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Pickin’ the Big Ten: Jan. 16-17

Everyone plays this weekend and it’s all about the Big Ten, but first our numbers.

Last week
Drew Claussen: 2-3-1 (.188)
Paula Weston: 5-0-1 (.438)

Season
Drew: 49-45-6 (.520)
Paula: 40-53-7 (.435)

I should have played the lottery.

This week

While everyone plays, not everyone plays two games. Michigan travels to Columbus for a single game against Ohio State Friday night.

Michigan at Ohio State

Drew: Michigan is rolling right now and I think that confidence will improve its road record over the next couple weeks. The Wolverines smoked the Buckeyes earlier this season, and even though I think home ice for Ohio State will help make this a closer game, I can’t pick against Michigan right now.

Paula: This is a game that makes me wish I still lived a short drive from the Schott — at least for a night — because it’s a game that draws in Value City Arena and there is real passion on the ice. The Wolverines beat the Buckeyes 8-3 when they met in Yost (Dec. 5), and — like Drew — I don’t expect the game to be quite so lopsided this time around. Michigan leads OSU 76-33-12 all-time, including 34-16-5 in Columbus, and the Wolverines are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games versus the Buckeyes. Last weekend, Ohio State split with Penn State while Michigan swept Minnesota. This game begins at 7:00 p.m. Friday and is televised by both Fox Sports Detroit plus and SportsTime Ohio.

Drew’s pick: Michigan 3-1.
Paula’s pick: Michigan 4-1.

Michigan State at Penn State

Drew: Unlike Minnesota, Penn State rebounded from a disappointing overtime loss last Friday evening and salvaged the series split against Ohio State. The Nittany Lions have cooled down since their sweep of Wisconsin, but not starting 2015 off 0-2 was huge for them. I do believe Penn State is the better team in this series and its 6-1-1 home record has me thinking sweep, but Michigan State hasn’t been an easy team to sweep this season. On the other hand, the Spartans haven’t been able to sweep an opponent either, so a split is a pretty logical choice.

Paula: It is hard to argue with that logic. Both the Nittany Lions and the Spartans are much improved this season. Each plays hard — although I’d argue that Michigan State plays a bit more consistently, game to game and within games, in spite of each team’s respective record. Last weekend, the Spartans beat the U.S. Under-18 Team 4-1 (Jan. 9), but the Spartans haven’t played a game that counted since the title contest of the GLI Dec. 29, a tough 2-1 loss to Michigan. The Spartans were 3-0-1 against the Nittany Lions in 2013-2014; in Pegula Arena last season, the teams skated to a 2-2 tie (Feb. 14) followed by a 2-1 Michigan State win the next day. Friday’s game begins at 7:00 p.m. and is not televised. Saturday’s contest starts at 5:00 p.m. and is carried by ESPNU.

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

Wisconsin at Minnesota

Drew: According to Minnesota’s players the rivalry with Wisconsin is about even, maybe slightly below, the rivalry with North Dakota. Although I personally would put a couple of the in-state schools above Wisconsin, the Gophers and Badgers usually play very closely contested games against each other and the two teams are without a doubt each other’s biggest conference rivals. The Badgers have struggled all season and the Gophers have struggled since their series with Minnesota-Duluth in mid-November. Wisconsin stole a tie from Boston University last weekend and Joel Rumpel has the ability to steal a game or two from Minnesota this weekend. If Rumpel doesn’t have a strong series, the Gophers have the firepower to win, but I’m more interested to see how their defense and goaltender Adam Wilcox rebound from their less-than-stellar stretch they’ve had. A Wisconsin sweep, or maybe even a split, would send Minnesota’s fan base into total meltdown mode but as much as I love a good meltdown, I don’t see that happening.

Paula: I don’t think either of these teams is as bad as either’s fan base is lamenting right now. Having said that, I think there is a huge gulf between the teams; while each may be struggling, Minnesota’s issues are localized and temporary at this point, while Wisconsin’s are growing pains that will take a season to cure. It’s true that the Badgers stole a tie from the Terriers last weekend — but, boy, did they try to lose that game, surrendering two empty-net goals in the final two minutes of regulation to negate a 3-1 lead. And it’s true that the Gophers were swept by the Wolverines, but Minnesota scored eight goals in the two losses. The last time the teams met, the Badgers swept the Gophers (Feb. 6-7, 2014) in two 2-1 games in Madison. Minnesota swept Wisconsin earlier in the season (Nov. 29-30, 2013), 4-1 and 4-3, in Minneapolis. According to Minnesota’s game notes, the Golden Gophers lead this all-time series 159-89-21 and are 93-27-8 versus the Badgers in Minnesota. Friday’s game begins at 8:00 p.m. and is carried by the Big Ten Network. Saturday’s rematch starts at 5:00 p.m. and is carried by Fox Sports North, Fox Sports Wisconsin and Fox Sports 2.

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

Three things from the weekend in the Big Ten

Two conference series, one nonconference matchup and an exhibition game went down this weekend in the Big Ten. Here’s how things played out:

  • Michigan defeated Minnesota 4-3 in overtime on Friday and completed the sweep by winning 7-5 on Saturday.
  • Ohio State downed Penn State 5-4 in overtime on Friday but the Nittany Lions responded with a 4-1 victory on Saturday to earn the split.
  • Wisconsin tied No. 2 Boston University 3-3 on Friday. The Terriers responded with a 6-1 victory on Saturday.
  • Michigan State defeated the U.S. Under-18 Team 4-1 on Friday evening in exhibition play.

Without further adieu, here are there things that I saw this weekend:

1. Michigan is rolling

Michigan picked up a conference sweep, put itself atop the conference standings and the Wolverines got their coach his 800th career win. Saying that Michigan had a productive weekend would be putting it lightly.

Cutler Martin scored at the 2:16 mark of overtime period on Friday to end a back-and-forth game and give Michigan the victory. The Wolverines and Gophers exhausted the goal lights during Saturday’s game with Michigan coming out victorious 7-5.

With a slew of home games on the schedule, the Wolverines had an opportunity to make everyone forget about a slow start in December. They took advantage of the schedule and have now won 10 of their last 12 contests.

The next step for Michigan will be to improve its away record, which is currently 1-5. The Wolverines’ next eight games will be played away from Yost Ice Arena, six will be road games and two against Michigan State will be neutral-site games (one at Joe Louis Arena and the Hockey City Classic at Chicago’s Soldier Field).

2. Minnesota is reeling

Like Michigan’s slow start, Minnesota’s 7-1 start to the season seems like a distant memory. More recently the Gophers are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games and haven’t been playing at the level that most people expect out of them.

Minnesota’s problems seem to be from the goaltender out. Adam Wilcox is the 40th-ranked goaltender in the country right now. He has a 10-6-1 record, .910 save percentage and 2.51 GAA. Those numbers don’t compare to the 1.88 GAA he posted during his freshman season or the 1.97 GAA from his sophomore campaign. Wilcox does have three shutouts this season but seems to unravel when he is peppered with shots. He was pulled in favor of Nick Lehr during Saturday’s loss to Michigan.

Minnesota will host Wisconsin at Mariucci Arena next weekend, which should be a series that can get the Gophers back on track. However, as the Badgers’ proved against Boston University this weekend, playing Wisconsin doesn’t equal an automatic sweep.

After the Wisconsin series the Gophers will play in the North Star College Cup with their first game against a Minnesota State squad that has been playing phenomenal lately and a possible second game being its fourth game this season against Minnesota-Duluth.

3. Overtimes galore

All three games that featured Big Ten teams went to overtime on Friday night. Thankfully for people like me who aren’t fans of the shootouts, especially at the college level, both games that had conference points up for grabs ended in the extra session. The Wisconsin-Boston University game went in the books as a tie with Boston winning the meaningless shootout 2-0.

The one thing could be considered a positive about the Big Ten having a shootout is that is gives teams more incentive to go for the win in overtime and not play for a tie. Whether that notion led to Michigan and Ohio State scoring overtime game-winning goals on Friday is beyond me, but pushing for a possible three conference points rather than potentially getting two with a shootout win and giving one to your opponent makes sense.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Jan. 9-10

Everyone plays this week, but Michigan State plays the Under-18 Team in exhibition Friday night at 7:00 p.m.

First, Drew Claussen and I have some picks numbers for you.

Last week
Drew: 1-6-1 (.188)
Paula: 3-4-1 (.438)

Season
Drew: 47-42-5 (.527)
Paula: 35-53-6 (.404)

This week

There are two Big Ten tilts and Wisconsin hosts Boston University.

Boston University at Wisconsin

Drew: I saw a funny Tweet last weekend that suggested that Michigan Tech should be knocked out of the NCAA Tournament discussion for losing to Wisconsin. While I don’t believe the Badgers are that bad, if Boston University is a legitimate title contender, then the Terriers should easily pick up two wins this weekend. Joel Rumpel will have to do something pretty amazing for a different result to happen, and I don’t see that happening.

Paula: The Terriers began the year with a 3-3 tie against Union Jan. 3, a game in which they came from behind twice. BU and UW last met Oct. 19, 2013, a 7-3 home win for the Terriers. Boston University goaltender Matt O’Connor made 40 saves in that contest. This is the first time that BU has traveled to play in Madison since 1989. Games begin at 7:00 p.m. each night and are carried by The Wisconsin Channel.

Drew’s picks: Boston University 5-0, 6-1.
Paula’s picks: BU 5-1, 2-1.

Minnesota at Michigan

Drew: I think that this is the weekend where we will really find out what the Gophers are made of. The players from the World Juniors are back and Brady Skjei should return from his injury. There’s no excuse for Minnesota not to show up this weekend. Minnesota is in a slump (by the standards that the Gophers are held to) and have gone 3-4-1 in its last eight games. The Gophers also haven’t been great on the road so far this season, going 2-3-1.

Michigan, on the other hand, got hot at the end of the first half of the season and carried that momentum to the GLI after a couple weeks off. I don’t know how anyone can honestly say they weren’t impressed with the Wolverines winning the GLI considering the amount of talent they were missing. If Michigan can find some success against Minnesota this weekend, its schedule sets up for that success to continue even though on an extended road trip. The Wolverines will play one game against Ohio State at Columbus and two at Wisconsin before playing a neutral-site series with Michigan State.

I believe that the most probable outcome here is a split. Michigan is playing really well, but it’s hard to sweep the Gophers.

Paula: I think this is the weekend we see the stuff of which the Wolverines are made, frankly. Will this be the Michigan squad that loses by four goals? That wins by five or more? That just plays good, hard, consistent hockey? And has goaltender Steve Racine won the starting job? The Wolverines enter this weekend as the Great Lakes Invitational champs, while the Golden Gophers come to Yost Ice Arena having taken third place in the Mariucci Classic. This rivalry dates back to 1923, and according to Michigan records, the Gophers are 131-118-15 all-time against the Wolverines. Michigan is 65-48-7 at home against Minnesota, but the Gophers were 3-1-0 against the Wolverines last season, having swept Michigan in Minneapolis (Feb. 14-15) and split in Ann Arbor to end the regular season, a 3-2 overtime win and 6-2 loss (March 14-15). Friday’s game begins at 6:30 p.m. and is carried by the Big Ten Network; Saturday’s game begins at 4:00 p.m. and will be televised by Fox Sports Detroit and Fox Sports North Plus.

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

Ohio State at Penn State

Drew: Penn State hit a bump in the road when it lost both games at the Three Rivers Classic, but the Nittany Lions will begin the second half of the season with six games in a row that will be played on their home ice. The Buckeyes’ month off seemed to do them well last weekend against Mercyhurst and it’ll be interesting if they’ll be able to get some confidence over from that series. Ohio State seems to be a team that can play with anyone but struggles with consistency, like a lot of teams. For Penn State, this is its chance to prove that the first half of the season wasn’t a mirage. If the Nittany Lions can win four or five of their six games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Northern Michigan, they’d prove to everyone that they are a force to be reckoned with.

Paula: Ohio State leads this series 3-2-0. The teams last met March 14-15, 2014, in Pegula Arena, splitting a pair of 4-2 games with the Buckeyes winning the first and the Nittany Lions taking the second. Ohio State swept Penn State at home last season, 5-1 and 5-2, Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. Friday’s game begins at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday’s contest starts at 3:00 p.m. Both games will be carried by American Sports Network.

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

Three things from the Big Ten show us that anything can (probably) happen this season

As the league begins conference play in earnest this coming weekend, this past weekend of nonconference play — the past two weeks of play, really — taught us that nearly anything may happen as the rest of the season unfolds.

1. Joel Rumpel can play. And when the Badgers play in front of him, Wisconsin can beat anyone. After being pulled in the first period of Friday’s 8-1 loss to Michigan Tech, having given up three goals in 10 minutes, Rumpel gave a career performance Saturday in Wisconsin’s 2-0 win over the Huskies, stopping 47 shots in the game. The team in front of him blocked 27 shots; the Huskies tried to put the puck on net a total of 102 times. The Badgers gave the No. 5 Huskies their first shutout loss of the season and their first road loss. They’re young, but with a little confidence the Badgers could make at least a little noise in the heart of the Big Ten schedule between now and the end of March.

2. Minnesota is beatable. And the Golden Gophers are especially beatable in their own holiday tournament. Minnesota outshot Merrimack 42-17 in Friday’s 3-2 loss in Mariucci Classic semifinal action and needed overtime to beat RIT 3-2 in the tournament’s third-place game Saturday. The Gophers have captured the Mariucci Classic title twice since 2007; Minnesota captured their tournament championship for eight consecutive years (1999-2007) prior to that. This particular Mariucci Classic performance proved that this particular Minnesota team needs to have every player performing at 100 percent every game to win. With a few players out for the IIHF World Junior Championship, the Gophers were vulnerable. Any injuries or illness will leave the Gophers struggling like other mere mortals for the remainder of the season.

3. Ohio State can score some goals. Not every game, mind you, but when the Buckeyes score, they look as competitive as any team out there. In their 6-2 win over Mercyhurst Friday, the Buckeyes outshot the Lakers 43-18 and senior Matt Johnson led all Buckeyes in scoring with his first career hat trick. In Saturday’s rematch, the Buckeyes came from behind — a welcome sign — and tied the Lakers, 2-2, with shots 28-26 in favor of Ohio State. Johnson’s goal at 10:50 in the second put OSU on the board and Anthony Greco had the equalizer at 11:32 in the third. The Buckeyes ended the first half of the season with an 8-3 road loss to Michigan (Dec. 5) but beat Notre Dame 5-1 in the third-place game of the Shillelagh Tournament the week before. If they find some consistency, the Buckeyes may play spoiler before the Big Ten season ends.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Jan. 2-3

The Mariucci Classic is played this weekend, as well as two nonconference series. First, another chance for you to see how much better Drew Claussen is at this picks thing than I am — at least overall.

Dec. 28-30
Drew: 1-7 (.125)
Paula: 3-5 (.375)

Season
Drew: 46-36-4 (.558)
Paula: 32-49-5 (.401)

The Mariucci Classic

Drew

Minnesota has struggled playing in its own tournament in recent seasons and with two ranked teams in the field this year, that could continue. I am selfishly hoping for Minnesota and Lowell to meet on Saturday, but if this tournament plays out like it has in the past, they could be playing for third place. It’ll be interesting to see how the Gophers come out against Merrimack after being idle for the better part of a month. Merrimack also has been off since early December, so both teams could have to deal with some rust. I think that the Gophers will find themselves in the championship games on Saturday, but I do not believe that I will get my Gophers-River Hawks matchup. Playing in an empty arena with few fans will help RIT pull off the upset on Friday.

Paula

The Golden Gophers have emerged champions 13 times in the Mariucci Classic, now in its 24th year. The last time Minnesota captured the title was during the 2012-2013 season. RIT is the only team in the field to have bested the Gophers in the Classic, a 4-3 win for the Tigers Dec. 29, 2007.

Minnesota faces Merrimack in the second semifinal game. The Warriors enter the tournament tied for fifth place in Hockey East with an overall record of 10-5-2. The Gophers and Warriors have met once, a 6-2 Minnesota win in the 2004 Mariucci Classic. Merrimack finished the first half with a home series against Boston University (Dec. 5-6), a 1-1 tie and 4-2 loss.

RIT (5-8-2 overall) is in fourth place in the Atlantic Hockey standings, having last played Dec. 12-13, a 4-1 home win over Niagara followed by a 1-1 tie against the Purple Eagles the following night.

The River Hawks (12-3-3) are tied with BU for first in Hockey East and bring a four-game win streak into this tournament with midseason hardware already in their showcase. UMass-Lowell won last weekend’s Frozen Holiday Classic, beating Sacred Heart 6-1 and Connecticut 3-1. The Gophers beat the River Hawks, 5-4, in the championship game of the Mariucci Classic Dec. 30, 2005.

Three Gophers are playing in the IIHF World Junior Championship tournament and will miss the Mariucci Classic. Forward Hudson Fasching and defenseman Ryan Collins are playing for Team USA, while forward Leon Bristedt is playing for the Swedes.

The games are at 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Only the second semifinal game between Merrimack and Minnesota is televised, and it’s on Fox Sports North Plus.

Drew’s picks: RIT over Massachusetts-Lowell 2-1 in the first semifinal game and Minnesota over Merrimack 4-2 in the second semifinal. Lowell over Merrimack 4-2 in the third-place game. Minnesota over RIT 3-0 in the championship game.

Paula’s picks: Massachusetts-Lowell 3-1 in the first semifinal game and Minnesota 3-2 in the second. Merrimack over RIT in the third-place game, 3-2. Lowell over Minnesota in the title game, 3-2.

Ohio State at Mercyhurst

Drew: Ohio State had a rough go in the first half of the season, and things don’t ease up at the beginning of the second half. Mercyhurst has an 8-5-2 record and has nice wins over Merrimack, Colgate and Robert Morris this season. Ohio State is going to have to win low-scoring, ugly games if they want to find success during the rest of the season; the Buckeyes just don’t have the offensive firepower to win high-scoring games.

Paula: Mercyhurst is in third place in Atlantic Hockey, having finished the first half of the season with a home split against Robert Morris Dec. 12-14, losing 7-4 and winning 3-0. The Buckeyes last played Dec. 5, an 8-3 road loss to Michigan. OSU leads this all-time series 4-1, with all four games having been played in Ohio. The Buckeyes swept the Lakers, 6-3 and 7-2, when they last met (Dec. 28-29, 2013). Friday’s game begins at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday’s at 2:30 p.m. Neither is televised.

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

Michigan Tech at Wisconsin

Drew: I don’t have much to say about this one. Michigan Tech can’t be happy with a disappointing loss to Michigan and a third-place finish at the GLI last weekend. The Huskies are going to roll into Kohl Center motivated and wanting two wins to get back on track. I do believe Wisconsin will improve in the season’s second half, but it won’t start this weekend. I’m calling two Tech victories with goaltender Jamie Phillips stymieing the Badgers’ offense.

Paula: The Huskies (14-4-0 overall) are tied for first place in the WCHA and enter having gone 1-1 in the GLI, losing 2-1 to Michigan and beating Ferris State 4-2. Wisconsin ended the first half of the season with two home losses to Penn State (Dec. 5-6) followed by a 4-1 exhibition loss to the U.S. Under-18 team Dec. 12. The teams disagree as to how many times they’ve met; according to Wisconsin, UW and MTU have played 154 times previously, but the Huskies say it’s 160 previous meetings, with the Badgers owning a 99-50-11 record in those contests. The teams met most recently Dec. 7-8, 2012, when they were WCHA rivals, a series that resulted in 1-1 and 3-3 ties. Games are 7:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and Saturday’s contest is televised by the Big Ten Network.

Drew’s picks: Michigan Tech 3-0, 3-1.
Paula’s picks: Michigan Tech 4-1 and 3-1.

Pickin’ the Big Ten, Dec. 28-30: GLI and Three Rivers Classic

Happy New Year, everyone! There are two holiday tournaments to pick this week, but first a look at how Drew Claussen and I finished the first half.

Dec. 12-14
Drew: 2-0 (1.000)
Paula: 1-1 (.500)

Season
Drew: 45-29-4 (.603)
Paula: 29-44-5 (.404)

Yes, there was coal in my stocking on Christmas morning. Drew got the pony I’ve been asking for since I was five. Again.

The Great Lakes Invitational

Drew

Just like everyone predicted before the season started, Michigan Tech will roll into the 50th Great Lakes Invitational as the favorite. With four in-state teams going at it, this is one of the more interesting holiday tournaments.

The games will return to Joe Louis Arena this year, which will take away all the fluke elements that go along with an outdoor game, which I’ve never been a huge fan of. I’ve been to two collegiate ones but would not have gone if I couldn’t have gotten a press pass. Bad sight lines, cold and diminished quality of play. I’ll end this mini-rant before I somehow transition into my hatred of shootouts.

The bracket is set up with the potential for an all-Big Ten, all-WCHA or B1G vs. WCHA championship game. Between Michigan and Michigan State, I believe the Wolverines have a better chance finding success in Detroit, but taking down the Huskies on the way to the championship game will be a tall order. I was leaning towards picking Ferris State to win in its first year at the tournament, but will go with the safer bet in Michigan Tech.

Paula

It’s a great field this year and I am (of course) digging the heavy former-CCHA vibe with the improved Huskies making it that much more exciting.

The first semifinal game features Michigan versus Michigan Tech. The Wolverines ended the first half with a 5-1 road loss to Boston College (Dec. 13), a game that snapped a four-game win streak. Tech’s first half closed with a home split against Minnesota Duluth, losing 3-1 Dec. 12 and winning 4-3 the following night. Michigan Tech swept Michigan in Houghton Oct. 31-Nov. 1, outscoring the Wolverines 10-3 in the process. This game is the 34th GLI meeting between the two teams, with Michigan holding a 22-11-0 record in those matches. The Wolverines are 53-34-1 all-time in the GLI and have 15 tournament titles, more than any other team. They will be without four key players for this tournament, though. Defenseman Zach Werenski and forwards JT Compher, Dylan Larkin and Tyler Motte are playing for Team USA in the IIHF World Junior Championship.

The second semifinal game has Ferris State playing Michigan State. The Bulldogs ended their first half with a two-game home sweep of Lake Superior State (Dec. 12-13), winning 5-2 and 5-0. Michigan State beat visiting Clarkson, 6-4, Dec. 14, their first win in three games. The Bulldogs and Spartans split a series in East Lansing Oct. 31-Nov. 1, with Ferris State winning 1-0 the first night and Michigan State taking the rematch, 4-1. Michigan State is 69-36-15 all-time against Ferris State. Overall in GLI play, the Spartans are 47-30-3 with 12 titles to their credit.

The entire tournament is televised by Fox Sports Detroit Plus and Fox College Sports. Games are Sunday-Monday, at 3:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.

Drew’s picks: Michigan Tech over Michigan in the first semifinal, 4-2. Ferris State over Michigan State in the second semifinal, 3-1. Michigan over Michigan State, 5-1, in the third-placed game. Michigan Tech over Ferris State 3-1 for the championship.

Paula’s picks: I think this field is wide open. Michigan Tech has advanced to the title game the past two tournaments, losing to Western Michigan last year in Comerica Park and winning in 2012. Once again, I’m picking against the odds. Michigan 3-2 in the first semifinal. Michigan State 4-3 in the second semifinal. Tech over Ferris State (sorry Bulldogs) in the third-place game, 4-2. Spartans over Wolverines in the title game, 3-2. Yes, I know I’m setting myself up to go 0-for-4 in these picks, but after my first half, what do I have to lose?

The Three Rivers Classic

Drew

The third annual Three Rivers Classic will also be the third time Penn State has participated in the tournament. The Nittany Lions have experienced mixed results at the tournament, going 2-2 with victories against Ohio State in 2012 and Robert Morris in 2013 and blowout losses against the Colonials in 2012 and Boston College last season.

The Nittany Lions jumping into the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll for the first time in program history right before voting went on hiatus for the holiday break makes three ranked teams in this field, with No. 17 Colgate and No. 19 Robert Morris joining No. 20 Penn State. Unranked Western Michigan has already proven this season that it is not a team to sleep on when the Broncos won the Shillelagh Tournament in November by defeating Ohio State and blasting Union 8-2.

Paula

This is another great field, with under-the-radar teams and a short but interesting tournament history. The first semifinal is Western Michigan versus Colgate. The Broncos finished their first half with a four-game unbeaten streak, last playing Colorado College Dec. 12-13, a 3-2 overtime win followed by a 1-1 tie. Colgate heads into this tournament looking to break a three-game losing streak; the Raiders last played Dec. 9, a 4-3 loss to Providence.

The second semifinal has Robert Morris facing off against Penn State. The Colonials ended the first half with just their second loss of the season during a weekend split with Mercyhurst (Dec. 12-13); RMU won 7-4 before losing 3-0, the loss halting a five-game unbeaten streak. Penn State last played Dec. 5-6, beating Wisconsin 5-2 and 5-4 on the road to record the team’s first Big Ten sweep.

The series between the Colonials and Nittany Lions is tied at 2-2-0 all-time, with a 1-1-0 record at the Three Rivers Classic. Their last match was at last year’s tournament, a 3-2 PSU win.

This is a Monday-Tuesday tournament, with games at 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. in the CONSOL Energy Center. The tournament will not be televised.

Drew’s picks: Colgate over Western Michigan 4-2 in the first semifinal. Penn State over Robert Morris 3-2 in the second semi-final. Western Michigan over Robert Morris, 4-1, in the third-place game. Colgate over Penn State 5-3 for the championship.

Paula’s picks: I have a sneaking suspicion that Robert Morris will win this whole thing, but that’s not how I’m calling it. Western over Colgate 3-2 in the first semifinal and Penn State over Robert Morris, 3-2, in the second semifinal. Robert Morris over Colgate, 4-2, in the third-place game. Penn State over Western Michigan for the title, 3-2.

Three things after a light weekend of play

1. Michigan plays in spurts and stretches.

The Wolverines have all the talent necessary to put together an excellent season with potential for some postseason success. Michigan’s overall team defense can be a bit leaky, but this is a squad that can roll four lines and sometimes score at will. A quick look at Michigan’s schedule and its numbers don’t tell the whole story. Coach Red Berenson has talked about the team needing more consistency, but it’s not merely consistency from game to game; the Wolverines need to play consistently within given games.

Sure, it’s fun to watch a team unload three power-play goals within a five-minute span, as the Wolverines did in the second period in their 8-3 win over Ohio State Dec. 5, or to roll out four unanswered goals as they did during the third period of their 8-1 win over Penn State Nov. 22, but Michigan is also capable of letting down for stretches within games, and that leads to deficits the Wolverines cannot overcome. In a 3-2 loss to Penn State Nov. 21, the Wolverines let their collective guard down for three minutes late in the first period, costing them the game. In a 5-1 loss to Boston College Saturday, Michigan allowed two goals within two minutes before the game was 10 minutes old, creating an insurmountable obstacle while playing an opponent that knows how to play with a lead.

Fits and starts, spurts and stretches. This may be Michigan’s season.

2. Michigan State will surprise people in the second half.

I know that Big Ten opponents won’t be underestimating the Spartans in the second half, given that Michigan State took points from its first two conference series, including a win on the road against Ohio State and a tie with the extra shootout point at home versus Minnesota at home Dec. 6 — especially impressive after losing to the Golden Gophers 5-0 the night before — but people who haven’t been paying close attention to Michigan State so far this season may be surprised by the team’s tenacity and skill.

The Spartans overcame a first-period deficit to beat visiting Clarkson 6-4 yesterday, and while coach Tom Anastos can’t be happy with how the team allowed four goals, he is undoubtedly pleased with his team’s four special-teams goals — including Thomas Ebbing’s game-winning power-play goal late in the second period — and the Spartans’ utter refusal to be rattled. In the second period of that game, the Spartans did what good teams do when they took advantage of power-play opportunities and turned up the proverbial heat on an opponent that they could and should have beaten. In a span of just over three minutes, Joe Cox scored two goals and Ebbing scored that third to give Michigan State a 5-3 lead, and when the Golden Knights scored early in the third period to make it a 5-4 game, the Spartans refused to relent; junior Ryan Keller’s first goal of the season (fourth of his career) gave Michigan State insurance late in the fourth.

Good things happen for hard-working teams, and Michigan State has a pretty good work ethic.

3. My life is better because the Nittany Lions play hockey.

I led last week’s column with Penn State because the Nittany Lions will head into the holiday break on top of the Big Ten standings. It became pretty clear to me early in the first half that the Nittany Lions were able to bring some of the lessons they learned from last season into 2014-2015, making them a much-improved team and no one’s doormat this year. Their sweep of Wisconsin in Madison the week before was impressive, even if the Badgers are struggling mightily this season. Those two wins were Penn State’s first Big Ten sweep. All of this is noteworthy, and when the column appeared on USCHO’s front page, Penn State noticed and sent out this via Twitter. It was retweeted and favorited repeatedly by the Nittany Lions faithful.

When I thanked them for all the kind words and free publicity, the folks at Penn State and I had this exchange:

And suddenly, everything I never knew was clarified. Had I just been writing better column for years prior, I could have avoided all manner of unpleasantness: unfortunate relationship choices, the Oldsmobile Achieva I drove for a while, that Christmas spent with the stomach virus (and my now permanent aversion to eggnog). So much makes sense now that never made sense before.

Had the Nittany Lions joined the Division I fold years ago, I would not have had to have waited for middle age for life to become so golden.

And it is. My life is golden, without question. I get to cover college hockey, interact with awesome fans, teach, love, laugh, run and bake cookies.

As we head into the break, here’s hoping that your life is at least as golden. Happy holidays to you and yours. Be safe and warm and well, and hug everyone who matters.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Dec. 13-14

There are three Big Ten teams in action this weekend, but one plays exhibition. First, some accountability for Drew Claussen and me.

Last week
Drew: 3-2-0 (.600)
Paula: 2-2-1 (.500)

Season
Drew: 43-29-4 (.592)
Paula: 28-43-5 (.401)

Meh. For me, anyway.

This week

Michigan plays Boston College on the road Saturday and Michigan State hosts Clarkson Sunday. Wisconsin also plays the Under-18 team Friday. We only pick the games that count.

Michigan at Boston College

Drew: Picking Michigan games this year hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park because you’re basically taking a chance on which team will show up: the one that has scored eight goals three times this year or the one that turned in poor defensive efforts in losses to Ferris State, New Hampshire and Michigan Tech. The Wolverines have trended upward over the last couple weeks. The defense has played a little better, but the main thing is that the offense has compensated for any defensive-shortfalls. Jerry York’s squad is currently sixth in Hockey East and is 1-2-1 in its last four contests. I give Boston College the slight advantage in this one because of home ice, but could see it going either way. Whichever side holds the other to three or fewer goals will come away victorious.

Paula: These teams met to mark the beginning of the 2013-2014 season, a 3-1 Michigan win in Yost Ice Arena Oct. 10, 2013. The Wolverines have won four straight games in this series, and Red Berenson is 29-22-1 all-time against Jerry York, going back to when York skippered Bowling Green (1979-1994). Michigan’s last win at Boston College was Dec. 27, 1950. This Saturday contest begins at 7:00 p.m. and is not televised.

Drew’s pick: Boston College 4-2.
Paula’s pick: I’m not calling against the Wolverines until they lose, no matter the odds. Michigan 3-2.

Clarkson at Michigan State

Drew: This game is obviously the less-thrilling of the two Big Ten games this weekend. It features two teams that have gotten off to the less-than-stellar starts. Michigan State currently owns a 5-9-1 record and Clarkson is 6-7-4. After correctly predicting a tie in last Saturday’s game between Minnesota and Michigan State, I’m tempted to do it again. (The patting myself on the back for picking a tie quickly ceased when Michigan made my Ohio State upset pick look foolish). The Spartans’ offense is averaging 2.12 goals per game and Clarkson’s defense is averaging two goals allowed per game, so there’s a good chance that the difference in the game will be whether or not Jake Hildebrand can hold Clarkson to one goal. I don’t have much confidence in Michigan State after its split with Princeton a couple weeks ago, but I think home ice should help the Spartans take down this ECAC opponent.

Paula: I respectfully disagree that this match is the “less-thrilling” of the league’s two D-I offerings this weekend. A Clarkson-Michigan State game doesn’t have the visibility of Michigan’s game against Boston College, but there’s no reason to expect that this contest will be dull. Michigan State is playing good hockey, as evidenced by the Spartans’ performance against Minnesota Saturday night, one of the best games I’ve seen from start to finish this year. Any unranked team that can bounce back from a 5-0 loss and dictate the terms of the follow night’s 3-3 tie against a top-tier opponent is a team that can produce plenty of excitement. Clarkson won its single game against St. Lawrence — another tough team — last weekend, coming from behind to do so and outshooting the Saints 31-22.

The Golden Knights and Spartans have met for one series previous to this game, a home sweep by Michigan State Oct. 9-10, 2009. This Sunday game begins at 5:00 p.m. and will be televised by Fox Sports Detroit.

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

Happy birthday, Coach!

A belated happy birthday to Michigan coach Red Berenson, who turned 75 years old Dec. 8.

Goodbye, TC

After 32 years in the business, Tim Connor has resigned his position as an associate director of media relations at Notre Dame. Closer to home, Tim or TC — as he’s often called by friends — was the Irish hockey team’s sports information director for 15 years.

It’s hard to say goodbye to such a great guy and to someone who has set the standard for what to expect from media relations people. Aside from being liked by everyone who knows him and a complete media pro, TC is an excellent writer whose talents have often been overlooked because they’ve been confined to so many press releases.

In the tiny world that is college hockey, Tim Connor will be missed.

Three things from the weekend in the B1G

All six teams in the Big Ten were in action against each other this weekend. Here’s how the five contests played out:

  • Minnesota went to Michigan State and picked up a win and a tie against the Spartans.
  • Penn State swept Wisconsin on the road.
  • Michigan went for the two-point conversion after a touchdown and defeated Ohio State 8-3 in a game on Friday evening.

Here are three things I saw from this weekend:

1. Penn State leads after two weekends

Just like everyone predicted, right?

Penn State has won three of its first four conference games and is sitting atop the Big Ten standings. Granted only Michigan State has played as many conference games as Penn State. Those two teams have played one more game than Michigan and Ohio State and two more than Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The reality is that it is way too early to talk about the conference race. Another reality is that after splitting with Michigan on the road and sweeping Wisconsin at the Kohl Center, Penn State is going to be a tough opponent for any team it plays for the rest of the season.

Penn State also dashed Wisconsin’s last saving grace, its conference record being at 0-0. Throughout Wisconsin’s slow start, I kept thinking that the Badgers’ season wasn’t dead. After getting my first opportunity to watch a full game on Friday evening, it’s clear that things aren’t great in Badgerland. The mantra is “never say never,” and Wisconsin may turn things around in the second half, but Wisconsin’s faithful might have to settle for seeing the freshmen progress and some moral victories this year while look forward to next year.

2. Minnesota follows up a great performance with a very lackluster one

With the parity in college hockey this year and the Gophers’ recent results at Munn Ice Arena, a win and a tie against Michigan State should be seen as a decent result for Minnesota. The fact that the 3-3 tie on Saturday came after a dominating 5-0 victory on Friday makes this weekend’s results a little harder to swallow for Minnesota fans.

In all reality, Saturday’s game was one where Michigan State should have come away with the victory. The Spartans outshot the Gophers 45-24. However, even though Michigan State managed to stay out of the box, the Gophers were 2-for-2 on their power play opportunities.

Even though the Gophers have a great goaltender, they haven’t fared well at all this season when giving up a lot of shots. In the Gophers’ four losses to St. Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth and Northeastern, they average 37.25 shots allowed. So the 30-shot mark seems to be key in whether Minnesota picks up a win or a loss.

3. Michigan’s lights the lamp again, and again, and again

After struggling on defense during the beginning of the season, Michigan seems to have figured out that a surefire way to defeat an opponent is to score a bunch of goals. The Wolverines’ eight-goal performance on Friday against Ohio State was their third of the season.

Michigan now averages 4.07 goals per game, which is good enough for No. 2 in the nation behind Robert Morris’ 4.21 clip.

Michigan’s defense, which gives up nearly three goals per game, still scares me, however. It’s the reason the Wolverines aren’t a top-10 team, even though they have the offensive-talent to be one.

The Wolverines went 6-1 during its seven-game home stand; it outscored its opponents 65-14 during those seven games. They will go on the road on Saturday and play Boston College to wrap up the first half of their season. A win at BC isn’t as epic of a feat this season as it usually is, but a win would do wonders for Michigan’s national image and its confidence in itself.

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Dec. 5-6

It’s all Big Ten conference play this weekend, just as the Universe intended. But first, here’s how Drew Claussen and I are doing with picks.

Last week
Drew: 4-6-1 (.409)
Paula: 3-7-1 (.318)

Season
Drew: 40-27-4 (.592)
Paula: 26-41-4 (.394)

At this rate, I’ll be lucky to hit .500 by the end of the season. Drew’s numbers temporarily backslid, but I have no doubt that he’ll rebound.

This week

Everyone plays.

Minnesota at Michigan State

Drew: Minnesota will look to have a strong effort after a pretty bad loss to Northeastern last weekend. The Spartans’ effort last time out wasn’t that great either; a split with Princeton isn’t anything to brag about. All four contests between the Gophers and Spartans last year were close and two resulted in ties. If this were at Mariucci, I would pick the Gophers to sweep. However, the Gophers are 1-1-2 in their last four games at Michigan State so, since they’re at Munn this weekend, I’m going to predict another tie.

Paula: I think the Spartans can steal points from the Gophers as well this weekend. Both Michigan State losses to Minnesota in 2013-2014 were by a goal and the Spartans picked up the extra point in each of the ties. This is a Friday-Saturday series, and both games are televised. Friday’s contest begins at 7:00 p.m. and is carried by Fox Sports Detroit; Saturday’s contest starts at 5:00 p.m. and is on Fox Sports North Plus.

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

Penn State at Wisconsin

Drew: Less than two years after getting their first marquee win as a program, a 3-2 overtime victory over Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions will go into the Kohl Center as a team that is favored to win. That fact really shines a spotlight on the job that Guy Gadowsky has done with this group. Wisconsin is, or course, coming off of its best weekend of the season during which the Badgers picked up a win and tie against Ferris State. A sweep this weekend would really make me believe that Penn State has a shot to stay in the top half of the Big Ten standings all season. The Nittany Lions lost to Cornell at the Frozen Apple in Madison Square Garden. The way the Badgers typically play on home ice I could see them sweeping, too.

Paula: These teams met five times last season, with Wisconsin taking all five. Four of the five games were decided by a goal (excluding one empty-netter) and two went into overtime. This is a Friday-Saturday series with games beginning at 8:00 p.m. each night. Friday’s game will be televised by ESPNews, Saturday’s by American Sports Network.

Drew’s picks: Penn State 4-2, Wisconsin 4-2.
Paula’s picks: I’m probably going to hate myself for calling a Wisconsin sweep, but I am. Badgers 3-2, 3-2.

Ohio State at Michigan

Drew: Michigan owned the Buckeyes during the regular season last year, going 3-0-1. This game wraps up a seven-game home stand for Michigan. The Wolverines have won five of those six games. Ohio State found itself on the opposite end of two blowouts last weekend, losing to Western Michigan 6-2 and beating Notre Dame 5-1. This game will come down to whether Ohio State’s goaltending or Michigan’s defense steps up. If neither does and it turns into a track meet, Michigan should have enough offense to win a high-scoring game. I’m saying Ohio State steals one.

Paula: After watching the Wolverines play Penn State two weeks ago, I’m not calling against them for a while. This single Friday game begins at 7:00 p.m. and is carried by the Big Ten Network.

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

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