The Spartans are 19th in the country in scoring so far this season after finishing last season 42nd.
Week two is in the books and all six Big Ten teams hit the ice for some nonconference action this past weekend.
Here’s how things played out:
- Michigan swept Mercyhurst at home, 6-4 on Friday and 3-2 on Sunday.
- Michigan State was swept on the road at Denver, 4-2 on Friday and 3-0 on Sunday.
- Ohio State was swept by Miami in their home-and-home series, 3-2 on Friday and 3-1 on Saturday.
- Penn State and Notre Dame split their series at Pegula Ice Arena with the Irish winning 6-4 on Friday and the Nittany Lions returning the favor with a 5-3 victory on Saturday.
- Minnesota was swept by in-state rival Minnesota-Duluth in their home-and-home series, 3-1 on Friday and 3-0 on Saturday.
- Wisconsin headed out East and was beaten by Boston College 6-0 on Friday and Boston University 4-1 on Saturday.
Here’s my three* thoughts from the weekend:
1. Disappointment for Michigan State
Considering what happened in Ann Arbor on Saturday, I doubt the hockey team getting swept really dampened the mood in East Lancing this weekend. That being said, the MSU hockey team let an opportunity slip through its hands on Friday and failed to rebound on Saturday.
After taking a 2-1 lead early in the third period on Friday, Michigan State surrendered two goals in less than four minutes during the middle of the third and gave up an empty-net goal during the last minute. Jake Hildebrand made 32 saves on Friday. He made 38 saves during the Spartans’ 3-0 loss on Saturday.
A problem that showed up again was the lack of offensive-pressure by Michigan State. The Spartans got 27 shots on goal on Friday and only mustered 16 during the second game of the series.
2. Winless Gophers, Badgers and Buckeyes
Through two weekends, half of the conference still has not put a crooked number into the win column.
Ohio State dropped its second two-game series to an in-state rival in consecutive weekends. The Buckeyes have netted just six goals in their four games and have given up 14. Things are going to get harder before they get easier for Ohio State as it heads on the road to take on Providence next weekend.
With the schedule and history of early-season struggles, Ohio State’s slow start may have been predictable. Minnesota’s however, wasn’t. The Gophers dropped to 0-3 after getting swept by Minnesota-Duluth this weekend and have scored one goal in those three games.
Minnesota will host Northeastern for two games at Mariucci Arena next weekend. That should be the series where we find out a lot about the Gophers and what their future will hold. If they can’t get the offense going against the Huskies it may be a long season.
As predicted, Wisconsin wasn’t able to turn two opening-weekend ties into any success against two tough opponents on the East Coast. The Badgers will play two at Ferris State next weekend and host Arizona State the weekend after. I think at least one or two (dare I say three?) victories could come out of those four games.
3. Michigan starts 2-0
Neither game was very pretty, but the preseason favorite started its season with two victories.
The good thing for Michigan is its schedule, with road games at RPI and Union and home contests against Robert Morris and Niagara before its first tough test of the season at Boston University in late November. No disrespect to any of those teams I mentioned, but if Michigan is the team that a lot of us think they are capable of being it should be able to get through that stretch and go into Boston with zero or one loss on the season.
Bonus: Penn State
It’s not right to completely ignore one team in the conference when I talk about everyone else. The Nittany Lions had a pretty good weekend, even with the defensive letdown on Friday. The fact that early in year three of being a Big Ten team Penn State went into a series on equal-footing with a program like Notre Dame really points to how good of a job Guy Gadowsky has done with that program.
As we enter the second weekend of Division I play, let’s look at how Drew Claussen and I did last week. It should surprise no one that his picks record is better than mine already.
Drew: 3-1-4 (.625)
Paula: 2-2-4 (.500)
At least I’m .500. For now.
Every Big Ten team plays this week, and of course it’s all nonconference play, as league games don’t begin until the first weekend in December.
Mercyhurst at Michigan
Drew: The only thing I’m worried about this weekend when it comes to Michigan is the rust that could come with starting the season a week after most teams. It will also be interesting to see what Red Berenson does with his goaltenders this weekend. I believe that it will be important for someone to establish himself as the No. 1 goaltender this year for the Wolverines to go far into the postseason.
Paula: The Lakers are riding a three-game win streak into Yost Ice Arena this weekend, having split their season-opening series against Colgate Oct. 3-4 and swept Bentley on the road last weekend. The teams haven’t met since they tied, 4-4, Oct. 2, 2010. Like Drew, I’ll be interested in seeing how the Wolverines deal with their inconsistencies in net, but I’m not so certain that relying on a single goaltender will be their solution. If the Wolverines can rotate two solid, consistent goalies this season, they’ll be a formidable team, indeed. This weekend, I’m more interested in seeing line combinations and who’ll be scoring for Michigan. Friday’s game begins at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday’s rematch starts at 5:00 p.m. Neither game is televised.
Drew’s picks: Michigan 4-3, 3-0.
Paula’s picks: Michigan 3-2, 3-2.
Miami vs. Ohio State
Drew: I hate to sound like a broken record, but my forcast for Ohio State is pretty much the same as last week. If the Buckeyes want a split, their best chance will be to pick up a win during their home game in this home-and-home series. Just like last week, I don’t see a split happening.
Paula: Miami lost to Providence last weekend, 7-2, before tying the Friars 2-2. The Buckeyes were outscored 8-3 in their two losses to the Falcons, including Saturday’s 3-0 road shutout. The RedHawks swept last season’s home-and-home October series. Ohio State hosts Friday at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday’s game in Oxford begins at 8:00 p.m. Neither game is televised.
Drew’s picks: Miami 3-2, 5-2.
Paula’s picks: Miami 3-1, 4-2.
Michigan State at Denver
Drew: A successful weekend for the Spartans will really send a message to the rest of the conference and the rest of the country. They have the goaltender that is capable of stealing a couple games this weekend, but I’m going to play it safe and predict a split.
Paula: I can’t imagine that Michigan State is happy with last weekend’s IceBreaker outcome. The Spartans were significantly outshot in the first period of a 4-4 tie against Maine, and Michigan State needed to come from behind to make it to OT at all — and then lost the shootout. The 4-1 win the following day over Lake Superior State is encouraging. The Pioneers enter the weekend 1-1-0 after splitting with Air Force Oct. 9-10. The first game of that series went back and forth and into overtime, when Air Force’s Johnny Hrabovsky scored the game winner at 2:11. These teams are meeting for the first time since 2002. Friday’s game begins at 7:30 p.m. and is carried by Root Sports Network; Saturday’s untelevised game begins at 7:00 p.m.
Drew’s picks: Denver 3-1, Michigan State 2-1.
Paula’s picks: Denver 3-2, Michigan State 3-2.
Minnesota-Duluth vs. Minnesota
Drew: All of us, or at least most of us, were concerned about the Gophers’ goaltending going into the season. After the first week it seems that putting the puck into the net may provide some difficulty, too. With the exception of the first couple of periods of the first game, the Bulldogs owned the Gophers last year and return basically the same team. Both teams suffered disappointing losses last week so the redemption factor will be present. I think each team will win its home game.
Paula: Each team is 0-1-0 to start the season. Last weekend, Minnesota-Duluth dropped a 3-2 contest to Bemidji State, a game that was tied until Charlie O’Connor scored the game-winning goal for the Beavers in the final minute of regulation. The Golden Gophers lost to Vermont, 3-0, last weekend. In his first collegiate start, freshman goaltender Eric Schierhorn posted a respectable .923 save percentage; the Gophers managed just 24 shots on goal. In addition to Schierhorn, five rookies saw their first D-I game time against the Catamounts, and it will be interesting to see how this young team develops. The Bulldogs were 4-1-0 versus the Gophers in 2014-15, including a 4-1 win over Minnesota in the NCAA tournament. Minnesota hosts Friday, Minnesota-Duluth hosts Saturday, each game begins at 7:00 p.m. and both games will be televised by Fox Sports North.
Drew’s picks: Minnesota 3-2, Minnesota-Duluth 4-2.
Paula’s picks: Minnesota 2-1, Minnesota-Duluth 3-2.
Notre Dame at Penn State
Drew: It’s hard to pick against the Nittany Lions when they’re playing at home. In my opinion, that building is quickly climbing the list of toughest places to play in college hockey. Both of these teams are right on the fringe of being ranked so, according to the extremely intelligent voters in the USCHO poll, we should have a close series. I say that Penn State picks up a close win on Friday and rides the momentum to a sweep.
Paula: This is the first meeting between these two teams at the Division I level, although the programs played four games between 1983 and 1985. This is Notre Dame’s season-opening series. The Fighting Irish warmed up last weekend with two exhibition games, a 7-5 win over Guelph and a 2-2 tie against the U.S. Under-18 Team. Last weekend, the Nittany Lions beat Canisius 6-1. I agree with Drew that Pegula is a tough place to play, but I think that the Fighting Irish can take one of these. Friday’s game begins at 7:00 p.m., Saturday’s at 3:00 p.m., and neither is televised.
Drew’s picks: Penn State 3-2, 3-1.
Paula’s picks: Penn State 4-2, Notre Dame 2-1.
Wisconsin at Boston College and Boston University
Drew: Could the Badgers pick up a win or tie this weekend? Sure. Am I going to predict it? Absolutely not.
Paula: Um, ditto. Boston College beat Army 5-1 last Friday but lost to Rensselaer, 2-1, the following night. Boston University beat Union 5-3 last Saturday. The Badgers showed a lot of resilience in two ties against Northern Michigan last weekend, but I’d be very surprised to see Wisconsin pick up its first win of the season while traveling East. Both games begin at 7:00 p.m. and neither is televised.
Drew’s picks: Boston College 6-1, Boston University 4-0.
Paula’s picks: Boston College 4-2, Boston University 4-2.
With the first weekend of regular-season play in the books, the collective results of Big Ten teams isn’t much more encouraging than the league’s .466 nonconference win percentage record from 2014-15. The league was 1-3-3 on the weekend, with some bright spots from three teams, specifically.
1. Wisconsin’s resilience.
The Badgers came from behind twice to tie Northern Michigan in the season-opening home series. Junior Grant Besse scored in the final minute of regulation in Friday’s 2-2 game and Wisconsin overcame a three-goal deficit in the third period of Saturday’s 3-3 game with goals from sophomore Ryan Wagner, junior Jed Soleway and freshman Luke Kunin. Kunin’s goal was his first collegiate marker (obviously), but Wagner’s was just his third in 37 games. Wagner’s first goal came in his 22nd game last season.
The Badgers dropped the first eight games of the 2014-15 season. Two ties and the ability to come from behind are welcome developments.
2. Penn State’s dominance.
In their 6-1 win over the Canisius in Buffalo Saturday, five different Nittany Lions scored and junior Eamon McAdam turned away all shots but one for a .964 single-game save percentage. PSU dominated in shots (46) while keeping penalty minutes low (six). The Nittany Lions registered three power-play goals, including senior David Glen’s five-on-three marker midway through the second period, the first of his two goals in the game. PSU led 3-0 after the first and 5-0 after the second. Freshman Chase Berger netted his first collegiate goal in the first.
3. Michigan State’s Jake Hildebrand.
Before the season began, Michigan State coach Tom Anastos said that goaltender Jake Hildebrand simply needed to continue being Jake Hildebrand, which is what the goaltender who saw every game in the Spartans’ net in 2014-15 did in the IceBreaker tournament. The Spartans came from behind for a 3-3 tie in Friday’s game against Maine Friday night and beat Lake Superior State 4-1 on Saturday.
The Black Bears won Friday’s shootout to advance to the title game so MSU returns to East Lansing without hardware, but after a challenging first period against Maine Friday in which the Black Bears outshot the Spartans 13-7, Hildebrand was rock solid and finished the weekend with a .932 save percentage and 1.94 GAA.
MSU freshman defenseman Zach Osburn scored his first two collegiate goals Friday night, both on the power play; his second tally was the goal that tied the score with an extra attacker and 1:09 remaining in regulation. Four of the Spartans’ seven goals in both contests came on the power play.
Last year, my partner-in-writing Drew Claussen got lucky. Very lucky.
Or maybe he is just better at this picks thing than I am. One pick I can stand behind for 2015-16: Drew will be “luckier” than I am again this season.
We have the IceBreaker, a great old CCHA rivalry and a some other fun nonconference matches.
Bowling Green vs. Ohio State
Drew: This is one of two key WCHA vs. B1G series this weekend, with the WCHA teams favored in both. I waffled between two possible outcomes in this one, a split and a BGSU sweep. Ohio State hasn’t exactly come flying out of the gate under Steve Rohlik, but it did beat eventual champion Providence during the opening weekend last season. If the two teams do split, I believe it will happen with each winning at home. That being said, I’m picking a Bowling Green sweep.
Paula: The Falcons were picked to finish second in the WCHA this season, and Bowling Green is a mightily improved team under Chris Bergeron. This is an old rivalry, with the Falcons leading 95-74-9 all-time. Last season, the teams split a home-and-home series. Ohio State hosts at 7:00 p.m. Friday, Bowling Green at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Drew’s picks: Bowling Green 5-3, 4-1.
Paula’s picks: OSU 3-2, BGSU 4-1.
Northern Michigan at Wisconsin
Drew: After a very tough year last season, the Badgers will open at home against a team that swept them in Green Bay last year. Northern Michigan is a middle-of-the-road WCHA team, but it looks to be trending upward. Goaltender Mathias Dahlstrom also has the ability to completely shut out the Badgers’ offense like he did last year. I feel like Wisconsin has to take a step forward this season, basically because I don’t know how it could take a step back, but I don’t see it happening right off the bat.
Paula: The Wildcats were picked in preseason to finish seventh in the WCHA. This is the fifth year in a row in which NMU opens its season against UW, and the Wildcats are 5-3-0 in the last four years against the Badgers. I cannot imagine that Wisconsin will win only four games this season, and I am cautiously optimistic that UW’s collective desire for redemption will bring the Badgers one win this weekend. Games are Friday and Saturday at 7:00 p.m.
Drew’s picks: Northern Michigan 4-1, 5-2.
Paula’s picks: Wisconsin 2-1, NMU 4-2.
Michigan State vs. Maine and Lake Superior State
Drew: I kind of wish I was able to go to this tournament, as Portland has been on my list of places I’ve want to visit for a long time. Michigan State will play the host Black Bears on Friday and will face off against Lake Superior State on Saturday in front of a capacity crowd, I’m sure. Attendance should be interesting for all the games in the tournament. Even Maine is playing a two-hour drive away from its campus. I’m sure a few thousand North Dakota fans will somehow show up though; they do love to travel.
Paula: I looked into airfare for this tournament. My dad lived a short walk from the docks when he was in high school, and I spent significant time in Portland long before the city experienced its renaissance several decades ago. Both Maine and Lake Superior State were picked low in their league’s respective preseason polls. If the Spartans return to play the way they ended the season, I see them returning to Michigan with some hardware. Friday’s game against Maine begins at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday’s contest against former CCHA foe Lake Superior State starts at 4:30 p.m.
Drew’s picks: Maine over Michigan State 3-2, Michigan State over Lake Superior State 5-2.
Paula’s picks: Michigan State 2-1, 2-1.
Penn State at Canisius
Drew: If the Nittany Lions are to be a legitimate threat in the Big Ten, they need to prove that they can win away from home. The Golden Griffins are probably a more formidable opponent than I am giving them credit for, but I think Penn State will win easily.
Paula: Canisius was picked fourth in the Atlantic Hockey preseason poll. This is the first meeting between the Nittany Lions and Golden Griffins. Penn State is 1-1-1 in season openers under coach Guy Gadowsky. This single game begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Drew’s pick: Penn State 4-1.
Paula’s pick: Penn State 3-2.
Vermont at Minnesota
Drew: There’s a lot more uncertainty hanging around the Gophers than we’ve become accustomed to over the past couple years. It will be nice to finally evaluate the team by using its performance on the ice rather than speculation. I do think the No. 9 Gophers were a little overrated in the preseason poll, but they should be able to down Vermont at home. Any kinks, however, will have to be worked out in a hurry as Minnesota faces a tough Minnesota-Duluth team next week.
Paula: I think this will be a close game. An inexperienced Minnesota team will be a bit nervous and there will be mistakes made, to be sure. Vermont was picked eighth in the Hockey East preseason poll. I’m looking forward to watching the Minnesota net develop this season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vermont pull off an upset — only because the Gophers may need some time to gel. This single game begins at 7:00 p.m. Saturday.
Drew’s pick: Minnesota 4-3.
Paula’s pick: Minnesota 2-1.
Did you miss us?
Conventional wisdom tells us not to take too much out of exhibition games because, well, they don’t count. Remember, Omaha lost its tuneup game 4-0 last year and made it to the Frozen Four. It is, however, actual college hockey being played, which is something we haven’t seen for a couple months and it is a sight for sore eyes. While this weekend features exhibition play, five Big Ten teams hit the ground running next weekend for some important nonconference games that could factor into how many at-large NCAA berths the conference gets at the end of the year.
Four Big Ten teams play four Canadian college squads in exhibition at home this weekend. Saturday, Ohio State hosts Brock University at 4:00 p.m. Sunday, Windsor and Penn State face off at noon, Western Ontario and Michigan State play at 4:00 p.m. and Toronto faces Michigan at 5:00 p.m.
When Division I play begins next weekend, everyone but Michigan will play. Michigan State will travel to Portland, Maine, for the IceBreaker Tournament, which pits the Spartans against former CCHA rival Lake Superior in the second round. All told, there will be eight games Oct. 9-10 to begin the 2015-2016 season.
I’m heading to Mankato on Sunday to get my preseason hockey fix, since the closest game featuring a Big Ten team would be at Michigan State (just slightly too far at roughly a nine-hour drive) and my fantasy football team seems to do better when I do better when I pay little or no attention to the NFL games.
It’s unlikely that I’ll be able to get to either the Michigan or Michigan State exhibition games this weekend. Sadly. I’ll be writing, though — as will Drew, between trips and fantasy football — because our season preview will be posted this coming Thursday, Oct. 8.
I intentionally skipped over the attendance issue in my blog yesterday because at this point it’s kind of like beating a dead horse. That being said, WCCO’s David McCoy had an interesting piece (which features USCHO’s Todd Milewski) that aired on Rosen’s Sports Sunday last night that I wanted to share.
The whole video is very good, seriously, watch it if you skipped over, but the fact that the combined attendance of the Big Ten, WCHA and NCHC was 20,000 less than the “old” WCHA averaged for the final five years of its postseason tournament is simply astounding. I texted that to one of my buddies and his response was simply, “holy crap.”
Todd is going to post an infographic with attendance number later this week so I won’t get into those. If you watched any of the Big Ten Tournament or follow anyone that covers college hockey on Twitter, it’s painfully easy to see that attendance in Detroit was terrible last weekend.
I don’t know if there’s a quick fix to this problem. If you can think of one, contact the Big Ten and demand employment.
Speaking as a Minnesotan, if the WCHA had stayed together 2014-15 may have very well been the most spectacular college hockey season in the history of the sport. That being said, if you’re the type of person that constantly says “bring back the old WCHA” or “just go back to the way it used to be,” you’re wasting your breath — the Big Ten isn’t going anywhere.
The Big Ten Tournament is guaranteed to be at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul next year and then at Joe Louis Arena the year after. Detroit’s new arena will be nearing completion in 2017, but I am led to believe that it won’t be ready until the 2017-18 NHL season, meaning the B1G Tournament will be at The Joe. Correct me if I’m wrong there, Michigan residents.
2017, whether it’s hosted in the old arena or the new one, will be big for Detroit in terms of hosting again. Another lackluster attendance number could mean that the tournament would rotate between St. Paul and possibly Chicago or simply be in St. Paul each year. I’m not saying that the attendance for last year’s tournament in St. Paul was amazing, it was actually very disappointing, but this year’s attendance was embarrassing.
I think the one thing we have to do is forget about the old WCHA Final Five and CCHA tournament, because I don’t know if the Big Ten Tournament is ever going to hold a candle to either.
However, the Big Ten doesn’t have to be like that to be considered a success. The WCHA only averaged about 8,000 fans this year but I was really impressed with it because there was actually some atmosphere in the building. On Saturday there was a Minnesota Wild game before hand followed by a fan fest and then the championship game. Only selling the lower bowl and having the pep bands with the crowd — as opposed to the nosebleeds — helped, too, even though Michigan Tech’s band had me hearing cowbells in my sleep.
Maybe if the Big Ten incorporated some of those elements it would bring some success, because, as of now, the tournament itself isn’t enough of a spectacle to get people to show up.
Well, the Big Ten Tournament is in the books and five of the conference’s six teams began their offseason this weekend.
In case you live under a rock, here’s how the Big Ten Tournament finished:
- Ohio State defeated Penn State 3-1
- Michigan took down Wisconsin 5-1
- Minnesota defeated Ohio State 3-0
- Michigan beat Michigan State 4-1
- Minnesota defeated Michigan 4-2 in the championship game
And here are my final three thoughts of the season:
1. Hail to the victors, which in this case is Minnesota
Just like the regular season, it was Minnesota hoisting the trophy at the end of the Big Ten Tournament. The Gophers looked like the Gophers this weekend (hopefully that doesn’t start another insanely long battle in the comments between Minnesota and North Dakota fans).
Adam Wilcox played strong in net and Minnesota’s offense showed up in a big was at Joe Louis Arena. This weekend showed what a dangerous team Minnesota has the potential to be, and given how many players it brought back from last year’s team the Gophers have a lot of potential to keep going and make a run in the tournament. If I’m Minnesota State, North Dakota or Miami, I’m absolutely thrilled that Minnesota is not in my regional. They are an extremely dangerous No. 3 seed.
Minnesota started and ended the regular season playing great hockey. The middle, however, was hard to watch at points. What went wrong for the Gophers during the dead of winter? I believe they just underperformed and Wilcox went through the first stretch of bad play in his collegiate career.
Minnesota’s seniors pulled it out and with a confident goaltender in net this team will try to make its third run to the Frozen Four in four years.
The Gophers will play Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the tournament. Fun fact: This will be the fifth meeting between the Gophers and Bulldogs this season and they will finish having not played in the same building twice (Compton Family Ice Arena for the Ice Breaker Tournament, Mariucci Arena, Amsoil Arena, Xcel Energy Center for the North Star College Cup and Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester next weekend).
2. One team in
I predicted that the Gophers would be upset in this tournament, but in reality the way that it did play out is the way that it should have.
The Big Ten didn’t deserve to have more than one representative in the NCAA Tournament this season.
That doesn’t mean that I think if Michigan would have defeated Minnesota on Saturday that it should have declined the bid. It’s just a fact that if this conference fielded two teams another very deserving team would have been out in the cold.
Outside of Minnesota, the other five teams in the conference each had clear-cut reasons why they were not an NCAA-Tournament team. Michigan had defensive troubles, Michigan State had offensive troubles, Ohio State had injury troubles, Penn State had goaltending troubles and Wisconsin, well, the Badgers just had troubles.
3. There’s a need to get more teams into the conference
With the kind of season Wisconsin had this season and Penn State had last season it’s downright scary that they were both three postseason wins from the NCAA Tournament. In your typical conference a team near the bottom of the standings would have to win two out of three games on the road in the first round and then pick up a couple wins at the conference tournament to get into the big dance.
There are a couple solutions to this problem. The bottom four seeds could play a best of three first-round series with the winners advancing to the tournament and playing the top two seeds there or the bottom two teams could simply be eliminated from the postseason.
I think the best way would be to get the conference to eight teams. Problem is that’s also the most complex way.
There are some potential options out there. There’s been grumblings of Arizona State possible joining as a hockey-only member, similar to what Johns Hopkins does in Big Ten lacrosse.
The biggest hurdle for schools when it comes to jumping to Division I is having a building to play in. Right now, only one Big Ten school has a building that would fit the bill. Nebraska’s Pinnacle Bank Arena has the capabilities to host hockey and there would also a practice facility nearby.
Another thing that is intriguing is that the town of Coralville, Iowa, has looked into the potential of building a 7,000-seat arena, which would be able to host hockey. Coralville is very close to the University of Iowa’s campus, like you could walk there close.
Full disclosure, I don’t have any sources saying that these are actual or potential options. They’re just my thoughts. Of course, there also is always the option where someone like Terry Pegula hands a check to an athletic director and says, “I want a hockey team.”
After last weekend’s regular-season photo finish, this weekend’s tournament should prove to be just as exciting. I love both first-round matches and the idea that anyone can win this year’s autobid.
First, how Drew Claussen and I finished the regular season in picks.
Drew Claussen: 3-2-1 (.500)
Paula Weston: 3-2-1 (.500)
Drew: 77-66-11 (.536)
Paula: 71-71-12 (.500)
Woo! Finally, at the end of the regular season, I hit .500. I can claim — for this brief, shining moment — that I’m at least as reliable as a coin toss.
Big Ten Tournament
Paula: Minnesota is this year’s regular-season champion and Michigan State finished in second place, so the Golden Gophers and Spartans each earn a first-round bye and will play the winners of Thursday’s quarterfinal games. Ohio State and Penn State face off in the early Thursday contest; it’s Wisconsin vs. Michigan in the later game.
All games are played in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. Thursday’s and Friday’s contests begin at 4:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday’s championship game begins at 8:00 p.m. All games are televised by the Big Ten Network. Jeremy Potter and I will be covering the tournament this year along with photographer Larry Radloff.
Drew: Outside of the Wisconsin-Michigan game, I feel one could actually pick this tournament with coin flips. It wouldn’t shock me if one or both of the top two seeds struggle with the team it draws on Friday. Unlike last year in St. Paul, where Minnesota and Wisconsin knew that they’d be in the NCAA Tournament regardless of their tournament results, everybody is playing for their NCAA playoff lives in Detroit. That’s going to lead to some entertaining hockey in Detroit.
Paula: I completely agree. Even though Wisconsin has struggled itself mightily this season, there’s no telling what will happen in single-elimination play — and every team ahead of Wisconsin has shown itself to be vulnerable this season.
The Wolverines, Gophers and Nittany Lions bring three of the nations’s top offenses into the weekend, but each has proven that it can display defensive lapses. In spite of having Jake Hildebrand in net and the No. 12 defense in the nation — and the top blue line in the Big Ten — the Spartans last Friday showed that they also can get caught and they need to generate offense. The Buckeyes were injured for much of the season and so are challenged by consistency all around, and the young Badgers are just beginning to learn how to play well as a team.
Interesting things to ponder as we head into the weekend include how each team has fared in its last 10 contests, all Big Ten play:
- Minnesota (7-3-0)
- Michigan State (7-3-0)
- Michigan (4-6-0)
- Penn State (3-7-0)
- Ohio State (6-3-1)
- Wisconsin (2-7-1)
Then there’s head-to-head play in the quarterfinal round. This season, Ohio State is 3-1-0 against Penn State, and Michigan is 4-0-0 against Wisconsin.
Drew: The first game of the tournament should be a good one and I believe that both Ohio State and Penn State can give Minnesota a run for its money on Friday. It looks like we’ll get a sixth meeting between Michigan State and Michigan in the night cap on Friday, which is always an entertaining match-up. This season in the Big Ten was supposed to be all about the goaltenders, and even though the regular season didn’t pan out that way, I think the team with the hottest goaltender will win this tournament. Jake Hildebrand, Adam Wilcox, Christian Frey or — dare I say it? — Joel Rumpel are skilled enough netminders to get on a hot streak and carry their respective teams to three wins this weekend.
Paula: Again, I couldn’t agree more. I’m still banking on Jake Hildebrand.
Drew’s picks: On Thursday, Penn State over Ohio State 4-3, and Michigan over Wisconsin 5-1. On Friday, Minnesota over Penn State 3-2, and Michigan over Michigan State 4-2. Championship: Michigan over Minnesota, 3-1.
Paula’s picks: Honestly, I can see anyone emerging from this field with this year’s autobid, even Wisconsin — although the Badgers would have to get some help from their opponents in the form of timely mistakes on which Wisconsin could capitalize and an unbelievable performance in net from Joel Rumpel. It is likely that Minnesota will emerge the champs, given the way the Badgers closed ranks last weekend to secure the regular-season title.
That’s not how I’m calling it, though. On Thursday, Ohio State over Penn State 4-3, and Michigan over Wisconsin 4-2. In the semifinals, I’m going with the higher seeds: Minnesota over Ohio State 4-2, and Michigan State over Michigan 2-1. And in the championship game, Michigan State over Minnesota 2-1.
Congratulations to all the Big Ten postseason honorees, especially Player of the Year Jake Hildebrand, Defensive Player of the Year — for the second straight year — Mike Reilly, Freshman of the Year Dylan Larkin and Coach of the Year Guy Gadowsky.
And congratulations to Michigan senior forward Zach Hyman, who is one of 10 Hobey Baker finalists. Hyman has been especially fun to watch this season. In 114 games in his first three seasons, Hyman registered 13 goals and 22 assists total. In 34 games so far this year, he has 19 goals and 30 assists.
Congratulations to the Golden Gophers on their second consecutive Big Ten regular-season title! The last weekend of regular-season Big Ten play was very exciting and each series revealed quite a bit about the teams involved heading into next week’s championship tournament in Joe Louis Arena.
1. Minnesota took care of business. The end.
Heading into the weekend, the Gophers were tied for second place with Michigan and the Wolverines owned the first tiebreaker, number of Big Ten wins. In other words, Minnesota didn’t control its own fate. All the Gophers could do was take care of business — and that’s exactly what they did to ensure the best possible outcome for the weekend, sweeping Penn State at home and outscoring the Nittany Lions 11-2.
The first period of each game was critical. Friday night, the Gophers led 3-0 at the end of the first. Saturday, after Penn State opened the scoring at 15:16 in the first, two guys who should score for Minnesota — Seth Ambroz and Hudson Fasching — answered at 17:49 and 18:09, respectively, to give Minnesota a 2-1 lead after one. Kyle Rau made it 3-1 early in the second, but Penn State’s James Robinson scored to bring the Nittany Lions to within one at 6:30 … and the Gophers answered almost immediately. At 7:33, freshman defenseman Ryan Collins netted his first collegiate goal to give the Gophers some room.
This is not to take anything away from what Penn State accomplished this season, but when up against a team that was playing for its fourth straight regular-season conference title, the Nittany Lions — an offense capable of scoring many goals — found the net twice all weekend, two goals in Saturday’s 6-2 loss.
2. Michigan and Michigan State took care of some business, and it was glorious hockey.
The Wolverines and the Spartans were each playing for a regular-season title as well. While each obviously fell short, each delivered great hockey and each takes something unique into Joe Louis Arena next weekend.
First, the Wolverines. In Munn Arena Friday night, Michigan put on its own impressive display, scoring twice early in the first period and then twice late in the third to secure a 5-3 win over Michigan State, a win that helped them keep pace for the night with Minnesota. The three goals the Wolverines did allow in that game — Spartan Ryan Keller’s first career hat trick — were fluky, and without question Zach Nagelvoort would have liked to have had at least two of them back. The third was tipped in by UM defender Michael Downing. It was that kind of night.
While the Spartans won 2-1 the following night in Yost Arena, there was no shame in Michigan’s loss. The Wolverines attempted over 90 shots in the second contest and put a total of 38 shots on Michigan State’s Jake Hildebrand. For the weekend, Michigan registered 82 shots on goal and dozens of them — no exaggeration — were Grade-A chances. As Red Berenson said after Saturday’s loss, “I wouldn’t want to play us next weekend.”
Second, the Spartans. While Michigan clearly outplayed Michigan State Friday night, the Spartans did everything they could in that contest to win. They played physical, gritty hockey. They made the most of those three fluky chances, and Keller’s second goal of the night — a breakaway that he scored sprawled on his belly, sliding toward the Michigan net, pushing the puck through Nagelvoort’s legs to get the goal — was a single example of the determination that the entire Michigan State team displayed.
Saturday’s game was one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, and Berenson himself said in reference to Hildebrand’s play that he couldn’t recall a better performance by a goaltender. Hildebrand was amazing. To paraphrase an observer in the press box, in the third period Hildebrand put a “closed” sign on the net.
Michigan State’s response Saturday to Friday’s loss was, well, impressive. The Spartans scored in the first period and played a much more disciplined, focused, complete game, earning their first win in Yost Arena since 2009.
Each of these teams comes out of the weekend with a better understanding of themselves. Additionally, the Spartans come out winning their last regular-season game and earning a first-round bye for next weekend’s tournament.
3. Ohio State did everything it could to tune up for next weekend.
The Buckeyes took five of six possible points on the road last weekend from the Badgers, tying Wisconsin 2-2 Friday night and taking that extra point in the 10th round of the shootout — and everyone knows that winning the shootout feels like winning the game, so the Buckeyes feel as though they swept their last regular-season weekend.
In Saturday’s 2-0 win, Ohio State outshot Wisconsin 42-17. Sophomore goaltender Matt Tomkins earned his second shutout of the season, the third of his career, in that win. Christian Frey — who is 5-3-1 for the Buckeyes since Valentine’s Day weekend — had the tie the night before, so the Buckeyes head into next weekend knowing they have two goalies who are ready to play.
From Jan. 10 through Feb. 7, the Buckeyes lost six consecutive games, giving up 30 goals in that span. Since then, OSU is 6-3-1 and the Buckeyes have reduced their goals-against by half, going from 5.0 against on average during the losing streak to 2.6 against per game in their last 10 contests.
That is an impressive finish to a season for a team that finished in next-to-last place.
The Big Ten Tournament
For Thursday’s semifinals, No. 6 Wisconsin plays No. 3 Michigan and No. 5 Ohio State plays No. 4 Penn State. My early predictions: Michigan and Ohio State prevail, setting up yet another match between the Spartans and Wolverines Friday night.
I can’t wait.
The season comes down to this weekend of play. It shouldn’t surprise you that Drew Claussen and I are disagreeing about how it will end — and it won’t surprise you a bit come Sunday if he’s the one who had it right all along. First, our picks so far.
Drew Claussen: 3-3-0 (.500)
Paula Weston: 3-3-0 (.500)
Ah, if only the Buckeyes and Gophers had each won on the nights that I predicted. Sigh.
Drew: 74-64-10 (.534)
Paula: 68-69-11 (.497)
Last week, I added my wins incorrectly, resulting in a slightly lower accuracy percentage. It doesn’t help to know that I’m this close to .500 — nor does it really matter in the slightest, in the greater scheme of things.
Michigan State is in first place with 34 points, one point ahead of the two second-place teams, Michigan and Minnesota. In third place is Penn State, two points behind the Wolverines and Gophers and three behind the Spartans. Ohio State and Wisconsin play to tune up for next week’s Big Ten tournament. This is a great weekend of hockey.
Michigan vs. Michigan State
Drew: This is going to be an exciting series, although that’s not really saying a lot because it’s the last weekend of conference play and two out of the three series are going to be very exciting. To give credit where credit is due, Michigan State’s play has been very impressive during the second half of the season. The Spartans have had effective defensive play and opportunistic scoring. Both teams have been great at home this season, so I really can’t see this series ending in anything other than a split with each team winning its home game. However, with the way I’ve been picking splits for the last month, both will probably find a way to each win a road game.
Paula: This is more than just an exciting series. If Michigan State wins out, the Spartans are the regular-season champs. If Michigan wins out, the Wolverines are the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament; even if both the Wolverines and the Golden Gophers sweep — giving each team 39 points — Michigan would have one more Big Ten win than would Minnesota. Michigan is already 2-1-0 against Michigan State this season, having won the GLI tournament and split the first series, dropping a game in Joe Louis Arena and winning in Soldier Field. For my money, this is the series of the weekend — especially if the Spartans prevail Friday night. Both games are carried by Fox Sports Detroit. Friday’s game begins at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday’s at 5:00. I’m going all in on Jake Hildebrand.
Drew’s picks: Michigan State 2-1, Michigan 4-2.
Paula’s picks: Michigan State 2-1, 2-1.
Penn State at Minnesota
Drew: As I teased in the “Three Things” blog last Sunday, I’m sticking with my preseason pick of Minnesota to win the regular-season title. Penn State is a tough team and the Nittany Lions are coming off of an impressive sweep of Michigan last weekend, but the Gophers are too good on their Olympic-sized ice sheet (12-3-1 at Mariucci this season). With the most far-fetched scenario to finish first, Penn State has the least pressure to sweep this weekend. That could actually lead to some favorable results for the Nittany Lions since the other three teams at the top of the standings may feel like their backs are against the wall, but, like I said in the beginning, I’m picking a Minnesota sweep.
Paula: Once again, I respectfully disagree with my colleague-in-writing. The pressure for Penn State to sweep is every bit as real and pressing as is the pressure for any of the other teams in the Big Ten to sweep. Not only is there a regular-season title at stake, but the Nittany Lions are 27th in the PairWise Rankings and will likely need to win the playoff championship for an NCAA bid. Sweeping Minnesota won’t put them into immediate PWR contention, but two wins against the Gophers — regardless of what else happens ahead of them in the standings — would go a long way toward confidence entering next weekend’s play and in the unlikely scenario that both the Nittany Lions and the Spartans sweep, Penn State gets a first-round bye for next week’s tournament. I’d say that’s pressure enough for any team. These teams split a pair of one-goal games in Pegula Arena three weeks ago, with the Nittany Lions winning in OT the second night. Each of these games begins at 7:00 p.m. Friday’s is carried by American Sports Network and Saturday’s by Fox Sports North Plus.
Drew’s picks: Minnesota 4-3, 3-2.
Paula’s picks: Where Drew and I do agree is in the picking. Minnesota 3-2, 3-2.
Ohio State at Wisconsin
Drew: This series may be an afterthought in terms of conference standings but it’s very important in terms of Ohio State wanting to keep its streak of good play going heading into the postseason. The Buckeyes are 5-3 in their last eight contests and have two impressive splits with Minnesota and Michigan. Their other loss was to the Badgers on Valentine’s Day weekend in Columbus. The Badgers are coming off of a weekend where they were absolutely dominated by Michigan State to the tune of two 3-0 shutout losses. The Kohl Center isn’t an easy building for opponents to get a sweep in, but I’m picking Ohio State to do that this weekend.
Paula: When I talked to Guy Gadowsky for my column this week, he said, “Ohio State is a team that is absolutely better than its record.” Every other coach I reached agreed. The Buckeyes are healthy and dangerous and no one wants to play them in Detroit next weekend. In their split with Wisconsin Feb. 13-14, OSU won 2-1 Friday and lost 3-2 Saturday after leading until midway through the second. If this were any other weekend or if Ohio State were hosting, I’d call a sweep by the Buckeyes. I’m lousy at predicting which team will win which night of a split, but I say the Badgers take their final home game of the season.
Drew’s picks: Ohio State 4-2, 3-1.
Paula’s picks: Ohio State 3-2, Wisconsin 3-2.