Three maybes from the Big Ten weekend

With three weeks to go in a six-team league, maybe things are more fluid than they seemed just a few short weeks ago. With Minnesota idle and Michigan playing nonconference, Penn State couldn’t take advantage of the situation to completely close the gap with the second-place Wolverines, but the standings are a lot more interesting now:

1. Minnesota (33 points)
2. Michigan (32)
3. Penn State (29)
4. Michigan State (16)
5. Ohio State (15)
6. Wisconsin (7)

Here are three things — three maybes — that I take away from the past weekend of play.

Maybe Michigan State’s not done.

For reasons that are difficult to understand, the Spartans went through a wretched stretch from the end of November through mid-January, but things are looking up for Michigan State as of late. The Spartans swept the Badgers in Wisconsin this past weekend, winning 4-3 and 3-1, and I admit that this outcome surprises me quite a bit. Michigan State looked quite good at the start of the season, when the entire team was clicking and Jake Hildebrand looked like his All-American self in net.

But when the Spartans tanked, they tanked. This is a team with talent and chemistry, but from the net out, Michigan State seemed to forget how to defend and the Spartans had difficulty scoring. In their last eight games, all B1G contests, the Spartans are now 4-3-1, with one blowout loss to Minnesota and some tidy goaltending; in five of those games, Hildebrand and the Spartans limited opponents to two or fewer goals, and Michigan State took the extra shootout point in the tie.

In each of their road wins over Wisconsin, the Spartans had to come from behind. Hildebrand had 60 saves in the weekend. And with the sweep and Ohio State’s split against Penn State, Michigan State has surpassed the Buckeyes in the standings.

The Spartans still can’t finish higher than fourth in the final standings, but Michigan State can continue to improve and head into the Big Ten championship tournament with confidence and — maybe, maybe — with a hot goaltender.

Maybe defense doesn’t win games.

Seriously, maybe the old adage has an exception, and the exception’s name is Michigan.

I had a dandy of a time Friday night in Yost Ice Arena watching the Ferris State-Michigan game. I know we’re talking B1G hockey here, but let me say how impressed I was with Ferris State. The Wolverines may have won 5-2, but through two periods of play, it was a very, very competitive contest. In a few weeks, I’ll be covering the WCHA Final Five in Grand Rapids, and I am now looking forward to that more than ever having seen the Bulldogs play. I don’t know if FSU will be there — I suspect they will — but I’m sure that I’ll be covering some really intense WCHA hockey and I can hardly wait.

Having said that and as good as Ferris State is, the Bulldogs didn’t have a chance. As soon as that third period began, I knew we were seeing the replay of a script we’ve seen all season: Michigan exchanges goals with an opponent through two periods and simply takes the game away in the third. The Wolverines have the top offense in the country, averaging 4.79 goals per game, but in the third period, Michigan has outscored opponents 55-20 this season. The Wolverines led the Bulldogs 3-1 heading into the third, but there was no doubt in my mind that Michigan would not only outlast Ferris State but outscore them in the third as well.

When FSU coach Bob Daniels and I were talking after the game, Daniels talked about how Michigan’s speed just wears an opponent down and that the Wolverines can seemingly score at will to make up for any defensive mistakes they do make. When I brought up the idea that the Wolverines may run into a team in the NCAA tournament that exploits their defense, Daniels was skeptical. He said that beyond Michigan’s talent, the Wolverines play with a relaxed confidence and their chemistry on the ice is palpable. We talked about how defense usually wins games, but Daniels said that — with this specific Michigan team — perhaps all they need to do is keep scoring.

This is a very talented offensive team. The potency of that first line of Kyle Connor, JT Compher and Tyler Motte cannot be exaggerated. They’re wicked fast, each has great hockey sense — and Connor’s sense of the ice is uncanny — and each can score. With points each night, Connor and Compher extended their individual point-scoring streaks to 17 games, and Motte extended his goal-scoring streak to a dozen games.

And they’re not the only ones with talent that is easy to recognize. The assist that Cooper Marody made on Connor’s goal — the fifth of the game Friday for the Wolverines — was one of the prettiest plays I’ve seen this season, and I’ve seen a lot of pretty plays.

It’s important to note, too, that Michigan has improved defensively. I’ve been particularly impressed with Steve Racine in net lately.

Maybe — just maybe — all the Wolverines need to do is keep that offense going. And maybe — maybe, maybe — they’ll be playing in Tampa.

Maybe it’s a three-way race for first place.

And maybe that seems like an obvious statement, but both Minnesota and Michigan have two games in hand over the Nittany Lions. The Wolverines travel to Minneapolis for a Thursday-Friday series this week, then play Ohio State in a home-and-home stand, and then finish the season with two games against Penn State.

After they play the Wolverines, the Gophers travel to Michigan State for two and end their season at home with two against Wisconsin.

The Nittany Lions have a bye next week and then end the season on the road, with a series against Wisconsin before heading to Ann Arbor.

Maybe Penn State can contend for first place. Maybe Michigan will overtake Minnesota. But maybe — just maybe — Minnesota will earn its third consecutive regular-season championship.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Feb. 19-20

Minnesota leads the league with 33 points, but the Gophers are off this week. Michigan trails Minnesota by a point, but the Wolverines play a single nonconference game this week. That makes for an interesting weekend for our six-team league. First, though, Drew Claussen and I share our picks percentages, which were a wee bit better at the start of the calendar year.

Last week
Drew: 3-1-2 (.250)
Paula: 2-2-2 (.500)

Drew: 68-43-17 (.598)
Paula: 70-41-17 (.613)

This week

With Minnesota and Michigan out of the conference picture this week, Penn State has the chance to catch the second-place Wolverines with a sweep, and the two teams at the bottom of the league — Michigan State with 10 points and Wisconsin with seven — will be jockeying for postseason position. A very interesting weekend, indeed.

Michigan State at Wisconsin

Drew: The two teams at the bottom of the standings will face off this weekend in Madison. Getting four or more points this weekend will lift the Badgers out of last place, a position that they have frequently been in lately. Wisconsin has shown signs of having a decently potent offense this season, so MSU will need Jake Hildebrand to be strong this weekend. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict a Badgers sweep for the first time this season.

Paula: For two years now, the Badgers have practically anchored the Big Ten, so this weekend must feel like a real opportunity to Wisconsin. The Spartans, though, have been playing better in the last four weeks or so, with the exception of their 6-1 loss to Penn State last Friday, a loss from which they rebounded with a 2-2 tie. Each of these teams lost and tied last weekend, with Wisconsin losing to Michigan 4-1 Feb. 12 before a 4-4 Saturday tie. The Spartans and Badgers split a pair of games in East Lansing in December, with Michigan State winning 4-3 in the first game and Wisconsin taking the rematch 3-0. The Badgers have scored four or more goals in three of their last four games. Jake Hildebrand has allowed two goals in four of his last six games. I think the Spartans will struggle on the big ice sheet, but I do think these will be good contests. Games begin at 8:00 p.m. each night, and Friday’s game is televised by the Big Ten.

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

Ohio State at Penn State

Drew: This series is the middle of a three-week stretch where Penn State needs to pick up some points in order to have a shot at capturing the regular-season title and/or a first-round bye. The Nittany Lions took five of six conference points on the road last weekend at Michigan State; they probably wanted all six but getting five on the road isn’t anything to scoff at. Ohio State dropped a couple more one-goal games to Minnesota last weekend at home. The Buckeyes have consistently shown that they can play with anyone this year, but struggle mightily at sealing the deal.

Paula: This is the last home weekend for Penn State’s seniors, and for that reason alone I see the Nittany Lions picking up at least five points against an Ohio State team that is tougher than most people realize. This is PSU’s first graduating class; I can’t imagine the adrenaline in that locker room this weekend. These teams also split a series this season, less than a month ago in Columbus. The Nittany Lions won in overtime Jan. 22, 3-2, and the Buckeyes won the following night, 5-1. Ohio State certainly has the potential to pick up points this weekend, but I’m not sure it’s up to the Buckeyes. Friday’s game begins at 6:30 and is the early game on BTN. Saturday’s game starts at 3:00 p.m. and is carried by ESPNU.

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

Ferris State at Michigan

Drew: The Bulldogs will come into Ann Arbor on a little bit of a roll, going 6-2-2 in their last 10 games. That being said, I can’t pick against Michigan and the way the Wolverines are scoring. Anything can happen, but I think Michigan will put on a show for its home fans after playing its last six contests on the road.

Paula: This game is a belated Valentine to me. Every reporter has a soft spot in his or her heart for certain teams and programs, and it’s no secret that Ferris State is one of the former CCHA teams that makes me smile. Back in the CCHA days, I always admired the way that Bob Daniels and his coaches competed — and often succeeded — against the Big Ten schools in the league. The Bulldogs and Wolverines are no strangers; Michigan leads this all-time series 68-30-7, but Ferris State took the last meeting, a 4-3 win in Big Rapids Oct. 4, 2014. The teams tied 2-2 the last time they met in Ann Arbor (Dec. 11, 2013). Tonight’s 7:30 p.m. start is, sadly, untelevised.

Drew’s pick: Michigan 5-2.
Paula’s pick: Michigan 4-2.

Minnesota is alone in first after a sweep, but Michigan and Penn State kept pace

All six Big Ten teams were in action against each other this weekend, with the three teams at the top of the standings traveling to face off against the three at the bottom. The road warriors, for the most part, prevailed against the bottom three.

Here’s how things played out:

  • Minnesota swept Ohio State
  • Michigan picked up a win and a tie with a shootout victory at Wisconsin
  • Penn State beat Michigan State on Friday and also settled for a tie and shootout win on Saturday

1. Gophers find a way to win two close ones

The point that allows Minnesota to be alone in first place after this weekend was earned because the Gophers found a way to win their game in overtime on Friday and Michigan couldn’t do the same on Saturday.

After Ohio State managed to tie the game late in the third period for what seems like the 10th time this season, Minnesota captain Justin Kloos scored the game winner three and a half minutes into the overtime period. Friday’s game was the third straight time that Minnesota downed the Buckeyes in overtime. Minnesota completed the sweep on Saturday with a 4-3 win.

You have to at least feel a little bad for Ohio State, losing four one-goal games to the same team in one season. It’ll be an interesting storyline if the Gophers and Buckeyes happen to meet one more time at the Big Ten Tournament. I don’t think the Gophers would be excited to see them for a fifth time.

2. Michigan and Penn State keep pace

Neither team managed to sweep after picking up win on Friday, but both Michigan and Penn State were able to keep pace with the Gophers by taking five of six conference points from their opponents.

Michigan’s tie was the worse of the two, as the Badgers were able to tie the game with less than 30 seconds left in the third period. Penn State trailed Michigan State 2-1 after two periods on Saturday before Luke Juha scored a power play goal with a little more than five minutes remaining in the game.

Both teams won the shootout by a score of 1-0, which could turn out to be an important point when we get to the end of the season. Even though I still hate to see two teams that played 65 minutes of even hockey end up getting different points from the game based on a skills competition.

3. The Big Ten has a clear top and bottom

This year the six teams are split right down the middle. Minnesota leads the pack with 33 points and Michigan is right behind the Gophers with 32. Penn State has 26 points and then there is a big drop off to Ohio State’s 12 points. Michigan State and Wisconsin bring up the rear with 10 and seven points respectively.

The top two teams will get a first-round by at the postseason tournament. Penn State will have to go on a nice run to challenge for one of those spots, and the Nittany Lions still might need Michigan or Minnesota to stumble back to them. With all six teams making the tournament and the bottom three being so close together, it’ll be interesting to see who will play who after the regular season concludes.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Feb. 12-13

Happy Valentine’s Day! Last week, Drew Claussen and I were both bitten by the wrong-way split.

Last week
Drew: 1-3-0 (.250)
Paula: 1-3-0 (.250)

Drew: 65-42-15 (.594)
Paula: 68-39-15 (.619)

This week

Everyone plays and everyone plays on Friday and Saturday.

Michigan at Wisconsin

Drew: I think that Michigan has the best chance of the top three teams to pick up a road sweep this weekend, even though I’m picking Penn State to do the same. The Wolverines have been playing well as of late, although they did drop an overtime game to Michigan State last weekend. Michigan should also be motivated this weekend after giving up 10 goals when these two teams met at Yost in early December. The Wolverines only managed to pick up four of six points that weekend and will look for a better result this time around. Wisconsin took a weekend off after sweeping Alaska at the end of January and is looking for its second conference victory of the season.

Paula: That 3-2 overtime loss for Michigan in Joe Louis Arena was one of the best games I’ve seen this season — and that was because Michigan was forced to play against a team with a tight defense and good goaltending, at least for one night. I don’t anticipate that Wisconsin’s defense will perform to the level of Michigan State’s in that single game. It is entirely possible that Wisconsin can take points this weekend, but if they do, I think it will come in the form of a tie. The Badgers are winless in the last nine meetings between the teams. Both games begin at 7:00 p.m. and both are televised by the Wisconsin Channel.

Drew’s picks: Michigan 6-4, 7-2.
Paula’s picks: 5-2, 4-2.

Minnesota at Ohio State

Drew: Ohio State is 3-3-2 in 2016 after its impressive victories over Boston College and Cornell to close out 2015. While that may not seem like an overly-impressive stretch of hockey, it’s not bad considering the way the Buckeyes started out. OSU will look to avenge its two overtime losses at Mariucci Arena in early December. Minnesota was able to somewhat stabilize itself after an abysmal showing at the North Star College Cup by splitting with Penn State at home last weekend. I see the Gophers picking up a close win on Friday and Ohio State returning the favor on Saturday.

Paula: I see a split as well. Last weekend while Minnesota was splitting a pair with Penn State, the Buckeyes were resting, having themselves last split a pair of games against Michigan State (Jan. 29-30). Minnesota is 21-3-1 all-time against Ohio State, including a 4-1-1 record in Columbus. The Gophers won two overtime home games against the Buckeyes in early December. Friday’s game begins at 6:30 p.m. and is carried by the Big Ten Network. Saturday’s game begins at 7:00 p.m. and is untelevised.

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

Penn State at Michigan State

Drew: Michigan State played well last weekend against Michigan, but that doesn’t mean much if the Spartans are able to carry momentum from one weekend to the next. Penn State ended its four-game losing streak by beating Minnesota last weekend and could use a couple more wins this weekend to at least keep pace in the race for the top spot in the conference. Getting swept by Michigan a couple weekends ago didn’t help the Nittany Lions’ cause, but they have a good opportunity over the next three weekends to pick up some points and get another crack at the Wolverines to close out the regular season.

Paula: The Spartans are 6-4-2 all-time against the Nittany Lions, but Penn State swept Michigan State earlier this season (Dec. 4-5). Michigan State senior goaltender Jake Hildebrand has kept opponents to two or fewer goals in his last five games. Games each night begin at 7:00 p.m. and — sadly — neither is televised.

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

Hardware, streaks and standings — oh my!

It was an interesting weekend in Big Ten hockey for many reasons, not the least of which is that there’s still a deadlock for first place Monday morning.

1. The Spartans capture the Iron D.

To be frank, the outcome of Friday’s game between Michigan State and Michigan in Joe Louis Arena is one of the most surprising things to have happened this season. It wasn’t that the Wolverines lost, nor even that the Spartans were the ones to beat them; the most surprising thing was Michigan State playing the kind of hockey it did early in the season, like a unified team in front of solid goaltending, a poised team that expected to win. That made for an amazing end-to-end game between two fierce rivals. That the Spartans came back late in the third was another surprise — and one that the Wolverines should learn from if they plan to return to the NCAA tournament and advance beyond a game.

Kudos to Michigan State forward senior Matt DeBlouw, whose goal at 3:29 in overtime gave the Spartans the the 3-2 win, and kudos to DeBlouw for scoring the game-winner against the Wolverines in Joe Louis Arena for the second consecutive year. It was nice to see Michigan State senior goaltender Jake Hildebrand look as though he’d returned to fine form, with 40 saves in the game.

2. Tyler Motte keeps scoring.

There’s no question that Michigan’s top line of Kyle Connor, JT Compher and Tyler Motte is the most prolific right now in college hockey. Motte had both goals in Michigan’s loss Friday and another Saturday in UM’s 4-1 win over the Spartans in East Lansing, extending Motte’s goal-scoring streak to nine games. Motte has 25 goals in 25 games this season, with 14 of them coming during this current streak. Motte, a junior, had nine goals in each of his two previous seasons (18 goals in 69 games) and he now leads the nation in goal-scoring. Connor, a freshman, leads the nation in scoring, period (20-24–44) and Compher (10-28–38) is sixth in the nation in scoring and third in assists.

3. No one gains any real ground.

Minnesota beat Penn State Friday, 4-1, doing pretty much the same thing the Spartans did — playing unified hockey with good defense. That gave the Gophers one day alone at the top of the Big Ten standings, because the Nittany Lions won 5-3 the following night and the Wolverines beat the Spartans. That makes the top of the standings and third place a complete wash. Only the Spartans improved their lot a very little, creeping to within three points of Ohio State. But the Buckeyes with their 12 points have two games in hand on the Spartans with their nine, and the last-place Badgers have six points and also have two games in hand over Michigan State.

One powerful lesson that should be taken from this weekend for two especially high-scoring teams is that all of that offense is relatively useless against a really, really solid defense. Seriously, if either the Wolverines or Nittany Lions could completely solidify their blue lines, they would be pretty close to unstoppable.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Feb. 5-6

There are two B1G series this week. First, how Drew Claussen and I are doing with the picks:

Last week
Drew: 4-4-0 (.500)
Paula: 2-6-0 (.250)

Drew: 64-39-15 (.606)
Paula: 67-36-15 (.631)

This week

The Wolverines and Spartans face off and Penn State travels to Minnesota.

Michigan vs. Michigan State

Drew: Congratulations to Michigan State on ending its long winless streak last weekend, but I can’t pick the Spartans to win a game this weekend. Michigan’s offense is clicking at an unreal pace right now, especially its first line. The Wolverines may run into some trouble if they meet a strong defensive team later this season, but that won’t be this weekend. Michigan sweep.

Paula: Michigan and Michigan State will play for the hardware in Joe Louis Arena Friday night, and while I love the concept, I really wish I liked the trophy itself more. No matter. What counts are the points, and the Wolverines have a chance to break their first-place deadlock with Minnesota in this two-game set. Last weekend, the Spartans split on the road with Ohio State, winning 4-2 Friday and losing 2-1 Saturday, but with six points, Michigan State is still tied with Wisconsin for last place in the Big Ten. Michigan swept Penn State last weekend, a 7-4 win Thursday in Pegula Arena and 6-3 win in Madison Square Garden Saturday. Drew is right about Michigan’s offense, which leads the nation with an average of five goals per game and that line of Kyle Connor, JT Compher and Tyler Motte is the most prolific in the country, with 51 goals among them. Friday’s game is the 54th meeting between the teams in JLA — but I don’t think that past records matter much this weekend. Friday’s 7:30 p.m. start is on Fox Sports Detroit. Saturday’s rematch in Munn Ice Arena begins at 5:00 p.m. and is carried by the Big Ten Network.

Drew’s picks: Michigan 4-2, 6-1.
Paula’s picks: Michigan 5-2, 5-2.

Penn State at Minnesota

Drew: This series features two teams looking to put last weekend in the rear-view mirror. Paula got a chance to see the Nittany Lions play so she would have a better insight on them, but the Gophers looked bad at the North Star Cup. Minnesota’s play was uninspired and the Gophers flat-out struggled to score at even strength. I could see Penn State picking up a sweep this weekend, but I think Eric Shierhorn steals a game for Minnesota.

Paula: The Nittany Lions looked good in their 6-3 loss to Michigan Saturday — as good as anyone can look until the Wolverines’ overwhelming third period takes control of a game, that is. Minnesota lost 4-2 to Bemidji State and 3-2 to Minnesota State and coach Don Lucia said it all when he said that the Gophers don’t win when they only manage two goals in a game. These teams split in State College earlier this season, with the Nittany Lions taking the first game 3-2 in overtime (Jan. 8) and the Gophers winning 7-1 the following night. Penn State enters this series with a three-game losing streak, but it was only in the first of those games that the Nittany Lions were held to a single goal; PSU scored seven in two losses against the Wolverines. Friday’s game begins at 7:00 p.m. and is televised by the Big Ten Network. Saturday’s game begins at 4:00 p.m. and is carried by Fox Sports North.

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

Questions about the B1G?

Dear faithful readers,

I have an interview for next week’s column scheduled with Brad Traviolia, Deputy Commissioner for the Big Ten Conference, tomorrow afternoon. If you’d be so kind to post any questions that you have about Big Ten hockey or college hockey as a whole in the comments section and I’ll try to ask as many as time allows for.


Michigan rolls, Wisconsin revers and Minnesota falters

Greetings from the Xcel Energy Center press box, where Minnesota State just completed a 3-2 victory over Minnesota (more on the Gophers later). Here’s how the B1G teams did this weekend:

  • Michigan swept Penn State in a Thursday-Saturday series
  • Wisconsin swept Alaska-Fairbanks at home
  • Ohio State and Michigan State split their series in Columbus
  • Minnesota dropped both of its games at the North Star College Cup in St. Paul. Bemidji State beat the Gophers 4-2 on Saturday and Minnesota State defeated them 3-2 on Sunday.

Here are my three thoughts from the weekend:

1. Michigan’s “CCM line” is legit

The Wolverines’ top line of JT Compher, Kyle Connor and Tyler Motte had another great weekend. The trio combined for four goals and seven assists during Thursday’s game and had three goals and two assists at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

Compher scored twice, the second being a late empty-netter, during Michigan’s four-goal third period on Saturday and helped complete the comeback from down 3-2 after two periods.

Side note; Senior Justin Selman scored the game-winning goal on Saturday. Here’s a quote Red Berenson gave me about Selman when I talked to him last week that I didn’t put in the column:

“It’s been a process for Justin. He came in with high credentials and had trouble living up to them — with injuries — but we saw the good things, we just couldn’t keep him healthy or keep him confident or keep him playing well for a period of time. His second year was worse and it looked like he was falling off of his game, but it came around last year. He ended up on a line with Zach Hyman and Dylan Larkin, and you know where Dylan Larkin is now. He really started to show what we though he could show when we recruited him, so good for him. The last half of the year last year was a really strong finish for Justin and now he’s off to a good start. He’s got a good role on our power play and penalty killing and a top line, so I’d say he’s becoming the player that we thought he would be.”

2. Wisconsin had a nice bounce-back weekend

The Badgers, who got thoroughly embarrassed by Minnesota last weekend, rebounded with two nice wins over Alaska this weekend. Now, Alaska isn’t one of the elite teams but a sweep of any team is an impressive feat for the Badgers right now.

The Badgers won a defensive-minded game 4-3 on Friday where they only gave up 23 shots on goal and came back on Saturday with a four-goal third period to win 5-2.

The sweep doesn’t really change my opinion of the Badgers, I still think they’ll fight with Michigan State for the No. 6 spot in the conference, but their scoring and goaltending is good enough to be a thorn in the side of the top three down the stretch. However, consistency is still Wisconsin’s main enemy.

3. Minnesota had another rough weekend at the North Star College Cup

After rattling off five wins in a row the Gophers came into the North Star College Cup on a little bit of a roll. Said roll is now over after losses to Bemidji State and Minnesota State. The Gophers have now dropped their last four games at the tournament after winning the cup in a shootout its inaugural year.

Minnesota simple struggles to score at times. They looked awful during five-on-five play this weekend and the Gophers’ losses would have been worse if the power play didn’t connect as often as it did.

The team doesn’t have to look far for some motivation, however. Last year’s team was in a much worse spot heading into the North Star Cup and went on a run to win the Big Ten regular-season and postseason crown after its two losses in St. Paul.


Pickin’ the Big Ten: Jan. 28-31

It’s hard to believe there are only seven weeks left in the regular season, but here we are at the end of January and Jayson Moy has Bracketology if you want to speculate about what happens come late March. First, though, how Drew Claussen and I are doing with our picks:

Last week
Drew: 3-1-0 (.750)
Paula: 3-1-0 (.750)

Drew: 60-35-15 (.614)
Paula: 65-30-15 (.659)

This week

There are two Big Ten series this week — including a game in the Big Apple — one nonconference series and the North Star College Cup.

Michigan vs. Penn State

Drew: Both of these teams have been playing pretty good hockey so far in 2016, so this series should be an interesting one. I see Penn State having an advantage for its home game on Thursday and Saturday’s game in NYC should be more of a toss up. I predict a split, which will clump the Gophers, Wolverines and Nittany Lions closer together near the top of the conference standings.

Paula: The Wolverines bring a six-game unbeaten streak (5-0-1) into this series, which has the teams meeting in Pegula Arena Thursday night and Madison Square Garden Saturday. Last week, Michigan defeated the U.S. Under-18 team 5-2 (Jan. 21) in exhibition play. Penn State split a road series with Ohio State last weekend, a 3-2 overtime win Friday and a 5-1 loss Saturday. The Nittany Lions are 6-3-0 all-time against the Wolverines, including a 3-1-0 record at home and a 1-0-0 record at neutral sites. Michigan’s Cutler Martin will miss this entire series because of actions during a fight at the end of UM’s 8-6 win over Ohio State Jan. 17, and his teammate, Dexter Dancs, will miss Thursday’s game for the same reason. Both games begin at 7:00 p.m. Thursday’s is untelevised but the Big Ten Network is carrying Saturday’s game as part of Super Saturday, which also features a Michigan-Penn State men’s basketball game earlier in the day in MSG. Isn’t it great that hockey is the prime time event?

Drew’s picks: Penn State 5-3, Michigan 6-3.
Paula’s picks: Penn State 5-4, Michigan 5-4.

Michigan State at Ohio State

Drew: This is the perfect opportunity for Ohio State to keep the momentum from its last win over Penn State going. I wouldn’t be surprised if Michigan State snapped its losing streak this weekend, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Buckeyes extended it two more games. The Spartans have been down in the dumps since early December and needed overtime to win an exhibition game last weekend. I’m picking Ohio State to sweep at home.

Paula: I couldn’t agree more. The Buckeyes are playing well, but their last game was a home loss to Penn State. The Spartans are not playing especially well, but their last game was a home exhibition win over the U.S. Under-18 team. Michigan State was 3-1-0 against Ohio State last season, including a split in the Schottenstein Center. Ohio State’s Josh Healey will sit out this series because of a two-game suspension he’s serving following his contact-to-the-head penalty early in the third period of last Saturday’s loss to Penn State. Friday’s game begins at 6:30 p.m. and is carried by the Big Ten Network. Saturday’s game starts at 7:00 p.m. and is untelevised.

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

Alaska at Wisconsin

Drew: Both of these teams have some quality wins this season, but both have also struggled to string wins together. That fact is going to lead to me picking a split. The only question is which way is it going to go? There’s a 90 percent chance I pick that wrong.

Paula: The Nanooks are 2-3-1 in January, having split last weekend with Northern Michigan, a 3-2 overtime win and 5-3 loss. This series against Wisconsin marks the third of three road series for the Nanooks. Wisconsin is winless in the new year (0-5-1) and the Badgers got thumped by Minnesota at home last weekend, 4-0 and 9-2. These teams last met in the Kendall Hockey Classic Oct. 10, 2014, a 1-0 win for Alaska. Wisconsin will be without Aidan Cavallini for Friday’s game and Eddie Wittchow for the series plus an additional game. Each was suspended for separate incidents in last Saturday’s game against Minnesota. This is a Friday-Saturday series, with both games beginning at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday’s game carried by The Wisconsin Channel. Drew has more faith in the tenacious Badgers this weekend than I do.

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

Minnesota vs. Bemidji State and St. Cloud State or Minnesota State

Drew: This should be a fun tournament, with three of the four teams in the field being conference leaders. The one team that isn’t leading its conference, Bemidji State, is the defending tournament champion. It’ll be important for Minnesota not to look past Bemidji State to a possible rematch with St. Cloud State because the Beavers could definitely take down the Gophers. I’m pretty sure I’ve predicted the North Star Cup horribly wrong in both previous years, so take this one with a grain of salt.

Paula: This is a great field. Last weekend, Bemidji State played two overtime games against Ferris State, a 3-2 loss and 1-1 tie. The Beavers are 5-2-1 to open 2016. Minnesota State swept Lake Superior State at home last weekend, 8-0 and 5-1, and St. Cloud beat Western Michigan 8-2 and 7-3. Between the Gophers, the Mavericks and the Huskies, there is potential for a lot of scoring in this tournament. The Gophers play the Beavers at 4:00 p.m. Friday and then either the Mavericks or Huskies at either 1:00 p.m. or 4:00 p.m. Saturday. Either way, whenever the games, Fox Sports North is covering them.

Drew’s picks: Minnesota over Bemidji State 4-1 and St. Cloud State over Minnesota State 4-3. MSU over BSU 5-2 and SCSU over Minnesota 4-3 for the championship.
Paula’s picks: It defies logic, but I’m picking the Gophers in both games, no matter who they play Saturday. Minnesota 5-2, 5-4.

The Gophers roll, the Buckeyes rebound and the Spartans get a win that doesn’t count

Both of the Big Ten’s Michigan teams played the U.S. Under-18 squad in exhibition this week, giving everyone else a chance to climb the standings. One team did exactly that.

1. The Gophers rolled over the Badgers.

For the second week in a row, Wisconsin failed to take a single point from an opponent in a two-game set, which is especially bad news for the Badgers now that Big Ten play is underway. Minnesota, though, took advantage of a struggling opponent and earned six points in the process, surging ahead of the idle Wolverines with whom they were tied for first place entering the weekend. Minnesota has 24 points to Michigan’s 18, although the Wolverines have two games in hand on the Gophers.

Not only did Minnesota beat Wisconsin in two games, but the Gophers outscored the Badgers 13-2 in the series, shutting out Wisconsin 4-0 the first night. In Friday’s win, freshman Eric Schierhorn’s made 29 saves in his third shutout of the season. Nine different Gophers accounted for the 13 goals in two games, and junior defenseman Michael Brodzinski registered his first career hat trick in Saturday’s contest. Brodzinski has eight goals in 23 games this season, two short of his offensive production in 62 games in his first two seasons.

With the wins, the Gophers extend their win streak to five games, and Minnesota is showing signs of coming together as a team at the perfect time of the season. The Badgers’ winless streak is now six games (0-5-1).

2. The Buckeyes will not be ignored.

Ohio State began the second half by capturing the Florida College Classic title just before the new year began and used those wins to propel them to a five-game unbeaten streak (3-0-2), but an 8-6 loss to Michigan Jan. 17 snapped that, and the Buckeyes fell in overtime to the Nittany Lions on Friday night, 3-2.

Saturday was another story, entirely. Senior captain Craig Dalrymple scored at 3:30 in the first period and Ohio State went on to a 5-1 win over Penn State, with five different Buckeyes scoring in the contest. In fact, the Buckeyes — like the Gophers — like to spread that scoring around; six different Buckeyes accounted for the seven total goals that OSU scored in the weekend, and with that offensive output, the Buckeyes improve to an average of 3.32 goals per game (14th nationally). Of course, they’re still allowing 3.18 goals per game and are among the bottom third of teams on defense nationally, but so are four of the six B1G teams, so that may not be a factor in conference play down the stretch.

In the second half, the Buckeyes have impressed me as a highly skilled and fast team. Against Penn State, OSU may have proven that it is a team to contend with in conference play.

3. The Spartans win. Finally. Sort of.

Heading into this weekend’s road series against Ohio State, Michigan State has lost eight consecutive games — at least on the record. Saturday night, the Spartans held off the U.S. Under-18 team in overtime, 3-2, and even though the win doesn’t count, the reward for effort must feel like the proverbial shot in the arm that Michigan State has needed.

“It was nice to find a way to win,” is what coach Tom Anastos said after the game. “It was a good game and given how it ended, it was something we needed.”

Sophomore Ed Minney had 36 saves in the game, and junior Thomas Ebbing had the game-winner on the power play at 3:09 in OT.

How tough a season has it been for the Spartans? Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told the Lansing State Journal last week that he’s “spending hours watching over programs that need some recalibration, and hockey is one of those.” Hollis said, “I think we need to continue the dialogue to save the sport of college hockey the best that we can in the future.”

When an AD goes on the record to discuss concerns about a given program, that program is struggling, indeed.

Maybe the win over the Developmental Program team can help the Spartans earn a win that counts. Michigan State has one win in its last 16 games.

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