I love the Big Ten schedule and the sheer amount of nonconference play early in the season. Here are three things from this past weekend that stand out to me.
1. Penn State is making a good case for legitimacy.
I have heard many critics poo-poo the early success of the Nittany Lions because of the “lightness” of Penn State’s schedule, but PSU is doing exactly what other teams taken more seriously are supposed to do. The Nittany Lions are defeating opponents that are considered weaker because of their recent histories or the conferences in which they play. Let me say straight up that I have nothing but respect for Atlantic Hockey, and everyone who’s read me regularly knows that I consider the AHA a formidable conference that has arrived; I also believe that there are no gimmes in college hockey. Teams like Holy Cross and Bentley are good barometers for a third-year Division I program with geegobs of resources that teams like Holy Cross and Bentley lack.
This weekend’s sweep of Bentley, especially Friday’s 3-2 win in which the Nittany Lions overcame a 2-0 deficit, is a sign that Penn State is a team that is learning how to succeed. PSU’s stats in the early going are good: tied for third in the country in scoring offense (3.88 goals per game); tied for 11th defensively (2.00); fourth in power play (27.0); a couple of guys scoring goals (Casey Bailey, Eric Scheid); a good goaltender (Matthew Skoff).
Beginning with this weekend’s series against Massachusetts-Lowell, the Nittany Lions will play on the road until Jan. 9. Win, lose or tie, Penn State will be one of the most interesting teams in D-I to watch in the next two months.
2. “We’ve got to be better with the puck and better without the puck. Simple as that.”
No one in college hockey summarizes better than Red Berenson, and that quote is the perfect summation of Michigan’s season thus far. The Wolverines traveled to Houghton, Mich., for the first time since 1983, before Berenson’s tenure, and were swept handily by Michigan Tech, 4-1 and 6-2. Off to a 2-5-0 start, the Wolverines have tons of talent and little consistency, with a team defense that needs an overhaul. The Wolverines are 55th nationally in scoring defense, surrendering nearly four goals per game (3.86).
It’s too early to write off the Wolverines. Their two wins came against quality Hockey East opponents and they have weapons that many teams envy, but if they cannot take lessons learned from this early nonconference play into their Big Ten schedule — which begins Nov. 21 against Penn State — then it will be another frustrating season for Michigan.
Michigan plays the next seven games at home, beginning this coming weekend with two against American International.
3. Nobody’s perfect.
We knew this already, but it took St. Cloud State to remind us that perfection is fleeting. The Huskies split a pair of games with previously undefeated Minnesota, beating the Gophers 4-1 Friday and taking Minnesota into overtime Saturday, a game that the Gophers won 4-3. Minnesota coach Don Lucia said that the Huskies were hungrier Friday night, a game in which the Huskies outshot the Gophers 37-32. Three of SCSU’s goals in that win were on the power play.
The Gophers limited the Huskies’ shots to just 14 in Saturday’s game and led 3-2 until Joey Benik scored for SCSU at 14:34 in the third. Justin Kloos’ third goal of the game was the winner for the Gophers at 1:19 in overtime. It was his first collegiate hat trick.
While the Gophers may not be seeking consistency, they are seeking depth. Minnesota is outscoring opponents 22-15 through the first six games of the season, with nine Gophers having scored a goal so far but only five with more than one. Seven of Minnesota’s goals have come from the power play, so the Gophers are looking for more five-on-five scoring as well.
I really like the Spartans this season. They play hard and smart most of the time, they believe in each other and they never quit. They’re also incredibly laid back. Fun team to watch develop, for sure.