Pickin’ the last regular-season weekend of the Big Ten: March 13-14

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.

Last week
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.

This week

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.

Three things from the weekend in the B1G

The second-to-last weekend of Big Ten play is in the books and the only thing we know for certain is that the last weekend is going to be drama-filled. Michigan State swept Wisconsin and now occupies the top spot in the conference standings. The distance between the first-place Spartans and fourth-place Penn State is three points.

Here’s how things played out this weekend:

  • Michigan State swept Wisconsin at home with two 3-0 victories
  • Minnesota and Ohio State split a series in Columbus. The Gophers won 4-2 on Friday and the Buckeyes won 5-2 on Saturday
  • Penn State swept Michigan by winning Friday’s game 6-4 and Saturday’s contest 4-3

Here are three things I saw this weekend:

1. Michigan State did what it was supposed to 

Two shutout victories against Wisconsin may not be something to brag about but with the parity in this conference the two victories are a feather in the Spartans’ cap heading into the final weekend.

It was a very workman-like performance for the Spartans, who scored three power-play goals this weekend. Jake Hildebrand had a relatively-easy-21 saves on Friday but was stellar in Saturday’s game and stopped 38 shots. His performance will more than likely net him the first-star award this week, unless it goes to his teammate Matt Berry and his three goal and one assist weekend.

This wins against Wisconsin this weekend also remind me of the missed opportunity that Michigan State had a couple weeks ago when it dropped Friday’s game against the Badgers at the Kohl Center 2-1. Had the Spartans found a way to pick up three points in that game they’d be in a very comfortable spot heading into the final weekend.

2. The curious case of Michigan

At this point I feel like picking Michigan games with a coin flip might yield better results than actually trying to figure out what kind of effort you will get from the team.

Now I’m not trying to take anything away from Penn State, the Nittany Lions are an extremely tough team to play especially when they’re at home, but Michigan not being able to at least put together one complete effort this weekend is kind of ridiculous. We saw the defense that struggled to stop anything on Friday night and an offense that, outside of one player, couldn’t get anything going on Saturday.

The losses dropped Michigan’s road record to 4-10.  The Wolverines and Spartans will play a home-and-home series next weekend.

3. The standings 

Here’s what the standings currently look like with two games remaining:

1. Michigan State — 34 points
2. Michigan — 33
2. Minnesota — 33
4. Penn State — 31
5. Oho State — 21
6. Wisconsin — 10

Minnesota will host Penn State at home to close out the regular season. Like I mentioned before, Michigan and Michigan State will play a home-and-home series and Wisconsin hosts Ohio State.

I picked Minnesota to win the league during the preseason and expected the Gophers to have things wrapped up by the last weekend. Paula and I will, of course, reveal our revised predictions in Friday’s picks blog.

Spoiler: Mine hasn’t changed.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: March 6-7

It’s the penultimate week of the regular season. Yes, I wait all year to be able to use that word.

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

Drew: 71-61-10 (.535)
Paula: 63-66-11 (.496)

I can still hold out some hope for hitting .500 before the regular season ends. And poor Drew has had two weeks like I had for two months in the first half.

This week

Eight points separate first-place Michigan from fourth-place Penn State this week, and the Wolverines travel to Pegula Arena for two. Second-place Minnesota is three points behind Michigan and two points ahead of third-place Michigan State, and both the Golden Gophers and the Spartans are playing opponents significantly behind them in the standings. An interesting week, for sure.

Michigan at Penn State

Drew: Where Ohio State has been heating up at the right time, Penn State has gone ice cold at the absolute worst time of the season, and losing senior Taylor Holstrom for the rest of the year is going to make things that much more difficult. The Nittany Lions’ saving grace may be that they are hosting Michigan this weekend because Pegula Ice Arena is quickly becoming one of the nation’s toughest buildings to play in.

Michigan is riding a high right now; the Wolverines have followed a three-game losing streak with a three-game winning streak. These two teams split a series at Yost earlier this season and I’m tempted to pick that result again, but I think the Wolverines are going to out-gun the Nittany Lions this time around.

Paula: Holstrom (7-26–33) is second on the PSU team in scoring and was injured in last Saturday’s 5-3 loss to Ohio State. It is a blow for a team that is 1-5-0 in its last six, having dropped two games to OSU by the same score last weekend. When the Nittany Lions and Wolverines met in Ann Arbor Nov. 21-22, Penn State took the first game 3-2 but Michigan dominated the following night in an 8-1 win.

As good as the Nittany Lions are at home (11-2-3), I think these are Michigan’s game to lose — and this will be a big test for the Wolverines, who have yet to find week-to-week consistency in team defense. Michigan swept Wisconsin last weekend, scoring three goals in the third period of Saturday’s 5-2 win and looking like Michigan teams of old. How that translates through an entire weekend in Hockey Valley, though, is anyone’s guess. Friday’s game begins at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday’s at 3:00 p.m. and — sadly — neither is televised.

Drew’s picks: Michigan 5-2, 6-3.
Paula’s picks: Michigan 4-2, Penn State 3-2.

Minnesota at Ohio State

Drew: A split with Michigan State last weekend landed the Gophers back in second place in the standings and now Minnesota will head on the road to face a team that is playing a heck of a lot better than it was a month ago. The Gophers did sweep Ohio State at Mariucci, but I believe we will see a much closer series in Columbus this weekend. Though the Buckeyes’ sweep over Penn State may not be as impressive as it would have been if the Nittany Lions weren’t riding a 1-3 streak going into the series, I don’t think those results were an anomaly. When healthy, Ohio State can play some decent hockey.

Like many others, I wasn’t very impressed with the Gophers’ effort at home last weekend. Other than the second and third periods that led to the comeback on Thursday, their play was flat, boring and rather uninspired. That being said, with the way this team is capable of playing it’s hard to pick anything but a Gophers sweep this weekend. Ohio State stealing one wouldn’t shock me, but I’m not going to bet on it.

Paula: As Drew says, the key to Ohio State’s success is the team’s health. For long stretches of the season, the Buckeyes were playing with injuries to several key players and they did look good against PSU last weekend. The Golden Gophers look more mortal this season than they have in recent years, but they have the weapons they need to be dangerous in the hunt for a regular-season title.

Minnesota is 17-2-1 against Ohio State all-time, and last season the Gophers were 3-1-1-0 against the Buckeyes. If Minnesota wins Friday night, the Gophers sweep. If not, it’s a split — and that’s what I’m calling. Friday’s game begins at 5:00 p.m. and is televised by ESPNU and TSN2; Saturday’s 6:00 p.m. start is carried by ESPNews.

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

Wisconsin at Michigan State

Drew: This is a must-sweep for the Spartans at home. There’s really no other way to put it. Wisconsin has improved over the second half of the season, but if Michigan State wants to continue to be a threat to nab one of the top Big Ten Tournament seeds, it needs six points at home against the Badgers. Jake Hildebrand has been playing very well and should be able to shut down Bucky this weekend.

Paula: Last weekend, the Badgers dropped those two games in Ann Arbor and the Spartans split in Minneapolis, never trailing in Saturday’s 4-2 win. These teams met two weeks ago in Madison, when the Badgers picked up their second conference win of the season with a 2-1 game Friday, Feb. 20, a victory that gave Wisconsin its only consecutive winning game days of all of 2014-2015, as the Badgers beat the Buckeyes the previous Saturday night. Since that win, Wisconsin is 0-3; since that loss to the Badgers, the Spartans are 2-1.

The Spartans are 6-2-0 in their last eight games, all in conference play. In that stretch, MSU has allowed 10 total goals and Hildebrand’s save percentage has been .963. Friday’s 7:00 p.m. game is not televised, but Saturday’s 7:00 p.m. rematch is carried by Fox Sports Detroit and Fox Sports West Plus.

Drew’s picks: Michigan State 3-1, 3-0.
Paula’s picks: Michigan State 3-1, 3-1.

Three things as the regular season wanes

Two of my observations this week come from a single post-game press conference.

1. Red Berenson thinks that this Michigan team has potential — as in postseason potential.

The Michigan coach never said as much outright, but the way he talked about his squad after the Wolverines completed their sweep of the Badgers Saturday evening said everything that wasn’t articulated. While Berenson called the team “a work in progress,” he also said, “We’ve had some really good moments and then some not-so-good moments, but I think you can just see it getting better month to month. Penalty killing has been a concern. It’s getting better as well. The power play can be dangerous. It certainly looked like an old-time Michigan hockey team.”

An “old-time Michigan hockey team” is code for a team that can pour the puck into the net — and that’s what this team has the potential to do. The Wolverines scored eight goals against Wisconsin, turning up the heat in Saturday’s win with three third-period tallies. The Wolverines are averaging 3.97 goals per game — down from the four-plus they were scoring for weeks on end, but still top in the country — and if Michigan gets the goaltending it needs, the team will indeed be dangerous. That power play, incidentally, is third-best (25.2 percent) in the nation.

More than anything, it’s the look in Berenson’s eye when he talks about old-time Michigan hockey that is intriguing. He’s a man who believes.

2. Mike Eaves is feeling a little bit like a broken record.

Don’t believe me? Ask him. “It’s like a broken record and they’ve heard it many times before. We just didn’t go out and execute.”

That’s what Eaves said after Wisconsin was swept by the Wolverines. It’s not just that Eaves was conveying to the press — which consisted of Wisconsin State Journal reporter Andy Baggot and me — that he and his coaching staff have delivered the same message repeatedly to the Badgers, but that Eaves feels as though he’s answering the same questions over and over and over again about the team, after nearly every game. It was a palpable frustration from a man whose program won the first-ever Big Ten playoff championship a season ago, a team that now sits in the cellar of league standings.

The Badgers didn’t play poorly and they’re certainly improved from where they were in the first half of the season, but Wisconsin is still making rookie mistakes — for lack of a better phrase — when possessing the puck. Leaving goaltender Joel Rumpel out in the cold doesn’t help them, either.

3. The Big Ten Tournament is anyone’s game — still.

After Minnesota split with Michigan State and Ohio State swept Penn State, it should be pretty clear that the tournament in Joe Louis Arena just shy of three weeks away can go to anyone in this league. Yes. Even Wisconsin. My money’s still on Michigan State.

And a bonus observation.

The renovations to Yost Ice Arena are stunning. All of the technical updates to the arena are impressive, but the crowning jewel is the highlighting of the architecture itself. Exposing the arched windows after they’d been bricked up for decades was one of the smartest decisions the university made. I brought someone to his first game at Yost Saturday afternoon, and he stopped dead in his proverbial tracks when he walked in and saw the place, light filtering in through the windows.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Feb. 26-28

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

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

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

This week

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

Michigan State at Minnesota

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

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

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

Penn State at Ohio State

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

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

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

Wisconsin at Michigan

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

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

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

Three things from the split-filled weekend in the B1G

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

Here’s how things panned out:

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

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

1. Right back where we started

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

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

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

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

2. No easy games 

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

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

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

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

3. Quick rule refresher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source — bigten.com

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

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Feb. 20-22

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

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

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

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

This week

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

Michigan vs. Ohio State

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

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

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

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

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

Michigan State at Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minnesota at Penn State

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

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

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

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

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

Sweeping, clogging the standings and winning one, finally

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

1. Six points makes a big difference.

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

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

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

3. Finally, a win.

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

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Feb. 13-14

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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

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

That’s what I call love.

This week

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

Michigan at Minnesota

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penn State at Michigan State

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

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

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

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

Wisconsin at Ohio State

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

Paula: These are the first meetings of the season for these two teams, who will complete their play the final weekend of the regular season (March 13-14). Wisconsin went 3-2-0 against Ohio State last season, including a 5-4 overtime win in the Big Ten tournament. Last weekend, the Badgers scored three goals in two losses to Penn State on the road, while the Buckeyes scored four goals in two road losses to Minnesota. OSU is looking to snap a six-game losing streak while the Badgers are looking for their first Big Ten win of the season. Friday’s game begins at 6:30 p.m. and is carried by the Big Ten network; Saturday’s game starts at 7:00 p.m. and is not televised.

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

Three things from the weekend in the Big Ten

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

Here’s how things ended up:

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

Here are my three thoughts from the weekend:

1. Penn State is a very dangerous team

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Gophers looked like the Gophers again

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

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

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

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

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

3. Good things come to those who wait

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

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

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

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