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Three things after a light weekend of play

1. Michigan plays in spurts and stretches.

The Wolverines have all the talent necessary to put together an excellent season with potential for some postseason success. Michigan’s overall team defense can be a bit leaky, but this is a squad that can roll four lines and sometimes score at will. A quick look at Michigan’s schedule and its numbers don’t tell the whole story. Coach Red Berenson has talked about the team needing more consistency, but it’s not merely consistency from game to game; the Wolverines need to play consistently within given games.

Sure, it’s fun to watch a team unload three power-play goals within a five-minute span, as the Wolverines did in the second period in their 8-3 win over Ohio State Dec. 5, or to roll out four unanswered goals as they did during the third period of their 8-1 win over Penn State Nov. 22, but Michigan is also capable of letting down for stretches within games, and that leads to deficits the Wolverines cannot overcome. In a 3-2 loss to Penn State Nov. 21, the Wolverines let their collective guard down for three minutes late in the first period, costing them the game. In a 5-1 loss to Boston College Saturday, Michigan allowed two goals within two minutes before the game was 10 minutes old, creating an insurmountable obstacle while playing an opponent that knows how to play with a lead.

Fits and starts, spurts and stretches. This may be Michigan’s season.

2. Michigan State will surprise people in the second half.

I know that Big Ten opponents won’t be underestimating the Spartans in the second half, given that Michigan State took points from its first two conference series, including a win on the road against Ohio State and a tie with the extra shootout point at home versus Minnesota at home Dec. 6 — especially impressive after losing to the Golden Gophers 5-0 the night before — but people who haven’t been paying close attention to Michigan State so far this season may be surprised by the team’s tenacity and skill.

The Spartans overcame a first-period deficit to beat visiting Clarkson 6-4 yesterday, and while coach Tom Anastos can’t be happy with how the team allowed four goals, he is undoubtedly pleased with his team’s four special-teams goals — including Thomas Ebbing’s game-winning power-play goal late in the second period — and the Spartans’ utter refusal to be rattled. In the second period of that game, the Spartans did what good teams do when they took advantage of power-play opportunities and turned up the proverbial heat on an opponent that they could and should have beaten. In a span of just over three minutes, Joe Cox scored two goals and Ebbing scored that third to give Michigan State a 5-3 lead, and when the Golden Knights scored early in the third period to make it a 5-4 game, the Spartans refused to relent; junior Ryan Keller’s first goal of the season (fourth of his career) gave Michigan State insurance late in the fourth.

Good things happen for hard-working teams, and Michigan State has a pretty good work ethic.

3. My life is better because the Nittany Lions play hockey.

I led last week’s column with Penn State because the Nittany Lions will head into the holiday break on top of the Big Ten standings. It became pretty clear to me early in the first half that the Nittany Lions were able to bring some of the lessons they learned from last season into 2014-2015, making them a much-improved team and no one’s doormat this year. Their sweep of Wisconsin in Madison the week before was impressive, even if the Badgers are struggling mightily this season. Those two wins were Penn State’s first Big Ten sweep. All of this is noteworthy, and when the column appeared on USCHO’s front page, Penn State noticed and sent out this via Twitter. It was retweeted and favorited repeatedly by the Nittany Lions faithful.

When I thanked them for all the kind words and free publicity, the folks at Penn State and I had this exchange:

And suddenly, everything I never knew was clarified. Had I just been writing better column for years prior, I could have avoided all manner of unpleasantness: unfortunate relationship choices, the Oldsmobile Achieva I drove for a while, that Christmas spent with the stomach virus (and my now permanent aversion to eggnog). So much makes sense now that never made sense before.

Had the Nittany Lions joined the Division I fold years ago, I would not have had to have waited for middle age for life to become so golden.

And it is. My life is golden, without question. I get to cover college hockey, interact with awesome fans, teach, love, laugh, run and bake cookies.

As we head into the break, here’s hoping that your life is at least as golden. Happy holidays to you and yours. Be safe and warm and well, and hug everyone who matters.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Dec. 13-14

There are three Big Ten teams in action this weekend, but one plays exhibition. First, some accountability for Drew Claussen and me.

Last week
Drew: 3-2-0 (.600)
Paula: 2-2-1 (.500)

Season
Drew: 43-29-4 (.592)
Paula: 28-43-5 (.401)

Meh. For me, anyway.

This week

Michigan plays Boston College on the road Saturday and Michigan State hosts Clarkson Sunday. Wisconsin also plays the Under-18 team Friday. We only pick the games that count.

Michigan at Boston College

Drew: Picking Michigan games this year hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park because you’re basically taking a chance on which team will show up: the one that has scored eight goals three times this year or the one that turned in poor defensive efforts in losses to Ferris State, New Hampshire and Michigan Tech. The Wolverines have trended upward over the last couple weeks. The defense has played a little better, but the main thing is that the offense has compensated for any defensive-shortfalls. Jerry York’s squad is currently sixth in Hockey East and is 1-2-1 in its last four contests. I give Boston College the slight advantage in this one because of home ice, but could see it going either way. Whichever side holds the other to three or fewer goals will come away victorious.

Paula: These teams met to mark the beginning of the 2013-2014 season, a 3-1 Michigan win in Yost Ice Arena Oct. 10, 2013. The Wolverines have won four straight games in this series, and Red Berenson is 29-22-1 all-time against Jerry York, going back to when York skippered Bowling Green (1979-1994). Michigan’s last win at Boston College was Dec. 27, 1950. This Saturday contest begins at 7:00 p.m. and is not televised.

Drew’s pick: Boston College 4-2.
Paula’s pick: I’m not calling against the Wolverines until they lose, no matter the odds. Michigan 3-2.

Clarkson at Michigan State

Drew: This game is obviously the less-thrilling of the two Big Ten games this weekend. It features two teams that have gotten off to the less-than-stellar starts. Michigan State currently owns a 5-9-1 record and Clarkson is 6-7-4. After correctly predicting a tie in last Saturday’s game between Minnesota and Michigan State, I’m tempted to do it again. (The patting myself on the back for picking a tie quickly ceased when Michigan made my Ohio State upset pick look foolish). The Spartans’ offense is averaging 2.12 goals per game and Clarkson’s defense is averaging two goals allowed per game, so there’s a good chance that the difference in the game will be whether or not Jake Hildebrand can hold Clarkson to one goal. I don’t have much confidence in Michigan State after its split with Princeton a couple weeks ago, but I think home ice should help the Spartans take down this ECAC opponent.

Paula: I respectfully disagree that this match is the “less-thrilling” of the league’s two D-I offerings this weekend. A Clarkson-Michigan State game doesn’t have the visibility of Michigan’s game against Boston College, but there’s no reason to expect that this contest will be dull. Michigan State is playing good hockey, as evidenced by the Spartans’ performance against Minnesota Saturday night, one of the best games I’ve seen from start to finish this year. Any unranked team that can bounce back from a 5-0 loss and dictate the terms of the follow night’s 3-3 tie against a top-tier opponent is a team that can produce plenty of excitement. Clarkson won its single game against St. Lawrence — another tough team — last weekend, coming from behind to do so and outshooting the Saints 31-22.

The Golden Knights and Spartans have met for one series previous to this game, a home sweep by Michigan State Oct. 9-10, 2009. This Sunday game begins at 5:00 p.m. and will be televised by Fox Sports Detroit.

Drew’s pick: Michigan State 2-1.
Paula’s pick: Michigan State 3-2.

Happy birthday, Coach!

A belated happy birthday to Michigan coach Red Berenson, who turned 75 years old Dec. 8.

Goodbye, TC

After 32 years in the business, Tim Connor has resigned his position as an associate director of media relations at Notre Dame. Closer to home, Tim or TC — as he’s often called by friends — was the Irish hockey team’s sports information director for 15 years.

It’s hard to say goodbye to such a great guy and to someone who has set the standard for what to expect from media relations people. Aside from being liked by everyone who knows him and a complete media pro, TC is an excellent writer whose talents have often been overlooked because they’ve been confined to so many press releases.

In the tiny world that is college hockey, Tim Connor will be missed.

Three things from the weekend in the B1G

All six teams in the Big Ten were in action against each other this weekend. Here’s how the five contests played out:

  • Minnesota went to Michigan State and picked up a win and a tie against the Spartans.
  • Penn State swept Wisconsin on the road.
  • Michigan went for the two-point conversion after a touchdown and defeated Ohio State 8-3 in a game on Friday evening.

Here are three things I saw from this weekend:

1. Penn State leads after two weekends

Just like everyone predicted, right?

Penn State has won three of its first four conference games and is sitting atop the Big Ten standings. Granted only Michigan State has played as many conference games as Penn State. Those two teams have played one more game than Michigan and Ohio State and two more than Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The reality is that it is way too early to talk about the conference race. Another reality is that after splitting with Michigan on the road and sweeping Wisconsin at the Kohl Center, Penn State is going to be a tough opponent for any team it plays for the rest of the season.

Penn State also dashed Wisconsin’s last saving grace, its conference record being at 0-0. Throughout Wisconsin’s slow start, I kept thinking that the Badgers’ season wasn’t dead. After getting my first opportunity to watch a full game on Friday evening, it’s clear that things aren’t great in Badgerland. The mantra is “never say never,” and Wisconsin may turn things around in the second half, but Wisconsin’s faithful might have to settle for seeing the freshmen progress and some moral victories this year while look forward to next year.

2. Minnesota follows up a great performance with a very lackluster one

With the parity in college hockey this year and the Gophers’ recent results at Munn Ice Arena, a win and a tie against Michigan State should be seen as a decent result for Minnesota. The fact that the 3-3 tie on Saturday came after a dominating 5-0 victory on Friday makes this weekend’s results a little harder to swallow for Minnesota fans.

In all reality, Saturday’s game was one where Michigan State should have come away with the victory. The Spartans outshot the Gophers 45-24. However, even though Michigan State managed to stay out of the box, the Gophers were 2-for-2 on their power play opportunities.

Even though the Gophers have a great goaltender, they haven’t fared well at all this season when giving up a lot of shots. In the Gophers’ four losses to St. Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth and Northeastern, they average 37.25 shots allowed. So the 30-shot mark seems to be key in whether Minnesota picks up a win or a loss.

3. Michigan’s lights the lamp again, and again, and again

After struggling on defense during the beginning of the season, Michigan seems to have figured out that a surefire way to defeat an opponent is to score a bunch of goals. The Wolverines’ eight-goal performance on Friday against Ohio State was their third of the season.

Michigan now averages 4.07 goals per game, which is good enough for No. 2 in the nation behind Robert Morris’ 4.21 clip.

Michigan’s defense, which gives up nearly three goals per game, still scares me, however. It’s the reason the Wolverines aren’t a top-10 team, even though they have the offensive-talent to be one.

The Wolverines went 6-1 during its seven-game home stand; it outscored its opponents 65-14 during those seven games. They will go on the road on Saturday and play Boston College to wrap up the first half of their season. A win at BC isn’t as epic of a feat this season as it usually is, but a win would do wonders for Michigan’s national image and its confidence in itself.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Dec. 5-6

It’s all Big Ten conference play this weekend, just as the Universe intended. But first, here’s how Drew Claussen and I are doing with picks.

Last week
Drew: 4-6-1 (.409)
Paula: 3-7-1 (.318)

Season
Drew: 40-27-4 (.592)
Paula: 26-41-4 (.394)

At this rate, I’ll be lucky to hit .500 by the end of the season. Drew’s numbers temporarily backslid, but I have no doubt that he’ll rebound.

This week

Everyone plays.

Minnesota at Michigan State

Drew: Minnesota will look to have a strong effort after a pretty bad loss to Northeastern last weekend. The Spartans’ effort last time out wasn’t that great either; a split with Princeton isn’t anything to brag about. All four contests between the Gophers and Spartans last year were close and two resulted in ties. If this were at Mariucci, I would pick the Gophers to sweep. However, the Gophers are 1-1-2 in their last four games at Michigan State so, since they’re at Munn this weekend, I’m going to predict another tie.

Paula: I think the Spartans can steal points from the Gophers as well this weekend. Both Michigan State losses to Minnesota in 2013-2014 were by a goal and the Spartans picked up the extra point in each of the ties. This is a Friday-Saturday series, and both games are televised. Friday’s contest begins at 7:00 p.m. and is carried by Fox Sports Detroit; Saturday’s contest starts at 5:00 p.m. and is on Fox Sports North Plus.

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

Penn State at Wisconsin

Drew: Less than two years after getting their first marquee win as a program, a 3-2 overtime victory over Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions will go into the Kohl Center as a team that is favored to win. That fact really shines a spotlight on the job that Guy Gadowsky has done with this group. Wisconsin is, or course, coming off of its best weekend of the season during which the Badgers picked up a win and tie against Ferris State. A sweep this weekend would really make me believe that Penn State has a shot to stay in the top half of the Big Ten standings all season. The Nittany Lions lost to Cornell at the Frozen Apple in Madison Square Garden. The way the Badgers typically play on home ice I could see them sweeping, too.

Paula: These teams met five times last season, with Wisconsin taking all five. Four of the five games were decided by a goal (excluding one empty-netter) and two went into overtime. This is a Friday-Saturday series with games beginning at 8:00 p.m. each night. Friday’s game will be televised by ESPNews, Saturday’s by American Sports Network.

Drew’s picks: Penn State 4-2, Wisconsin 4-2.
Paula’s picks: I’m probably going to hate myself for calling a Wisconsin sweep, but I am. Badgers 3-2, 3-2.

Ohio State at Michigan

Drew: Michigan owned the Buckeyes during the regular season last year, going 3-0-1. This game wraps up a seven-game home stand for Michigan. The Wolverines have won five of those six games. Ohio State found itself on the opposite end of two blowouts last weekend, losing to Western Michigan 6-2 and beating Notre Dame 5-1. This game will come down to whether Ohio State’s goaltending or Michigan’s defense steps up. If neither does and it turns into a track meet, Michigan should have enough offense to win a high-scoring game. I’m saying Ohio State steals one.

Paula: After watching the Wolverines play Penn State two weeks ago, I’m not calling against them for a while. This single Friday game begins at 7:00 p.m. and is carried by the Big Ten Network.

Drew’s pick: Ohio State 4-1.
Paula’s pick: Michigan 4-2.

Three things from an interesting weekend for the Big Ten

1. A win for Wisconsin.

As our executive editor, Todd Milewski, pointed out at the beginning of his recap of Wisconsin’s 5-3 win over Ferris State, Saturday’s victory was the first for the Badgers in 252 days. Additionally, the 1-1 tie the night before was the first game that hadn’t resulted in a loss this season. UW’s power play — 45th in the nation (10.3 percent) — was essential in each game. Freshman Matt Ustaski’s early third-period goal Friday was scored on the power play and gave the Badgers a brief 1-0 lead; in Saturday’s game, freshman Jack Dougherty scored the game-winning goal on the power play early in the third, breaking a 3-3 deadlock.

After Saturday’s game, Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said that the Badgers had “collectively as a group tonight” shrugged a monkey of their backs. Wisconsin’s five goals Saturday equaled the total goals the Badgers had scored in three previous games. Senior Joel Rumpel made 64 saves in the two games. While every team needs to look to its upperclassmen for leadership, if the Badgers don’t get more scoring out of their freshmen and sophomores — and soon — it’ll be a long season for Wisconsin.

2. A sweep for Michigan.

Michigan continues to score goals, averaging 3.77 per game, but now the Wolverines seem to be settling down in front of their own net and playing better and more consistent team defense. With 3-2 and 6-0 wins over Rensselaer at home this past weekend, the Wolverines recorded their second sweep of the season and extended their win streak to three games. There are many players on this squad capable of scoring goals, but junior forward Boo Nieves’ two goals Saturday are an especially welcome addition to the mix. Nieves netted three goals in 34 games last season after registering eight in 40 as a freshman. He began the 2014-2015 season without a goal in eight games and he’s scored four in the past five games.

Sophomore Zach Nagelvoort made 29 saves in two games and earned his first shutout of the season Saturday, the third of his career. If Michigan’s defense solidifies and the team continues to score at will, it’ll be a fun season for Michigan.

3. A mixed bag for the Big Ten in nonconference play.

A weak third period and overall weak offensive effort led to a 3-1 Penn State loss to Cornell Saturday in Madison Square Garden. After losing to Princeton on the road Friday, the Spartans rebounded for a win and the series split Saturday. The Buckeyes were victimized, 6-2, by Western Michigan Friday before beating Notre Dame 5-1 Saturday. And after scoring three goals in the last 11 minutes of the third period in a 6-2 win over Boston College, Minnesota allowed Northeastern’s game-winning goal at 17:24 in the third period of Saturday’s 3-2 loss.

It was a good weekend of nonconference play for every team in the Big Ten to gauge what it needs to do for the remainder of the season. Several teams seem vulnerable late in the game, unable to sustain complete-game efforts. There is good goaltending in the league. Lots of guys can score. Some guys can’t buy a goal. The Big Ten went 6-4-1 for the weekend, and that may be an accurate indication of how this conference can perform when all of the play is nonconference next March and April. In its second season, the Big Ten is poised for an interesting year.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Nov. 28-29

Everyone plays this week. First, though, let’s look at how Drew Claussen and I are doing with the picks. (Hint: Drew’s doing just fine.)

Last week
Drew: 3-3-0 (.500)
Paula: 1-5-0 (.167)

Season
Drew: 36-21-3 (.625)
Paula: 23-34-3 (.408)

I correctly picked two series to split last week, Michigan State-Ohio State and Penn State-Michigan. Unfortunately, I called each team to win on the night opposite it won. Again.

This week

It’s all nonconference play this week, with the Shillelagh Tournament and a single game at Madison Square Garden thrown in for good measure. Not one of these games is televised.

Ferris State at Wisconsin

Drew: It’s hard to get a good read on this Ferris State team. The Bulldogs started the season with a convincing win over Michigan and then proceeded to lose five of their next eight. They then rebounded by destroying Alaska Anchorage in a series, outscoring the Seawolves 14-2 over two games, and then followed that up by splitting with Alabama-Huntsville last weekend. It’s been easier to decipher the Badgers so far this season. They’ve struggled. Wisconsin’s next eight games will be played at home and they will pick up a couple of wins during this home stand. I mean, they have to pick up a coupleof wins, right? I’ve picked Wisconsin before and the Badgers have yet to come through for me, but I’m going with them again.

Paula: The Bulldogs and Badgers last met Jan. 1, 2005, in the title game of the Badger Hockey Showdown, which Ferris State won, 5-3. That was FSU’s second consecutive Badger Hockey Showdown title. While I once again hesitate to call a split — for obvious reasons — that’s the way I’m going, too. Friday’s game begins at 7:00 p.m., Saturday’s at 8:00 p.m.

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

Michigan State at Princeton

Drew: The Spartans have had three chances to sweep an opponent so far this season and they’re currently 0-3 in those situations. That fact makes it very hard to pick Michigan State to sweep on the road this weekend, even if Princeton has a 1-6-1 record and has dropped its last five contests. I would describe MSU as having scoring woes so far this season, but Princeton’s situation is far worse. The Tigers are dead last in the nation in scoring, averaging only one goal per game. That’s more than a goal less than what the Spartans have averaged. One of these teams will break out offensively this weekend and I bet it will be Michigan State.

Paula: This is Michigan State’s first trip to Princeton; the Spartans swept the Tigers last season in East Lansing, 4-1 and 8-1. The Spartans’ scoring woes are really rooted in scoring inconsistency. They are certainly capable of finding the net. This is a Friday-Saturday series with games beginning at 7:00 p.m. each night.

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

Minnesota at Boston College and Northeastern

Drew: Boston College isn’t having a typical Boston-College-like season but, like both of us said when the Eagles played Michigan State, there’s never a good time to face BC. The Eagles have won their last three games after dropping four games in a row for the first time in a decade. It’ll be interesting to see how the Gophers respond after getting swept by Minnesota-Duluth last time out. Minnesota did drop an exhibition game to the U.S. Under-18 Team last Friday, but I don’t see anything to worry about there due to the fact that Nick Lehr was in net and the U-18 team is pretty good this year. Minnesota is 2-0-1 against Boston College in the three contests the two teams have played over the last two seasons. All three games have been at Mariucci Arena. Of course, the Eagles beat the Gophers 6-1 in at the Frozen Four in 2012 on the way to their fifth national title. Northeastern has won two of its last three games, which improved the Huskies’ record to 2-9-1. Not much to say about that game; home ice could help the Huskies steal one but I expect Minnesota to win.

Paula: This is the worst kind of dilemma. In nonconference games, I rarely pick against the Gophers and I never pick against the Eagles. Minnesota is 16-12-3 all-time against the Eagles, 8-5-0 all-time against the Huskies. Friday’s game against BC begins at 6:00 p.m.; Saturday game against Northeastern begins at 7:00 p.m.

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

Ohio State at Shillelagh Tournament

Drew: Friday’s match up in South Bend will put the Buckeyes against a team from the NCHC that also has had a less-than-stellar start to the season, Western Michigan. I’m glad to see they’re starting the two games in this tournament closer together than they did for the Ice Breaker. Hopefully Notre Dame fans arriving early combines with fans from both Ohio State and Western Michigan that made the drive to create a decent crowd. I liked the way the Buckeyes looked against Michigan State, even though their effort only yielded a split. There’s some tough competition in this field, so this weekend will be another good test for the Buckeyes.

Paula: The Buckeyes and Broncos are familiar foes from the CCHA, with a series that dates back to 1963. WMU holds a 65-61-13 edge all-time. The last time the teams met was Feb. 15-16, 2013, with a 1-1 tie and a 6-3 OSU win. OSU’s history with Notre Dame, another former foe from the CCHA, dates back to 1965, and OSU leads the all-time series 34-32-10. The Buckeyes and Irish last met in the last-ever CCHA Tournament semifinals (March 23, 2013), a 3-1 Notre Dame win. The Buckeyes and Dutchmen have met three times, the last a 2005 series that OSU swept. Friday’s game against the Broncos begins at 4:00 p.m., and games are at 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. on Saturday.

Drew’s picks: Ohio State defeats Western Michigan 3-2 and falls to Notre Dame 4-2.
Paula’s picks: I have no idea how to pick this. None. Not one of these teams is performing up to its potential, and no one seems to be playing consistently. OSU over WMU 3-2, then the Buckeyes fall to Union, 3-2.

Penn State at Cornell: The Frozen Apple

Drew: Before the season I told a friend that it would still be at least four or five years before Penn State would be a true contender in the Big Ten. After a dozen games, the Nittany Lions are making me look pretty dumb. Whether they stay this hot throughout the rest of the season remains to be seen. The law of averages says that they have to cool down eventually, but right now you can’t count Penn State out of any game. This game being at Madison Square Garden, while being a cool spectacle, takes away home-ice advantage from Cornell. Penn State should be eager to get a win and put last week’s loss to Michigan in the rear-view mirror.

Paula: I like this Penn State team. That’s all I’ve got.

Drew’s pick: Penn State 4-1.
Paula’s pick: Penn State 3-2.

Rensselaer at Michigan

Drew: Michigan’s struggle with consistency continued last weekend when it followed up a disappointingly-close home loss to Penn State with its best effort of the season in an 8-1 victory over the Nittany Lions. RPI won’t be a pushover this weekend; the Engineers have quality wins over Notre Dame and Union this season, but they also seem to be a team that has struggled to carry over momentum from one game to another. I’d like to see Michigan play well again this weekend. The Wolverines have the talent of a top-10 team that can challenge Minnesota in the Big Ten, but they have yet to play up consistently to that potential this season.

Paula: The Engineers have a 7-3-1 record against the Wolverines, but the teams haven’t met since the 2009 Great Lakes Invitational Tournament, a 4-3 RPI semifinal win. I like what I saw from the Wolverines last weekend … with the exception of the three-minute lapse Friday that led to Penn State’s goals.

Drew’s picks: Michigan 4-2, 3-1. (I feel like I’m picking way too many sweeps this week, considering how nonconference play has gone for the Big Ten so far.)

Paula’s picks: Michigan 3-2, 4-2. (I have no qualms picking a sweep. I have no qualms picking anything. Clearly, I have no ability to pick this season.)

Three things from the weekend that was

Happy Sunday afternoon before a shortened work week!

The first weekend of Big Ten conference play is officially in the books. Four of the league’s six teams played each other this weekend. Here’s how things shook out:

  • Ohio State and Michigan State split their Thursday/Friday series. The Spartans took the first game 3-1 and the Buckeyes responded with a 3-0 victory.
  • Michigan and Penn State split a two-game series at Yost Ice Arena. The Nittany Lions won 3-2 on Friday and the Wolverines captured an 8-1 victory on Saturday.
  • Wisconsin dropped two games in Colorado, losing 5-2 to Colorado College on Friday and 3-2 to Denver on Saturday.

Here are three things that I saw this weekend:

1. Two B1G series = Two splits. More to come?

After one weekend, four teams are tied for the lead in the Big Ten and, even though I still think Minnesota will win this conference pretty convincingly, close series throughout the conference season could be a common occurrence. This should come as no surprise, considering the conference standings weren’t set in stone until the final weekend last season. Add on the fact that Penn State looks like it will be, at the very least, a larger thorn if everybody’s side this season, and we should see more of the same this year. If the Nittany Lions keep playing at this level, we could be looking at another situation where the final weekend of conference play will determine playoff seeding. Big Ten play will resume in two weeks. All six teams will play nonconference opponents next weekend.

2. Michigan’s roller coaster ride continues

One of the splits this weekend was Michigan and Penn State at Yost Ice Arena. The Wolverines dropped the first game 3-2 and trounced the Nittany Lions 8-1 in the second game. Saturday’s game was important, even though it was only the second conference game of the season. A 0-2 start, and getting swept it their own building, would not have been good for a Wolverines team that is struggling to gain any consistency this season. Saturday’s performance was, in my opinion, the Wolverines’ best performance of the season, but they need to build on it. So far this season they haven’t been able to carry momentum from one game to another.

3. Oh Wisconsin

I also thought that Saturday’s performance against Denver was the Badgers’ best effort of the season. The fact that it resulted in a 3-2 loss really tells the story about how Wisconsin’s season has gone so far. The one-goal loss effort also came one night after giving up five goals in a three-goal loss to a subpar Colorado College team. The Badgers will play their next eight games at home. They went 17-2-1 at the Kohl Center last season, so one would think that they should be able to pick up a victory or two. However, their opponents are Ferris State, Penn State, Michigan Tech and Boston University (combined record of 32-12-3).

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Nov. 20-22

Conference play begins this week with two league series, starting with Michigan State at Ohio State tonight. Wisconsin takes on two former WCHA foes, and Minnesota plays the U.S. Under-18 Team. Drew and I pick all the games that count, officially.

Last week
Drew: 7-2-0 (.778)
Paula: 4-5-0 (.444)

Season
Drew: 33-18-3 (.639)
Paula: 22-29-3 (.435)

After picking Penn State and Lowell to split the wrong way last weekend, I am officially weeping.

Michigan State at Ohio State

Drew: I feel like these teams have had similar starts to the season, and I’m not just saying that because their records are nearly identical. Neither team has gotten off to a hot start, but at the same time neither has had a Wisconsin start. I do give Ohio State the edge due to its wins over ranked teams. After beating Providence in overtime to open the season, the Buckeyes have dropped their last five home games. I predict two low-scoring, grind-it-out and maybe even sloppy games. The difference could be which team is more opportunistic on the power play or if a goaltender stands on his head and steals the show.

Paula: The Spartans showed great tenacity in a 3-2 loss to visiting Boston College last weekend, while the Buckeyes split a pair of 3-2 games with an emergent Bowling Green team, beating the Falcons on the road and losing in Columbus. The series between Michigan State and Ohio State goes back to 1964 — it’s as old as I am — with the Spartans leading 82-30-11 all time, but the Buckeyes are 5-2-3 in the last 10 meetings. The teams met five times last year, with OSU earning a 2-0-3 edge in those contests. This is a Thursday-Friday series, with both games beginning at 7:00 p.m. Thursday’s contest is carried by Fox Sports Detroit Plus.

Drew’s picks: Ohio State 3-2, 3-1.
Paula’s picks: Ohio State 3-2, Michigan State 3-2.

Penn State at Michigan

Drew: I talked to Guy Gadowsky and Red Berenson this week for Wednesday’s column, and both coaches kind of gave me the sense that they considered themselves the underdog in this series. Penn State defeated Michigan three times last season and two of the Nittany Lions’ three conference wins have come against the Wolverines. If Penn State can keep its offense going and Michigan continues playing defense the way it did earlier this season, this could be a long weekend for the Wolverines. However, I believe that Michigan’s schedule is set up for them to go on a run during the end of November and the beginning of December. The Wolverines played two home games against American International, both of which they won, last weekend. This week they have Penn State at home, next week they have two with Rensselaer at home and the next Friday they have one game against Ohio State at home. All that leads up to a Dec. 13 road game at Boston College. This could be the situation where the confidence from those two wins against American snowballs into some momentum and leads to more victories.

Paula: I do find it amusing that Berenson considers the Wolverines underdogs in the series, especially at home — but the Nittany Lions did beat the Wolverines once on the road last season. Last weekend, Penn State split on the road with Massachusetts-Lowell, a 5-3 loss and 4-1 win, while the Wolverines not only beat American International but outscored the Yellow Jackets 11-5 in two games. Drew may be correct in his pick of a sweep, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see the Nittany Lions take one. Games begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with Friday’s game televised by Fox Sports Detroit Plus.

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

Wisconsin at Colorado College and Denver

Drew: Wisconsin meets Colorado College in a proverbial “something’s got to give” game. Yes, CC does have two more wins than the Badgers do, but those were one-goal victories over an improved but still not very good Alabama-Huntsville team. Neither team has been playing good offensively or defensively so far this season. The Badgers are tied for last in the nation in scoring, averaging 1.17 goals per game. The Tigers are second to last in the country defensively, giving up 4.78 goals per game. Colorado College’s offense averages 1.78 goals per game and Wisconsin’s defense is giving up 3.33 goals per game. Like I said, something’s got to give. The Wisconsin-CC game will definitely be the most interesting contest the Badgers play this weekend, because I think Denver will win easily on Saturday.

Paula: I’m still not willing to write off the Badgers — or anyone in the Big Ten — as easy pickings for any team, and so I am not at all certain that Denver will win handily Saturday. Last weekend, the Tigers and Pioneers played a single game against each other, with Denver winning 8-1. Friday’s game will be the 187th time that Colorado College and Denver will play; last season, Wisconsin swept Colorado College at home (Dec. 13-14, 2013), winning 4-1 and 4-3 (OT). Saturday’s contest will be the 158th meeting between the Badgers and Pioneers, and the teams last met in 2012, resulting in a 1-1 tie Nov. 30 and a 3-1 Wisconsin win Dec. 1. Friday’s game at CC begins at 7:30 p.m. and is not televised; Saturday’s game at DU begins at 7:00 p.m. and is carried by the Root Sports Rocky Mountain Network.

Drew’s picks: Wisconsin 4-1 over Colorado College, Denver 5-2 over Wisconsin.
Paula’s picks: Wisconsin 3-1, Denver 4-2.

More questions than observations about the Big Ten

It was a very interesting of hockey involving Big Ten teams. Very. Interesting. Now I have questions.

1. Has Penn State finally earned some legitimacy?

The Nittany Lions are 6-2-2 after their weekend road split with No. 4 Massachusetts-Lowell. Not only that, but Penn State scored six consecutive goals against the River Hawks, having netted the final two in the third period of Friday’s 5-3 loss, three more in the first period of Saturday’s 4-1 win, and another in the second period Saturday before Lowell scored on the power play in the third period of that contest. Averaging 3.80 goals per game, the Nittany Lions are still tied with Minnesota for second nationally in scoring. Junior Casey Bailey (8-4–12) added three more goals this weekend, including the first goal in the loss and Saturday’s game winner. And when junior Matthew Skoff was pulled midway through Friday’s game after allowing four goals, sophomore Eamon McAdam gave the league a reason to believe that the Nittany Lions have two capable goaltenders, earning allowing two goals on the weekend and earning a .953 save percentage for his two-game effort.

2. Will the Golden Gophers get swept again any time this season?

Minnesota lost to Minnesota-Duluth 3-0 and 2-1 as the Bulldogs swept the Gophers for the first time in five seasons. Additionally, the Gophers were kept off the scoreboard until freshman Leon Bristedt netted his second of the season at 11:18 of the third period of Saturday’s game, giving Minnesota its first goal since the second period of the Gophers’ 4-2 win over Notre Dame the previous Sunday. For a team averaging 3.88 goals per game coming into the weekend, that was a concern.

After Saturday’s game, Minnesota coach Don Lucia said, “You just need some goals to give yourself some momentum, and we just couldn’t get the momentum. We just need some guys to start to score some goals for us.”

The Gophers were swept once in 2013-2014, a pair of 2-1 losses to Wisconsin in Madison (Feb. 6-7).

3. Will anyone in this league split a series the way I call it this season? Just once? Please?

Both Drew Claussen and I knew that the Ohio State-Bowling Green and Nittany Lions-River Hawks series would be interesting. Drew, however, had the good sense to call the Buckeyes and Falcons to split with each winning on the road and for the River Hawks to win their Friday contest. Me? Not so much. I did know, though, that Penn State would return home with a win. Why Saturday and not Friday for the Nittany Lions? Well, that’s a little more obvious to me this morning: Penn State plays determined hockey and learns from mistakes game to game. Why did the Buckeyes and Falcons split, winning in each other’s barns? I have no idea, but it’s clear that once OSU finds some consistency in its team defense in front of two capable goaltenders, the Buckeyes will have a chance to be in every game. I think.

At least the Wolverines did what they should have done — twice beating a visiting opponent that doesn’t possess the same weapons that the Wolverines enjoy and scoring 11 goals in the process — and the Spartans did all they could against a Boston College team that was hungry for a win after four losses. This gives me a little hope for the two Big Ten teams withing driving distance of where I reside. I think I’ll see a lot of interesting hockey from the Spartans this season, in particular.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Nov. 14-15

It’s painfully obvious that Drew Claussen is the oddsmaker here.

Last week
Drew: 4-4-0 (.500)
Paula: 1-7-0 (.125)

Season
Drew: 26-16-3 (.611)
Paula: 18-24-3 (.433)

In my defense, I did pick Michigan State to split with New Hampshire, with each team winning opposite nights of the ones I predicted.

This week

There are five Big Ten teams playing this weekend, with Wisconsin out of the mix. The series between Penn State and Massachusetts-Lowell series is part of the Big Ten/Hockey East Challenge.

American International at Michigan

Drew: I’m not a fan of declaring games as “must win” unless it’s a verifiable fact that the team actually must win the game, but Michigan really needs to pick up two wins at home this weekend. American International has a 2-3-1 record and has already given up seven goals, in a losing effort, twice this season. Michigan got a weekend off to think about its 2-5-0 record, so I think it’d be fair for its fans to expect a solid effort this weekend.

Paula: These teams are meeting for the first time, although the Wolverines are familiar with other Atlantic Hockey foes; Michigan is 16-3-1 all-time against the AHA. The Yellow Jackets played a single game last weekend, a 7-1 road loss to Massachusetts Nov. 7. The Wolverines last played Michigan Tech Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, having been outscored 10-3 in those two losses. Both games in this series begin at 7:30 p.m. Neither is televised.

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

Boston College at Michigan State

Drew: I don’t know if there’s ever a good time to play Boston College, but if there is, it’s right now. The Eagles have dropped four games in a row for the first time in a decade and were defeated by Harvard 6-3 on Tuesday. Boston College is down right now, but I’m still going to pick them to win this game. For Michigan State’s sake I hope I’m wrong, but I just can’t see Boston College dropping five in a row. A serviceable performance by Brad Barone, who won’t have the distractions and nerves that surrounded his first career start, should be enough to push BC past a Michigan State team that has struggled to put the puck in the net again this season. The Eagles’ offense isn’t leaps and bounds better than the Spartans, averaging three goals per game, but I think it’ll do just enough to pick up a road win. Something tells me Paula may disagree with me.

Paula: The only point of disagreement I have is that now is definitely not the time to play the Eagles for precisely the reason that Drew gives, that BC has dropped four in a row. That’s incentive enough to come into East Lansing with more than enough fire to mean bad news for the Spartans, a point on which we do agree. Michigan State had a goodish weekend with a split against New Hampshire Nov. 7-8, and the Spartans play strong, calm, unified hockey. It’s the first visit to Munn for the Eagles since 1990, but the teams have played often enough for nonconference opponents. Michigan State is 16-7-1 all-time versus the Eagles, with the most recent game a 5-2 Boston College win Oct. 7, 2011, Tom Anastos’ first game as coach of the Spartans. In 2007, the Spartans beat the Eagles 3-1 for the national championship, and Michigan State is 8-2 all-time against BC in NCAA tournament play. This should be a good contest, and I’m glad I live close enough to East Lansing to cover it, especially since it’s not televised. This single game is tonight, Friday, and begins at 7:00 p.m.

Drew’s pick: Boston College 3-2.
Paula: Boston College 4-2.

Minnesota-Duluth vs. Minnesota

Drew: These two teams have already faced off this season, but the home-and-home nature of this series means that the Gophers and Bulldogs will actually get to play in front of something that can be accurately defined as a “crowd.” According to the box score from the Gophers’ 4-3 victory over Duluth at Compton Family Arena for the Ice Breaker Tournament in October, attendance was 2,586. From what I remember seeing, that number must have included fans, players, coaches, referees, arena workers and media. The winner and loser of that season-opening game has each gone on to successful early season starts. Minnesota owns a 7-1-0 record and is coming off of a weekend sweep of Notre Dame. Adam Wilcox said he was becoming more comfortable in net after last Friday’s game, which is something because I bet a lot of teams would love to have a goaltender that allows them to start the season 5-1 when he’s not 100 percent on his game. The Gophers may need Wilcox to step up his game this weekend with Brady Skjei and Travis Boyd out. Vinni Lettieri may also miss this weekend after taking a wicked slap shot off the helmet last Sunday. Duluth is coming off of an impressive road sweep of St. Cloud State; the Bulldogs are now 6-4-0. I expect these games to be more crisp than the one earlier this season, where the Gophers jumped out to a lead an held on. Being a home-and-home series a split seems like the logical pick.

Paula: What Drew said, plus a little history. The Friday game will be the 225th between these long-time rivals, with Minnesota holding a 134-73-17 lead in the series that began Dec. 1, 1952. The teams met three times last season, exchanging lopsided wins in Mariucci Arena, with the Gophers taking a 6-1 game Nov. 21 and the Bulldogs winning 6-2 two days later. The teams last met Jan. 25 in the North Star College Cup, a 4-4 tie; the Gophers won that cup in a shootout. The Gophers host Friday night and the Bulldogs host Saturday, with each game beginning at 7:00 p.m. Each game is televised, with Fox Sports North Plus carrying Friday’s contest and Fox Sports North and Fox College Sports televising Saturday’s game.

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

Ohio State vs. Bowling Green

Drew: It was fairly obvious that Ohio State wasn’t going to be a team that lit that lamp at a high frequency this year, so good goaltending was going to be key. So far, the Buckeyes’ netminders have been average at best. Matt Tomkins has a 2.35 GAA but has still struggled out of the gate to the tune of a 1-3-1 record. Christian Frey has a 1-2-0 record and a 4.01 GAA. The Buckeyes will need to win the special teams battle to be successful this weekend and the rest of the season. So far Ohio State has converted on 6-of-33 power-play opportunities and has given up five goals on 28 penalty-kill attempts. The Buckeyes have had a challenging nonconference schedule so far and have dropped a lot of close games, but things aren’t going to get any easier down the road.

Paula: This is an awesome in-state and former CCHA rivalry, one that was especially fierce when I began covering college hockey 20 years ago — when the Buckeyes were down and the Falcons were up, as seems to be the case now. The teams disagree on when they first met; the Buckeyes claim 1966 and the Falcons claim 1969. The Buckeyes say that the Falcons have a 94-73-9 all-time record in this series; the Falcons say it’s 90-60-8. That, my friends, is a rivalry, when even the record keepers disagree on what constitutes an official game. The Falcons beat the Buckeyes 4-3 in Bowling Green Oct. 15, 2013, and the Buckeyes beat the Falcons 5-3 in Columbus Oct. 29, 2013. The Falcons ride a three-game win streak into Friday’s contest, having taken a pair of 3-2 games from Alaska in Fairbanks Nov. 7-8. Ohio State dropped a pair of home games against Nebraska-Omaha, 4-1 and 4-3, last weekend. The Falcons host Friday’s game, which begins at 8:00 p.m. The Buckeyes host Saturday at 7:00 p.m. Neither game is televised.

Drew’s picks: Ohio State 4-2, Bowling Green 4-1.
Paula: Bowling Green 3-2, Ohio State 3-2.

Penn State at Massachusetts-Lowell

Drew: Well, it’s time to find out if Penn State is for real or not. The Nittany Lions will take their 5-1-1 record on the road and play a highly nationally-ranked team. The talent level of the teams that Penn State has been played can be called into question, but I believe that winning can also be contagious. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Penn State steal a win or a tie this weekend. That being said, Lowell has proved that it is in the conversation about the nation’s top teams. The River Hawks are 4-1-1. Their only loss was a 8-4 drubbing by Michigan.

Paula: The River Hawks are 4-0-1 in their last five contests, most recently having tied Northeastern at home Nov. 7, 3-3, before beating the Huskies the following night on the road, 5-0. The Nittany Lions take a four-game win streak into this series, having last played Oct. 30-31, a pair of 3-2 wins over Bentley. These teams first met last season in Pennsylvania, with Lowell sweeping, 4-0 and 3-2, Nov. 14-15. The River Hawks have the top offense in the nation, averaging 4.22 goals per game; the Nittany Lions are tied for second in the country with Minnesota and Robert Morris, averaging 3.88 goals per game. Friday’s contest begins at 7:15 p.m., Saturday’s at 7:00 p.m. Neither is televised.

Drew’s picks: Massachusetts-Lower 4-2, 3-3 tie.
Paula: I don’t see Penn State picking up a proverbial point this weekend, but that’s not how I’m calling it. Nittany Lions 3-2, River Hawks 3-2. If they split and do so on nights opposite what I call, I will weep.

Condolences to the Michigan hockey family

Recently, the Michigan hockey family lost two men important to the building of that program.

On Nov. 5, former player Wally Grant (Class of 1950) died at the age of 86. Grant, a winger and three-time All-American, played four years for the Wolverines, missing the 1946-1947 season for serving in the U.S. Army. Grant helped lead the Wolverines to their first national championship in 1948, and he was the first former player to endow a scholarship for Michigan hockey.

On Nov. 10, former player, coach and athletic administrator Al Renfrew (Class of 1949) died at the age of 90. Renfrew was also a member of the championship team of 1948 and he coached Michigan to its national championship in 1964, serving as a coach from 1957 to 1973. As a player, he amassed 172 points (91 goals, 81 assists). He’s the only man in Michigan hockey history to win a national championship as both a player and a coach.

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