the table, nothing is set in stone.

Personally, I think the standings at the end of the season are going to look a lot like they do right now.  The answer to how confident I am in this prediction is “not very.” It seems like when you start to think you’ve figured out these six teams they throw a wrench into your predictions.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Feb. 25-27

There are two B1G series this weekend and one begins tonight. First, how Drew Claussen and I are doing with the picks:

Last week
Drew: 2-3-0 (.400)
Paula: 2-3-0 (.400)

Season
Drew: 70-46-17 (.590)
Paula: 72-44-17 (.605)

Both of us couldn’t have been more wrong about last week’s Michigan State-Wisconsin series, but props to Drew for correctly predicting the score of Michigan’s win over Ferris State.

This week

This week begins with what could be the deciding series of the season, first-place Minnesota’s two home games against second-place Michigan. Wisconsin is at Ohio State for two games, Friday and Saturday. Penn State and Michigan State aren’t playing this weekend.

Michigan at Minnesota

Drew: I don’t know why, but Minnesota doesn’t feel like a team that has won eight of its past 12 games. Maybe it’s just the two most recent games I’ve seen the Gophers play live (The North Star) sticking out more than they should, but I have a feeling that Michigan is going to roll this weekend. Michigan also has enjoyed success in its recent contests, and the Wolverines haven’t lost in regulation since the Gophers beat them at Yost in December. Minnesota is going to have to come up with a great defensive effort and keep the scoring down if it wants to pick up points this week. I’m picking a Michigan sweep.

Paula: A sweep is a bold prediction for either of these teams. I think that this weekend will result in a split, changing nothing in the relative standing of either of these teams — but helping Minnesota in the PairWise Rankings. The Golden Gophers were off last weekend while the Wolverines beat Ferris State 5-2 Friday night, a very telling game; the score was close through two periods and Michigan had to work even harder to outscore its opponent in the third period, something that’s been a Wolverines’ specialty this season.

The Wolverines took the first game between Minnesota and Michigan in Yost Ice Arena Dec. 4 by a five-goal margin, and the Gophers won by a goal the following night. There are players on each of these rosters with active scoring streaks. For Michigan, forwards JT Compher and Kyle Connor are riding 17-game point streaks into this series, and forward Tyler Motte has netted a goal in his last 12 games, the longest goal-scoring streak for a Michigan player in the Red Berenson era. For the Gophers, forward Justin Kloos is enjoying a career-best 11-game point-scoring streak. Minnesota is 5-0-0 in its last five home games against Michigan. Thursday’s game begins at 7:30 p.m., Friday’s at 8:00 p.m., and both are being televised by the Big Ten Network.

Drew’s picks: Michigan 5-2, 4-3.
Paula’s picks: Minnesota 3-2, Michigan 5-2.

Wisconsin at Ohio State

Drew: I want to see Ohio State put together a complete weekend. In previous weeks the Buckeyes have had a couple solid wins against Penn State and have had close games against Michigan and Minnesota. They also had disappointing losses against basically everyone in the conference. The slogan for OSU’s 2016 campaign could be, “Close, but no cigar.” But, as we all know, “close” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades (that’s enough cliches for this week). Both of these teams seem to have found ways to drop games this season, so I’m picking a split.

Paula: This is an interesting series because both teams are playing for points, position and the chance to improve heading into the Big Ten tournament. Theoretically, Ohio State could finish in third place. Theoretically, Wisconsin could finish in fourth. Given that the Buckeyes conclude their season with series against the two Michigan teams following this weekend, it’s likely that fourth place will be on the line when Ohio State heads to East Lansing the final weekend of play. Given that Wisconsin has a single Big Ten win to its credit this season and finishes out against Penn State and Minnesota following this series with the Buckeyes, its likely that the Badgers will finish last.

Last weekend, Ohio State split a pair with Penn State, winning the final game of the season in Pegula Arena — not an easy thing to do. Wisconsin was swept at home last weekend by Michigan State. The Buckeyes are 5-3-2 all-time against the Badgers in Big Ten play. The teams last met Jan. 8-9 in Wisconsin, with OSU taking five of the six possible points. The teams split last season in Columbus. Friday’s game begins at 6:30 p.m. and it’s the early game for the Big Ten Network. Saturday’s game starts at 7:00 p.m. and is untelevised.

Drew’s picks: Wisconsin 4-2, Ohio State 5-1.
Paula’s picks: Ohio State 3-2, 4-2.

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