Pickin’ the Big Ten: Feb. 6-7

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

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

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

This week

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

Michigan vs. Michigan State

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

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

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

Ohio State at Minnesota

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

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

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

Wisconsin at Penn State

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

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

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

Goaltending, goal scoring and finishing strong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Penn State is a third-period team.

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

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

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

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

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Jan. 30-31

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

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

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

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

This week

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

Michigan State vs. Michigan

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

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

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

Minnesota at Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

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

Penn State vs. Vermont

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

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

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

Three things from the weekend in the B1G

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

Here’s how things played out:

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

And here are three things I saw this weekend:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Michigan’s winning streak continues against Wisconsin

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

That didn’t happen.

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

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

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

3. Michigan State is also playing good

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

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

Pickin’ the Big Ten: Jan. 23-24

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

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

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

This Week

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

Michigan at Wisconsin

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

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

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

Ohio State at Michigan State

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

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

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

Northern Michigan at Penn State

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

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

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

North Star College Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

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)

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.

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