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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)

Season
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)

Season
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)

Season
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)

Season
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.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Jan. 23-24

There is interesting conference and nonconference play this week. First, our records.

Last week
Drew Claussen: 2-1-2 (.600)
Paula Weston: 2-1-2 (.600)

Season
Drew: 51-46-8 (.524)
Paula: 42-54-9 (.443)

This Week

Everyone plays this weekend. There are two conference series, there is one nonconference series and there is the North Star College Cup.

Michigan at Wisconsin

Drew: Obviously they need to focus on simply winning a couple games, but I’d like the see the Wolverines also focus on their defensive technique this weekend. A team that has the Achilles’ heel of being prone to giving up four, five or six goals in a game is not going to go far when the postseason comes around. Michigan has been able to outscore its bad defense recently, but things will catch up to the Wolverines if things aren’t fixed. The Badgers are down a player, so even though their improved play has allowed them to be more successful the past couple weekends, this has Michigan sweep written all over it.

Paula: I, too, wonder how long it will be before Michigan’s team defense — or lack thereof — will prove too counterproductive to overcome, but I don’t think this will be the weekend, either. The Wolverines beat the Buckeyes on the road, 10-6, Jan. 16, their only game last weekend. On the road, the Badgers tied the Golden Gophers, 2-2, and earned a shootout point Jan. 16, then lost to Minnesota the following night, 5-2. The Badgers went 2-1-1 against the Wolverines last season, sweeping in Madison (Jan. 10-11, 2014) before losing and tying in Ann Arbor a few weeks later. Both of these games are televised. Friday’s 8:00 p.m. start is carried by the Big Ten Network, and Saturday’s 7:00 p.m. game will be televised by The Wisconsin Channel.

Drew’s picks: Michigan 3-0, 5-2.
Paula’s picks: Michigan 5-2, 5-2.

Ohio State at Michigan State

Drew: The last series was a split in Columbus and it’s looking like there might be another one this weekend, although the Buckeyes have actually been better on the road than at home this season. I’m going to recycle my line from last week concerning the Spartans; they’ve been a team that does not get swept this year. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that streak ends this weekend and that Ohio State comes out eager to put last weekend’s loss to Michigan in the rear-view mirror. That’s based on a gut feeling which, with how my picking has dropped off the planet lately, will probably be wrong.

Paula: The Buckeyes had that 10-6 loss to Michigan last Friday while the Spartans tied Penn State, 2-2, Jan. 16 and picked up the shootout point, then lost to the Nittany Lions, 5-2, the following night. The Buckeyes are 5-2-3 against the Spartans in the last 10 meetings and split a pair of games in Columbus earlier this season (Nov. 20-21, 2014). Both of these games begin at 7:00 p.m. and both are televised. Friday’s contest is carried by Fox Sports Detroit and SportsTime Ohio, while Saturday’s game is on the Big Ten Network.

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

Northern Michigan at Penn State

Drew: This series got a lot more interesting due to some happenings at Northern Michigan this week. The Wildcats will be without Walt Kyle who was placed on “administrative leave” this week. The loss of the head coach could either make the team band together and play well or completely unravel. Even though it was ranked for a chunk of time this season, Northern Michigan was swept by Alabama-Hunstville last weekend, so I’m going to pick the second option.

Paula: I don’t know what’s happening in Marquette regarding Kyle’s administrative leave plus the move to place Bridget Berube Carter, NMU’s associate athletic director, on indefinite administrative leave, and I cannot presume to know how it will affect the Wildcats, but I’m sure that Drew is correct that it will have at least some impact. These teams have never met, but the coaches are certainly familiar with each other. Last weekend, the Nittany Lions tied and defeated visiting Michigan State, bringing PSU’s home record to 7-1-2. The Wildcats were swept in Huntsville by the Chargers and are now 1-3-2 in their last six games, all since the start of the calendar year. Friday’s 7:00 p.m. game is not televised, but the Big Ten Network has Saturday’s 4:30 p.m. game.

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

North Star College Cup

Paula: This field includes Bemijdi State, Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota State. Games are at 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with Bemidji State playing Minnesota-Duluth in the first game and Minnesota State playing Minnesota in the second. The winners advance to Saturday’s 7:00 p.m. title game; Friday’s losing teams play the earlier Saturday game. Friday night’s game between the Golden Gophers and Mavericks will be carried by Fox Sports North Plus, and whichever game the Gophers play Saturday will be televised by Fox Sports North.

Minnesota captured the inaugural North Star College Cup in 2014, winning a shootout following a 4-4 title game tie against St. Cloud State. This year, if the championship game ends in a tie, there will be 20-minute overtime periods until there’s a winner. All three of the other games in the tourney will still resort to five-minute overtimes followed by shootouts.

Last weekend, the Gophers tied visiting Wisconsin 2-2 and lost that shootout before defeating the Badgers 5-2. Their first opponent, Minnesota State, rides an eight-game undefeated streak (7-0-1) into this tournament, dating to Dec. 6, 2014. Last weekend, the Mavericks swept Ferris State in Big Rapids, 2-1 and 3-1. Bemidji State lost two road games to Lake Superior State last weekend, 1-0 and 4-2. At home last weekend, Minnesota-Duluth tied Western Michigan 2-2 before beating the Broncos 4-2.

Drew: One year after I picked the Mavericks to win the inaugural NSCC, and they went 0-2, the Mavericks will roll into the tournament as the No. 1 team in the country and the favorite to win the whole thing. Oh what a difference a year makes. Friday night may very well be the first time that Minnesota State will be an honest favorite over Minnesota and the Mavericks will be an incredibly tough test for the Gophers. As I noted in my column this week, Adam Wilcox’s numbers drop off when he sees 30 or more shots. The Gophers have only allowed just over 23 shots against in his 11 wins this season. I’d say that it is a pretty safe bet that Minnesota State will put 30 shots on frame on Friday. Minnesota State has had a tough time in its previous games at the Xcel Energy Center and has struggled against the Gophers in the past; however, I don’t think it’s fair to compare this year’s squad to any of Mankato’s past teams, even last year’s team, which ended up being a pretty good one. If the Mavericks can get a decent effort from whoever Mike Hastings puts in net — Stephon Williams or Cole Huggins — I think Minnesota State wins on Friday.

As far as the rest of the tournament, there’s no shootout this year! Actually, there’s no shootout in the championship game. The semifinals games will use the same format as last year, but I still like the rule change. I’m temped to pick Bemidji State to pull the upset on Minnesota-Duluth. The Beavers have the talent to do so, but their inconsistency makes me shy away from actually picking it.

Drew’s picks: Minnesota-Duluth over Bemidji State 5-2 and Minnesota State over Minnesota 4-2. Gophers over Beavers 4-1 in the third-place game and Mavericks over Bulldogs 3-2 in the championship, which let’s say goes to overtime and brings those new rules into play, just for fun.

Paula’s picks: Minnesota-Duluth over Bemidji State, 4-2, in the early Friday game, and an upset win by the Gophers over the Mavericks Friday night, 3-2. Minnesota State over Bemidji State in the consolation game Saturday, 5-2, and the Gophers defend their North Star Cup title with a 3-2 win over Duluth. And, yes, I know how unlikely this scenario is.

Too many goals, too little consistency, too tough to die

This past weekend of Big Ten hockey was nothing if not interesting. Here are three things that remain with me today.

1. Michigan can’t maintain a top position in the league if the Wolverines continue to cough up more than five goals per game.

I do hope you got to see Michigan’s 10-6 win over Ohio State Friday night, because the game was highly entertaining. For stretches of time, both teams could score at will: in a span of 1:13 late in the first period, the teams combined for three goals; they did it again between 1:42 and 3:05 in the second; in the third period, OSU’s Anthony Greco scored two goals six seconds apart, and the teams exchanged goals 20 seconds apart six minutes later. Highly entertaining. Highly unsustainable.

The Wolverines have allowed 14 goals in their last three games. Surprisingly, all three of these were Michigan wins. While Michigan has the top offense in the nation now, averaging 4.15 goals per game, the Wolverines have the 46th-best scoring defense in the country, allowing 3.10 goals per game. As good as the Michigan offense is — and it looks mighty, mighty fine right now — it’s unrealistic to expect this team to score so much in every game that it can continue to allow more than four goals each contest and win.

And my sympathies to the Buckeyes. Usually when you score six goals, you win your game.

2. Minnesota is still in the mix at the top, but the Golden Gophers need to play more consistent hockey.

It seems to be a theme this season in the Big Ten, teams with talent but without sufficient consistency. Minnesota appears to be the poster child for that theme, having played some very uneven hockey in the last two weeks. First there was a sweep at the hands of Michigan in Ann Arbor, followed by this weekend’s four points at home against Wisconsin — and in both series, the Gophers were prone to giving up key goals late in the game. Against Michigan two weekends ago, a late third-period goal led to a tie and eventual overtime loss. Against Wisconsin this past Friday night, the Gophers allowed two goals in the third that evened up the game and garnered them just a point for their efforts, as the Badgers took the shootout. In Saturday’s 5-2 win, Minnesota was leading 5-0 before the midway point of the game but the Badgers had the final two goals of the game — not enough for Wisconsin to overcome that deficit and not enough to sound a giant alarm, but still something to puzzle out if you’re the Minnesota coaching staff.

3. Michigan State gets points every weekend and Wisconsin is learning how to compete.

The Spartans proved their tenacity in their road series against Penn State, earning a win and extra shootout point before dropping Saturday’s game. Michigan State has yet to be swept in 2014-2015, and capturing those two points in Pegula Arena was no small task, given that the Nittany Lions are now 7-1-2 at home this season.

As for the Badgers, a week after watching a 3-1 lead against Boston University evaporate in the final two minutes of regulation, Wisconsin scored two goals in the final 10 minutes of Friday’s game against Minnesota to force overtime and then got the better of the Gophers in the shootout. That is progress. The Badgers are 1-3-2 in their last six games — all since the start of the calendar year — and with that tie and shootout point have earned their first Big Ten points of the season.

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