Pickin’ the Big Ten: Feb. 26-28

Big Ten play begins tonight, but first a look at how Drew Claussen and I are doing with the picks.

Last week
Drew: 2-4-0 (.333)
Paula: 4-2-0 (.666)

Drew: 69-57-10 (.544)
Paula: 61-64-11 (.489)

This week

There are three weekends left in regular-season Big Ten play, and there are three conference series each weekend. This weekend begins with Michigan State at Minnesota, a Thursday-Friday series. On Friday and Saturday, Penn State plays at Ohio State and Wisconsin plays at Michigan.

Michigan State at Minnesota

Drew: The Spartans hit a speed bump last weekend when they split a series with Wisconsin and they’ll have a tough road test this weekend. It’ll be interesting to see what 8:00 p.m. starts each night do to the attendance numbers for this series, especially on Thursday. I haven’t met a media member that enjoys late starts and the fan reaction I’ve seen is basically split down the middle. I’m hesitant to pick Minnesota to sweep this weekend, even with its 11-2-1 record at Mariucci. The Spartans play the kind of trap-style defense that has frustrated this Minnesota team multiple times this season. Would I be shocked if the Gophers did sweep? Absolutely not. The Gophers did destroy the Spartans 5-0 earlier this season in East Lansing before tying the second game. However, I think both of these games are going to be close and I wouldn’t be surprised if one or both are one-goal games that either go into or flirt with overtime.

Paula: You know I’m big on Michigan State’s defense, but I am also hesitant to call anything but a Minnesota sweep. The Golden Gophers’ offense has been down a bit lately, registering seven goals in their last three contests after a five-game stretch in which they netted at least four a game. The Spartans have shut out opponents three times in their last seven contests. As Drew said, both games begin at 8:00 p.m. Both games are on the Big Ten Network, too.

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

Penn State at Ohio State

Drew: Penn State really impressed me last weekend. After losing a tough one-goal game on Friday night, a lot of teams would not have responded against Minnesota the way the Nittany Lions did on Saturday. Yes, Minnesota and its fans will point to a soft penalty call that led to Penn State’s overtime goal on Saturday, but the Nittany Lions got the result that they deserved. Ohio State will look to play the spoiler role, as it did last weekend against Michigan. This series being played at Ohio State makes me hesitant to pick Penn State to sweep, but that’s the result I’m going with.

Paula: These teams split a pair of games in Pegula Arena earlier this season, a 5-4 overtime OSU win with Penn State picking up the rematch 4-1 the next night (Jan. 9-10). Ohio State is 4-3-0 all-time versus Penn State, and last year the Buckeyes swept the Nittany Lions quite decisively in Columbus. Don’t ask me why I’m calling a game for Ohio State. I will say that they looked better in that win against Michigan than they have for most of the season. Friday’s game begins at 6:30 p.m. and is the early game on the Big Ten Network; Saturday’s game starts at 7:00 p.m. and is carried by American Sports Network.

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

Wisconsin at Michigan

Drew: Picking games that involve the Badgers has become slightly more difficult after the calendar turned to 2015. Wisconsin is playing .500 hockey in its last four games. After the start of the season, I would define that as success for the Badgers. Michigan is coming off of a disappointing split with Ohio State last weekend. The only thing I can really say about that series is that Michigan needs to sweep. With Penn State and Michigan State left on its schedule, the Wolverines can’t drop points to Wisconsin and expect to finish first in the conference.

Paula: Michigan swept Wisconsin on the road, 7-4 and 6-0, Jan. 23-24, and last year in Yost Ice Arena, the Wolverines took five of six points from the Badgers with a 3-1 win and 2-2 tie and extra shootout point (Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 2014). I like that the Badgers have learned how to win a few since the start of the calendar year, rather than creating new ways to lose. The Wolverines need to play consistent team defense, and it won’t help that they’ll be without sophomore Michael Downing Friday night, as he serves a one-game suspension following his third game misconduct on a hit against Ohio State’s Christian Lampasso last Sunday. Friday’s game begins at 7:30 p.m. and is televised by Fox Sports Detroit Plus and Fox Sports West. Saturday’s afternoon contest is the early Big Ten Network game, and it begins at 4:00 p.m.

Drew’s picks: Michigan 4-1, 6-2.
Paula’s picks: Michigan 3-2, 4-2.

Three things from the split-filled weekend in the B1G

Greetings from the frozen tundra of Southern Minnesota. It was a perfect weekend to stay inside and watch some college hockey. All six Big Ten teams were in action against each other and the weekend produced some competitive games.

Here’s how things panned out:

  • Minnesota and Penn Split a series in Happy Valley
  • Michigan State and Wisconsin split a series at the Kohl Center
  • Michigan and Ohio State split a home-and-home, Friday/Sunday series
  • Note: None of the games went to a shootout, so each team picked up three conference points this weekend

Without further ado, here are my three thoughts from the weekend:

1. Right back where we started

With Minnesota being the only team near the top of the standings to pick up a win on Friday night, this weekend started out with the potential for the Gophers to pull away from the rest of the pack. However, the Gophers losing the Penn State in overtime on Saturday and Michigan and Michigan State rebounding to get series splits means we still have a tie for first and second in the conference standings.

The Gophers picked up a 2-1 victory at Penn State on Friday, but the Gophers struggled during Saturday’s game, despite controlling for a large portion of it. Penn State was very opportunistic on Saturday. Scott Conway scored two highlight-reel goals (both included in this video), which were the second and third scores of the game for the Nittany Lions. Eric Scheid also deserves a lot of credit for helping to set up Conway’s second goal.

Luke Juha ended up ending the game when he snuck a wrist shot from the point past Adam Wilcox a little more than two minutes into overtime. Wilcox had 29 saves in the game, including a couple late in the third that kept the game within striking distance for Sam Warning to tie it in the final minute.

All in all, Saturday’s loss was obviously a disappointing one for the Gophers. It’s hard not to ponder what could have been. Sweeping a team that started the weekend two points behind you while the other two teams near the top of the standings dropped points to the league’s bottom feeders would have provided Minnesota with a small cushion for the final couple weeks.

2. No easy games 

Speaking of the bottom feeders, Ohio State and Wisconsin proved that they’ll still have a say in who wins the regular-season title, even if neither have a chance of capturing the crown for themselves.

The Buckeyes and Badgers made things tough for Michigan and Michigan State on Friday. Wisconsin beat the Spartans 2-1 and Ohio State beat the Wolverines 5-3.

It was another chapter in the roller-coaster season for Michigan. Even though they responded with a win on Sunday, the Wolverines have struggled the past couple weekends.

Minnesota has two games left with Ohio State and Michigan has two with Wisconsin, so it’ll be interesting to watch and see if the Buckeyes and Badgers are able to play spoiler again down the stretch.

3. Quick rule refresher

As I documented earlier, we have ties for first and second place in the Big Ten. Just in case the season ends with a tie, here’s a quick look at how the Big Ten handles tiebreakers.

“Seeding for the Big Ten Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament shall be determined by points accumulated in conference games. Points in the regular season Big Ten standings will be awarded as follows: three points for a regulation or overtime win, two points for a shootout win, one point for a shootout loss and no points for a regulation or overtime loss.

a) Seeding amongst tied teams shall be determined by the greater number of Big Ten regular-season wins;

b) If not determined by (a), seeding amongst tied teams shall be determined by the team with the best regular-season winning percentage against the other co-champion(s);

c) If not determined by (a) or (b), seeding amongst tied teams shall be determined by comparison of total goals for and against each team in contests between (among) co-champion(s) in conference games. For sake of clarity, a team’s goals-against shall be subtracted from its goals-for in order to compare;

d) If not determined by (a) or (b) or (c), seeding amongst tied teams shall be determined by comparison of the winning percentages of the co-champions against the remaining highest ranked Big Ten teams in conference games, successively, until the determination is accomplished or all Big Ten regular-season contests have been considered;

e) If not determined by (a) or (b) or (c) or (d), seeding amongst tied teams shall be determined by the flip of a coin.

In the case of ties among three or more schools, the criteria will be used in order until a team, or teams, is separated from the pack. At that point, the process will begin anew to break the “new” tie. In other words, when a four-way tie becomes a three-way tie, the three-way tie is treated as a “new” tie and the process begins with the first tie-breaking criterion.

Note: Shootout wins shall not count as regular-season wins for the purpose of breaking ties in the standings for tournament seeding.  Games that go to shootout will be considered a tie game and treated as such in calculating winning percentages.”

Source — bigten.com

Here’s to hoping that it never comes down to a coin flip.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Feb. 20-22

As the regular season winds down, we have a full weekend of Big Ten conference play. First, a look at how Drew Claussen and I are doing with the picks.

Last week
Drew: 5-1-0 (.833)
Paula: 4-2-0 (.666)

Drew: 67-53-10 (.554)
Paula: 57-62-11 (.481)

I am grateful for any week in which I am over .500.

This week

There are two Friday-Saturday, single-site series and one home-and-home that goes Friday-Sunday. With Michigan and Minnesota tied for first place, Michigan State and Penn State tied for second and just two points out of first and four weeks of regular-season play remaining, things — as the kids say — are getting real.

Michigan vs. Ohio State

Drew: Michigan and Michigan State are two of the conference’s top four teams that absolutely need to sweep this weekend to keep their respective title hopes alive. Dropping points to a cellar dweller would be devastating right now. Red Berenson told me that for any team to guarantee a regular-season championship they would have to run the table, and he might be right. The Wolverines’ defense has caught up to them in the last couple weekends when their offense has failed to pour in goals routinely, but Ohio State has had some lopsided defeats this season, including two glaring ones to Michigan. If Michigan can get its defensive play and goaltending figured out in the next eight games, it could be a very dangerous playoff team. That is a very difficult task, however, and, while I am picking the Wolverines to sweep this weekend, I still can’t see them making a deep playoff run.

Paula: I agree with nearly everything Drew says, except in not seeing Michigan making a deep playoff run. If the Wolverines do shore up their team defense and goaltending in the last four weeks of the season, they’ll be doing so at the exact time of year when every team wants to play its best hockey — and that will make them dangerous postseason. Like Drew, though, I have my doubts about this team’s ability to do so. Michigan was an amazingly fun team to watch a few weeks ago. I’d like to see that team again. And again. And again.

Last weekend, the Wolverines dropped a road series to Minnesota, losing 6-2 and 2-0. I was impressed by their ability to limit the Gophers to two goals on the second night after giving up six, but I was also impressed by the Gophers’ ability to silence a potent offense that had netted two the night before. The Buckeyes split a home series with Wisconsin last weekend, winning 2-1 and losing 3-2, and at this point OSU can only hope to play itself up the standings for the best match possible in the Big Ten tournament. The Wolverines lead this all-time series 77-33-12, and they’re 35-16-5 in Columbus. More importantly, Michigan is 9-0-1 in the last 10 meetings between the teams.

Friday’s game in Columbus begins at 7:00 p.m. and is not televised. Sunday’s game starts at 5:00 p.m. in Ann Arbor and is carried by Fox Sports Detroit and SportsTime Ohio.

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

Michigan State at Wisconsin

Drew: I still can’t get myself to fully believe in this Michigan State team, but that hasn’t held them back, considering they’ve gone 5-2-1 in 2015. With the potential to hold any opponent to one or less goal any given night, Sparty is a dangerous team. Half of the Spartans’ final eight games are against the Badgers, which obviously should help their chances of winning the conference or capturing a first-round bye in the conference tournament. That being said, their other four games are against Minnesota and Michigan. Regardless this last month is going to be fun to watch.

Paula: Michigan State can be fun to watch, without question — but the Spartans can also play workaday, blue collar, clog-the-neutral-zone hockey … which can be effective but not so much fun to witness in real game time. No matter how the Spartans do it, that they can stymie opponents is one of their greatest strengths and will certainly make the next four weeks interesting. The thing about Michigan State is that the Spartans work harder and more consistently than any team I’ve seen play this season. When they let down, they let down in ways that betray their weaknesses, like their struggles with goal scoring, but they do not disappoint unless they disappoint themselves.

Last week, Michigan State swept Penn State at home, 3-0 and 3-2, and limiting one of the most powerful offenses in the country to two goals in a weekend is a very positive sign for the Spartans heading into this last month of regular-season play. In their last five games, the Spartans are 5-1-0, having allowed eight goals in that span, fewer than any other team in the country since Jan. 23. Also, goalie Jake Hildebrand has posted a 1.17 GAA and .964 in that stretch with two shutouts. Michigan State may be a quietly hot team — or hot-ish, at the very least.

Wisconsin registered its first league win last weekend, picking up a 3-2 win on the road against the Buckeyes Saturday after losing 2-1 the night before. Like the Buckeyes, the Badgers are now playing to put themselves in the best possible position for the Big Ten tournament.

Friday’s game is the later Big Ten Network contest, starting at 8:00 p.m. CT. Saturday’s game begins at 7:00 p.m. and is carried by The Wisconsin Channel.

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

Minnesota at Penn State

Drew: One could very easily argue that this is the biggest series Pegula Ice Arena has ever hosted. The Nittany Lions are coming off of a disappointing road sweep and will host a team that is two points in front of them in the standings, one which hasn’t lost in six contests. The good thing for Minnesota is that the majority of its players traveled to Penn State last season so the new-experience factor shouldn’t come into play this weekend. I could make an argument for this series to go to either team. Minnesota’s seniors have really stepped up recently and have brought the Gophers back to a level that we all thought them capable of. On the other hand, Penn State is a team that gets a lot of shots on net, which is something that Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox has struggled with this season. Goaltending will be key this weekend (like it always is) because both teams have high-octane offenses. I say home ice nets Penn State at least one victory in this series.

Paula: This one is certainly tough to call and is the series of the weekend to watch. With the home sweep of Michigan last weekend, Minnesota is 5-0-1 in its last six games, a stretch during which the Golden Gophers averaged 4.83 goals per game, having netted at least four goals in five of those contests. After allowing nine goals to Wisconsin in the first two games of that stretch, the Gophers allowed two in the three that followed that series immediately and then capped the run by shutting out Michigan’s nation-leading offense.

Penn State suffered its first sweep of the season last weekend with the two road losses to Michigan State, but the Nittany Lions play particularly well in Pegula Arena, with a record of 11-2-1 at home. Junior goaltender PJ Musico (2.13 GAA, .933 SV%) is expected to start in the Friday contest; he was in net for PSU’s sweep of Wisconsin two weeks ago and for the first loss against Michigan State. Musico hasn’t seen much action this year, but he is 4-2-1.

These are the first matches of the season between these two teams. Minnesota was 4-0-0 against Penn State last year. Friday’s game is the Big Ten Network’s early contest, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Saturday’s game starts at 5:00 p.m. and is carried by ESPNU.

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

Sweeping, clogging the standings and winning one, finally

With a month to go, everything just got much more interesting in the Big Ten.

1. Six points makes a big difference.

The Golden Gophers and Spartans each swept their conference series at home this past weekend, and those sweeps did as much to help define the losing teams as to define the conference standings. In each case, the winners defeated a team above them in the standings, teams that have been tearing up the league in the second half and teams that have been able to make up for defensive deficiencies with high offensive outputs. Minnesota kept Michigan — the top offense in the country — to two goals on the weekend, delivering the first shutout loss of the season for the Wolverines Saturday night. Michigan State did the same thing against Penn State, keeping the Nittany Lions to two goals in the series with a shutout Friday night, the first such loss of the season for PSU. We all knew that inconsistency in net would be something that could bite the Wolverines and Nittany Lions — any team in this league, really — in NCAA play, but it’s something to contend with now as well, especially since Minnesota’s Adam Wilcox is looking more confident and Michigan State’s Jake Hildebrand remains as steady as ever.

2. Four teams are eyeing the regular-season championship.

This is fun. With their sweep of the Wolverines, the Gophers played themselves into a two-way tie for first place, each team with 24 points. With their sweep of the Nittany Lions, the Spartans tied themselves with Penn State for second place, each team with 22 points. All four teams have played the same number of conference games. Michigan has series remaining against Penn State and Michigan State; Minnesota has two series remaining against PSU and a series versus Michigan State. While no one has an easy schedule remaining, Michigan State does play Wisconsin twice while Penn State plays Minnesota twice and Michigan once. The next month will be very interesting, indeed.

3. Finally, a win.

Wisconsin registered its first Big Ten win of the season Saturday, coming from behind twice to beat Ohio State, 3-2. Adam Rockwood had the game-winning goal for the Badgers at 15:41 in the third, and Joel Rumpel made 28 saves in the win. The Badgers have been this close a number of times in the second half, and the weekend split with the Buckeyes puts Wisconsin two points behind Ohio State. They’re still in last place, but only just — and both UW and OSU may play spoiler yet to those four teams ahead of them vying for fist place.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Feb. 13-14

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Last week
Drew Claussen: 5-0-0 (1.000)
Paula Weston: 5-0-0 (1.000)

Drew: 62-52-10 (.540)
Paula: 53-60-11 (.472)

That’s what I call love.

This week

Everyone plays. Every series is two games, Friday-Saturday, and it’s all conference action.

Michigan at Minnesota

Drew: I stated that the “Gophers looked like the Gophers again” in my Three Things blog last Sunday and that somehow set off a comment feud between Minnesota and North Dakota fans, so I’ll try to avoid any controversial statements this time around.

Minnesota has been better as of late, but this weekend will be its toughest test since the North Star College Cup (a test that the Gophers failed miserably). The last series between these two teams saw an overtime game and a blowout, but the one common thread in the two contests was that a lot of goals were scored.

Both teams are still very capable of scoring in bunches, so my key to this weekend’s series will be the play of the goaltenders. Adam Wilcox looked better last weekend against Ohio State, where he gave up two goals per game and made some saves that we hadn’t seen him make in a long while. Zach Nagelvoort’s roller coaster season seems to be plateauing out at a high point right now and Michigan has only given up three goals in its last three games with him in net. A split is the logical call here, but I can’t shake a feeling that Minnesota is going to sweep.

Paula: While the teams are playing for Big Ten points, they’re also playing for the Mariucci/Renfrew Trophy, which is awarded annually to the team in this series that bests the other in a given season. This friendly competition began in 1993. Minnesota has won 10 times, while Michigan has claimed the trophy nine times. The Wolverines swept the Gophers earlier this season (Jan. 9-10), making the teams even (3-3-0) since the start of Big Ten hockey play.

Unlike my partner-in-writing, I can shake the feeling that Minnesota will sweep. Both games in this series are televised. Friday’s game starts at 8:00 p.m. and is carried by the Big Ten Network. Saturday’s contest starts at 7:00 p.m. and will be carried by Fox Sports North Plus and Fox Sports Detroit Plus.

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

Penn State at Michigan State

Drew: Penn State has been one of the hottest teams in the country since the calendar turned to 2015 and the Nittany Lions are right in the middle of the Big Ten race. If the Nittany Lions do want to capture the conference crown in only the third year since they went DI, a sweep here is a necessity. Michigan State is tough to sweep, especially at home, but after this weekend the sledding gets tougher for Penn State.

Michigan State is playing pretty well in the new year, also, and the Spartans will probably be happy to be playing a game indoors after last weekend’s debacle. I feel like I write this all the time when it comes to Michigan State, but it’s true; Jake Hildebrand’s play will be key this weekend. He’s going to get a lot of pucks fired at him. If he’s not on, Michigan State doesn’t have the talent to outscore Penn State. I say some love from the hometown fans gets the Spartans a win on Valentines’s Day.

Paula: I’m not sure that many teams have the talent to out-gun the Nittany Lions, so the Spartans will do everything they can to dictate the pace of these games. They’ll also rely on their league-best defense to attempt to stymie Penn State’s high-flying offense. Last weekend, PSU registered its first home Big Ten sweep with 5-2 and 4-1 wins over Wisconsin. The Spartans did not play their best game in a 4-1 loss to Michigan. A month ago, the Nittany Lions took four points from the Spartans at home, with a 2-2 tie and 5-2 win. Both of these games are televised, with Fox Sports Detroit carrying Friday’s 7:00 p.m. start and the Big Ten Network carrying Saturday’s 6:00 p.m. game.

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

Wisconsin at Ohio State

Drew: I was less excited about Wisconsin’s chances during the preseason, but any credibility I gained from that goes right out the window because of how high I was on Ohio State. This is without a doubt a battle of the conference’s two bottom feeders. If this was at Kohl Center, I’d think about predicting a Badgers’ sweep. Considering how their season has gone, the support the Badgers are getting from their fans is amazing; I was presently surprised with the attendance when I went there a couple weeks ago. A lot of teams wouldn’t draw that many amid a season-long struggle. That being said, I think home ice for Ohio State will produce a split this weekend.

Paula: These are the first meetings of the season for these two teams, who will complete their play the final weekend of the regular season (March 13-14). Wisconsin went 3-2-0 against Ohio State last season, including a 5-4 overtime win in the Big Ten tournament. Last weekend, the Badgers scored three goals in two losses to Penn State on the road, while the Buckeyes scored four goals in two road losses to Minnesota. OSU is looking to snap a six-game losing streak while the Badgers are looking for their first Big Ten win of the season. 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 not televised.

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

Three things from the weekend in the Big Ten

All six Big Ten teams were in action against each other this weekend. Both of the two-game series ended in sweeps and Michigan battled back for a split in its elongated two-weekend series with Michigan State.

Here’s how things ended up:

  • Penn State swept Wisconsin at home and picked up its first season sweep of a conference foe in program history.
  • Minnesota swept Ohio State at home.
  • Michigan took down Michigan State outside at Chicago’s Soldier Field.

Here are my three thoughts from the weekend:

1. Penn State is a very dangerous team

The pessimistic naysayer in me still wants to find reasons to not believe in Penn State but the reality is that this squad is a very real threat to win the conference and do some damage in postseason play, despite this being only its third season at the Division I level.

The Nittany Lions defeated Wisconsin 5-2 and 4-1 this weekend to complete the four-game season sweep of the Badgers, which is Penn State’s first season sweep in program history.

This team is fun to watch and people in “Hockey Valley” are showing up to watch. More than 6,000 people showed up to Pegula Ice Arena for each game against the Badgers this weekend.

Consistency has been the Achilles heel for Penn State this year and it does have some bad losses and ties on its résumé. However, if you look at the rest of the Big Ten and even every other team in the country, with the exception of Minnesota State, North Dakota and Boston University, teams have struggled to put together long winning streaks.

The Nittany Lions are going to be an interesting team to watch down the stretch. They have very winnable series on the schedule against Michigan State and Oho State, but also have to play Minnesota four times and Michigan twice more. If Penn State is able to win three or four of those games against the Gophers and Wolverines it’ll do wonders in terms of how far it can go into the postseason.

2. The Gophers looked like the Gophers again

Minnesota’s Travis Boyd doesn’t have a “C” or an “A” sewn on the front of his jersey, but the senior has been the straw that stirs the drink for the Gophers this season.

Boyd had four goals, including a hat trick on Saturday, and one assist in the Gophers’ 4-2 and 6-2 victories over Ohio State this weekend.

It was obvious that the Gophers missed Boyd when an injury forced him to miss some time earlier this season, but his return to the lineup didn’t immediately pull Minnesota out of its slump. However, Boyd has put up good numbers when he’s been able to play this season and was very vocal about the team’s recent play, saying that it was unacceptable.

His play this weekend, which should make him the first star this week, wasn’t the only bright spot for Minnesota this weekend. The Gophers also got goals from some players who had been struggling like Hudson Fasching, Vinni Lettieri and Leon Bristedt. Adam Wilcox also looked like he took a couple steps in the right direction towards being the kind of goaltender that he’s capable of being.

This sweep was exactly what the doctor ordered for Minnesota and it is now in a tie for No. 13 in the PairWise rankings. My prediction is that the Gophers aren’t going to win enough down to stretch to get an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament, but remember, all it takes is a maximum of three wins to get the automatic bid from winning the Big Ten Tournament.

3. Good things come to those who wait

There was a cloud of doubt hanging over the Hockey City Classic on Saturday, with some reports that the games at Chicago’s Soldier Field might have to be postponed. The only problem was that the metaphorical cloud didn’t block out the sun’s rays.

The game, however, did go on and Michigan defeated Michigan State 4-1 after 100-minute delay to the game’s start time. The afternoon game between Western Michigan and Miami was also delayed because of warm weather and mechanical issues.

The victory allowed Michigan to retain its lead in the Big Ten conference standings. The Wolverines hold a two-point lead over Penn State. Minnesota clawed its way up to third after getting six points this weekend.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Feb. 6-7

Everyone plays this week and it’s all conference play. First, our picks record.

Last week
Drew Claussen: 2-1-1 (.625)
Paula Weston: 1-2-1 (.375)

Drew: 57-52-10 (.521)
Paula: 48-60-11 (.450)

This week

There are two Friday-Saturday series this week plus a single game between Michigan and Michigan State Saturday night at Chicago’s Soldier Field for the 2015 Hockey City Classic.

Michigan vs. Michigan State

Drew: When I predicted a Michigan win at Joe Louis Arena last Friday, I was intending to pick a Michigan State victory at Soldier Field in this game. The Spartans getting the upset last weekend makes me back off that pick. Michigan has had a week to think about that loss and will be eager to get some revenge. Outdoor games are a virtual toss-up, so the Spartans getting an elongated sweep is a possibility, too. I think that Michigan’s offense won’t be stopped by Jake Hildebrand twice in a row.

Paula: With all due respect, Michigan’s offense wasn’t stopped by Jake Hildebrand alone last weekend at The Joe; the entire Michigan State team defense stymied the Wolverines by clogging up lanes, executing a tight neutral zone trap and playing what can only be called man-to-man defense. It was an impressive team effort that left Hildebrand relatively unchallenged. As impressive as it was, though, I do think that Michigan will adjust for this game and get the better of the Spartans. The Wolverines and Spartans have met three times outdoors and are 1-1-1 in those contests. This is a 7:00 p.m. start Saturday and will be televised by the Big Ten Network. And for the record, I really dislike outdoor games. The temperature is supposed to hit 40°F in Chicago on Saturday, if you’re curious.

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

Ohio State at Minnesota

Drew: Minnesota has yet to sweep a conference series this year, which is something to be concerned about considering it has played the Badgers four times already. There just seems to be something wrong with this Gophers team. Their struggle to find the back of the net was not on display last weekend against the Badgers, considering they scored 11 goals over the two games. Minnesota’s defensive struggles, however, were on full display. Wisconsin picked up nine goals for itself last weekend, bringing its goals per game average up to 2.05. Adam Wilcox seems to have no confidence in himself right now; a lot of the goals he’s letting up are ones that were routine saves during his freshman and sophomore year. Minnesota will also be without the services of Connor Reilly for the foreseeable future. Ohio State is struggling, too, so I’m going to pick a Gophers sweep, but I wouldn’t be surprised with a split.

Paula: If you look at this from an Ohio State perspective, the same can be said: the Buckeyes have yet to sweep a conference series this year and there is something troubling OSU as well. One of the things plaguing Ohio State is injuries. Another issue is team defense — but it’s difficult to put together a coherent team defense without a coherent team. The Buckeyes last played Jan. 23-24, 4-1 and 2-0 road losses to Michigan State. OSU will try to snap a four-game losing streak in Minneapolis, a difficult place to do so even though the Buckeyes have a better road record (5-5-2) than home record (2-7-0). Last weekend, the Gophers found a way to salvage a tie with Wisconsin on Saturday after winning Friday. These are the first games of the seasons between the Buckeyes and Golden Gophers, and Minnesota is 3-1-1-1 in Big Ten play against Ohio State. Friday’s game begins at 8:00 p.m. and is carried by the Big Ten Network. Saturday’s game starts at 7:00 p.m. and is televised by Fox Sports North Plus and SportsTime Ohio.

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

Wisconsin at Penn State

Drew: Penn State swept the first series between these two at the Kohl Center earlier in the season. Wisconsin has improved since then, but I don’t think the Badgers have matured enough to go on the road in a tough environment and pick up a win. Penn State is playing very confident hockey right now and is getting a lot of scoring opportunities. Unless Joel Rumpel has an amazing performance in the cage, Penn State sweeps this.

Paula: Last weekend, the Badgers scored nine goals in a loss and tie against Minnesota and won the extra shootout point following the tie, and Wisconsin showed real resilience in that tie, netting three third-period goals — and attaining a brief lead — to compete in that second game. Still, Wisconsin has a way to go and Penn State has a way itself in the third period, for sure. The Nittany Lions have become a team that knows how to turn up the intensity in the third period of any given game, which makes them very dangerous. Wisconsin leads this all-time series 6-3-0 and the Badgers swept the Nittany Lions in Hockey Valley last season. (Yeah, I called it Hockey Valley. It’s catchy.) PSU needs six points to overcome Michigan for the top spot in the Big Ten standings, another significant motivator. Friday’s game begins at 6:30 p.m. and is the early game on the Big Ten Network. Saturday’s game starts at 2:00 p.m. and is televised by the American Sports Network.

Drew’s picks: Penn State 5-1, 3-0.
Paula’s picks: Penn State 3-2, 3-1.

Goaltending, goal scoring and finishing strong

It seems that every weekend of Big Ten play is interesting. Honestly, who would have predicted that Michigan State and Penn State would be tied for second place — behind the Wolverines — at the beginning of February?

Here are three things from this past weekend that stand out to me.

1. Goaltending isn’t the only thing that makes a difference in a given game, but it’s a big deal when offense stumbles.

With their 2-1 win over Michigan in Joe Louis Arena, the Spartans moved into that tie for second place with Penn State. Each team has 16 points to trail Michigan by five, and the Nittany Lions have a game in hand on both the Spartans and the first-place Wolverines. A big part of the Spartans’ success is the play of junior goaltender Jake Hildebrand, who has given up two goals in his last three games, all Spartan wins. Hildebrand had 29 saves in the win over Michigan and he made it look easy.

In contrast, sophomore Zach Nagelvoort had 26 saves in the loss and never really looked comfortable. The Wolverines’ revolving door in net — Nagelvoort sharing the duties with junior Steve Racine — hasn’t really mattered much because until the 2-1 loss to Michigan State, Michigan had been averaging an ungodly number of goals per game. Shut down that offense, and goaltending becomes mighty, mighty important.

For the record, Hildebrand has the best overall stats of any Big Ten goaltender (2.35 GAA, .920 SV%) and his stats don’t put him among the top 30 goaltenders in the country.

2. The Golden Gophers can score in batches, too.

Since the start of the calendar year, the Wolverines have scored in bursts and batches, producing high-scoring and exciting contests.

In Minnesota’s series against Wisconsin this weekend, though, the Gophers showed similar flare, scoring four goals within a minute and 40 seconds in the second period of their 7-5 Friday night win, and two goals 36 seconds apart in the third period of the same game.

The Gophers put up 11 goals against the Badgers and came away with four points, having tied Wisconsin 4-4 Saturday night with just two seconds left in regulation. It was Seth Ambroz with the tying goal, his fourth of the weekend — a development that is surely welcome by Gophers’ fans. The four-goal weekend brings Ambroz’ season total to seven, half of what he scored in 2013-2014.

3. Penn State is a third-period team.

The Nittany Lions came from behind to beat Vermont in Wells Fargo Arena Saturday, 4-2. Trailing 2-1 heading into the third period, Penn State scored three unanswered to take the lead and win the game.

This is not unfamiliar territory for PSU. In their last seven games, the Nittany Lions have scored 16 third-period goals. That’s 16 of their 28 total goals in those seven games. That’s 57 percent of their scoring in that span coming in the third period.

In that span, they are 4-1-2. They’re undefeated in their last six games and they came back in the first game of that stretch — a 5-4 overtime loss to Ohio State Jan. 9 — with four third-period goals to tie the game.

In other words, since Jan. 9, the Nittany Lions have not only figured out how to turn up the heat in the third period, but they’ve learned how to finish a game.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Jan. 30-31

It’s a light schedule this weekend, with two games being played in NHL arenas. First, our picks records.

Last week
Drew Claussen: 4-5-1 (.450)
Paula Weston: 5-4-1 (.550)

Drew: 55-51-9 (.517)
Paula: 47-58-10 (.452)

I would’ve been fine … had I had any sense regarding the North Star College Cup.

This week

The three Big Ten games on tap this weekend feature long-standing rivalries. Vermont and Penn State renew the College Hockey Faceoff at the Wells Fargo Center. Ohio State has the weekend off.

Michigan State vs. Michigan

Drew: These two teams will start their week-long, neutral-site series Friday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Michigan has managed a modest 7.5 goals per game in its last four contests, which have all been victories for the Wolverines. On the other hand, Michigan State is coming off of its first sweep of the season, 4-1 and 2-0 victories over Ohio State at home last weekend, and seems to be playing its best hockey of the season. Jake Hildebrand held Michigan to only two goals in the Spartans’ loss in the GLI championship game, but the team he faced in late December was missing a couple big guns. He’s probably going to need an even better performance to win this weekend. I do believe that Michigan State will win one of these games, but it’s not going to be this one.

Paula: There is no way I’m picking against the Wolverines until they give me reason to. They seem to be able to fire at will and score, and their scoring bursts — two or more goals within the span of a few minutes — are devastating to their opposition. These two teams have a long history of games at Joe Louis Arena, and the teams have met for a conference game in JLA every season since February 15, 1991. The Wolverines are 14-9-4 in those contests, including 6-1-3 in the last 10 conference games in Detroit. This 7:30 p.m. Friday game is being televised by Fox Sports Detroit.

Drew’s pick: Michigan 4-2.
Paula’s pick: Michigan 4-3.

Minnesota at Wisconsin

Drew: Our esteemed editor, Todd Milewski, pointed out earlier in the week that this meeting between the Gophers and Badgers will be the first time that the two teams have played with neither being ranked since Nov. 14-15, 2003. While their paths to this point have been different, Wisconsin seemed never to get out of the starting block this year and Minnesota was the No. 1 team in the nation for multiple weeks. Both teams have found out how real the struggle can be this season.

I get more opportunities to watch the Gophers than I do to see the Badgers play, so I have a tendency to be a little harder on Minnesota when it struggles. With the exception of Nate Condon, Justin Holl, Tom Serratore and backup goaltender Michael Shibrowsky, this is the team that played in the national championship game last year. As Minnesota’s struggles have continued after its hot start I questioned if the three position players that the Gophers lost from last year were more important that the “role player” tag that I attached to them, or if last year’s team simple overachieved. I honestly think it’s a little bit of both. The Gophers miss Serratore’s grittiness, Holl’s defensive play and Condon’s speed and leadership. With an exception or two, it seems like every sophomore has taken at least one step back from his first season. That combined with the fact that this year’s freshmen have been invisible for most of the season equals a team with a shaky blue line that also struggles to put the puck in the net.

Minnesota got dominated by Minnesota State last Friday and found a way to lose Saturday’s game against Minnesota-Duluth. The Gophers are struggling right now, pure and simple. That being said, playing the Badgers gives Minnesota a solid opportunity to right the ship. These are two must-win games for Minnesota.

Paula: These teams met just two weeks ago in Minneapolis, resulting in a 2-2 tie and extra shootout point for Wisconsin (Jan. 16) followed by a 5-2 Minnesota win the next night. The 5-2 game saw a total of 110 penalty minutes, with each team receiving 55. That’s also a game in which UW goaltender Joel Rumpel stopped 45-of-50 shots on goal. Rumpel is playing well of late, and I think Wisconsin can steal one of these. The Gophers are 27-17-8 against the Badgers with Mike Eaves at the helm. Friday’s game begins at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday’s at 8:00 p.m., and both are carried by the Big Ten Network.

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

Penn State vs. Vermont

Drew: Like Michigan and Michigan State, the Nittany Lions will also head to a neutral site this weekend, Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center. Penn State fired 117 shots on goal last weekend in its series against Northern Michigan, which resulted in a 5-4 win and 5-5 tie. Like my past criticisms of Michigan, I’m going to point out that a team that gives up four or five goals a game is destined for failure, but that is an impressive amount of pucks being thrown at a goaltender. I think Vermont’s record may be a little inflated, because even though it has five sweeps this season, only one was over a team with a winning record. Penn State is currently 0-3-1 in neutral-site games this season, but I think the Nittany Lions put one in the left-hand column this weekend.

Paula: This is the third annual College Hockey Faceoff at the Wells Fargo Center, and if history is any indication, this will be a well-attended game; the average attendance for the two previous meetings between the Catamounts and Nittany Lions at Wells Fargo was over 18,000. PSU took the first meeting, 4-2 (Jan. 19, 2013), while Vermont won last season, 5-2 (Oct. 26, 2013). Vermont is looking for its first win in five games, most recently having lost two games to Boston University last weekend. After ending the first half of the season with a five-game win streak and taking the first game of their own midseason tournament, the Catamounts are 1-5-1 since Dec. 28. This Saturday contest begins at 1:00 p.m. and is not televised.

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

Three things from the weekend in the B1G

All six teams in the Big Ten were in action this weekend. Both conference series yielded sweeps and two teams had games against nonconference opponents.

Here’s how things played out:

  • Minnesota lost to Minnesota State and Minnesota-Duluth at the North Star College Cup.
  • Michigan swept Wisconsin.
  • Michigan State swept Ohio State.
  • Penn State picked up a win and a tie against Northern Michigan.

And here are three things I saw this weekend:

1. Minnesota is in free-fall mode as it takes last place in the North Star College Cup

The Gophers went 0-2 in two key noncnonference games this weekend and dropped themselves to No. 20 in the PairWise rankings. Minnesota fell 4-2 to Minnesota State on Friday night and dropped a disappointing 2-1 game to Minnesota-Duluth on Saturday.

The top team in the country simply dominated the Gophers on Friday night. Even though the margin of victory was only two goals, and things got kind of interesting near the end, I never thought the game was in doubt.

The Mavericks possessed the puck with relative ease during the game and when Minnesota did manage to gain possession, it didn’t keep it for long. The Gophers were able to get the first goal of the game and tied it at 2-2 after Mankato scored two unanswered goals, but it was all Mavericks from the midpoint of the second period on.

Adam Wilcox’s shaky season continued on Friday, the junior net minder gave up three goals on five shots in the second period.

Wilcox was better on Saturday afternoon, but the team in front of him looked like it was trying to get pucks past a brick wall. The game was tied until about three minutes left in the third when Minnesota-Duluth scored on its first shot of the period. The Bulldogs ended up with two shots on goal in the game’s final period.

Minnesota will travel to Wisconsin next weekend for two must-win games against the Badgers.

Side note: Congratulations to Bemidji State work winning this year’s North Star College Cup. The Beavers defensive effort against Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota State was simply phenomenal. Giving up one goal in two games against those two squads is quite the accomplishment.

2. Michigan’s winning streak continues against Wisconsin

I was at the North Star Cup, so I had to follow the other games on Twitter this weekend. At one point I saw that Wisconsin had a 3-1 over the Wolverines on Friday and thought to myself that maybe this would be the game where Michigan’s defense plays so poorly that its offense can’t compensate.

That didn’t happen.

Michigan came back and won 7-4 on Friday and 6-0 on Saturday. After the game, Red Berenson compared this year’s team to the team he had in 1997-98. That’s some high praise considering that the Wolverines won a national championship that year.

“Well we’ve got a long way to go. But right now in recent weeks, we’ve looked like the team we had in 1997,” Berenson said after Saturday’s game. “But we’ve got a long way to go. Right now it’s good. It’s good to see our guys get some confidence.”

I’m pretty sure that Paula is going to focus on Michigan for this week’s column, so be on the lookout for that. The Wolverines defense still has me thinking that they won’t advance far in a tournament format, but there’s no denying that they’re a fun team to watch.

3. Michigan State is also playing good

Wisconsin wasn’t that tough of a test for Michigan this weekend, but Michigan State will give them a hard time on Friday. The Spartans are coming off of their first sweep of the season, beating Ohio State 4-1 on Friday and 2-0 on Saturday, and they played some pretty good defense this weekend.

The two teams will play Friday night at Joe Louis Arena in a exact rematch of the GLI championship game and then meet again eight days later at Chicago’s Soldier Field for the Hockey City Classic.

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