A second-half Big Ten forecast, with a bold pick for tournament champion

Can Michigan State make some noise in the Big Ten’s second half? (photo: Shelley M. Szwast)

For most leagues, the start of the second half brings with it a return to full-on conference play, competition that began months ago. For the Big Ten, however, the start of the second half feels like the start of the season.

No one in the league has played more than four conference games, which means that the bulk of what will be decided for Big Ten teams will be decided between now and March 21, when the league playoff champion will emerge from Joe Louis Arena. Given what we saw in the first half of the season, there is very interesting hockey ahead.

It’s a good time to look at the rest of the season in light of the recent past, and each of USCHO.com’s conference columns is doing just that this week — and likely doing a better job of prognostication than I can. Have you seen my picks record this season?

Don’t take any of this to the bank.

Games and series to watch

It’s too cheap to say that every single series counts for B1G teams because nearly all of the conference play is in the second half. Here are three series that I’m anticipating will significantly influence the final regular season standings:

Minnesota at Michigan, Jan. 9-10

Straight away in the second half, the Gophers face the Wolverines in Ann Arbor, with Minnesota looking to pick up key road points from arguably its best conference competition. Last season, the Golden Gophers were 3-1 against Michigan, with the sole win by the Wolverines their last meeting of the season, a 6-2 drubbing in Ann Arbor on March 15.

Minnesota hosts the Mariucci Classic on Jan. 2-3, a weekend that sees the Wolverines resting after capturing their 16th Great Lakes Invitational title on Dec. 29. Michigan will also get a boost from returning forwards JT Compher, Dylan Larkin and Tyler Motte, as well as defenseman Zach Werenski, all of whom play for Team USA in this year’s World Junior Championship.

The Wolverines travel to Minneapolis a month later to face the Gophers for another two-game series.

Michigan vs. Michigan State, Jan. 30 and Feb. 7

These two games will be played in Joe Louis Arena, where the Wolverines and Spartans met for the GLI championship game — a dandy game that saw the Wolverines hang on for a 2-1 win. The Wolverines are 29-18-5 all-time against the Spartans at the Joe and have won six straight games against Michigan State in JLA, dating to Jan. 29, 2011.

In this series played eight days apart, each team will have the home-ice advantage once. The teams end the regular season with a true home-and-home series, with the Spartans hosting in Munn Ice Arena on March 13 and Michigan the following night in Yost.

Obviously, if Michigan can continue to take advantage of the Spartans in what seems like the not-so-neutral Joe, the games in Detroit can help the Wolverines chase the Golden Gophers.

Minnesota at Penn State, Feb. 20-21

The Golden Gophers swept the Nittany Lions last season, winning 3-2 and 5-2 in Pegula Arena the second week in January, followed by 5-1 and 2-1 games in Mariucci on Feb. 28 and March 1. That was then, though. So far this season, the Nittany Lions are 5-0-1 at home and at this point sit atop the Big Ten standings with their 3-0-1 record. I don’t think anyone expects Penn State to remain at the top of the standings, but the Nittany Lions will push every team they play this season.

After losing two games at the Three Rivers Classic, the Nittany Lions have a home stretch of nine games, including three conference series. The weekend before Penn State welcomes Minnesota, the Nittany Lions are on the road for two games against Michigan State — another series that could very well be key. Returning home will give the Nittany Lions the boost they need as they attempt to take their first league points from the Golden Gophers, especially if Pegula is particularly friendly to Penn State during that nine-game home stretch.

Making that weekend even more interesting is a home-and-home series between Michigan and Ohio State.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Here’s how the Big Ten coaches predicted that the league would finish at the start of this season:

1. Minnesota
2. Michigan
3. Wisconsin
4. Ohio State
5. Michigan State
6. Penn State

Here’s how I picked them at the start of the season:

1. Minnesota
2. Wisconsin
3. Michigan
4. Ohio State
5. Michigan State
6. Penn State

How nice to have a chance to revise these picks at midseason. It’s also nice to see that I wasn’t alone in some of my mistaken assumptions.

The one position I won’t revise is Minnesota at the top. Here’s how I now see the final standings:

1. Minnesota
2. Michigan
3. Penn State
4. Michigan State
5. Ohio State
6. Wisconsin

I’d say there’s a good chance for just a point or two to separate Penn State from Michigan State in the final standings. I don’t think that the Buckeyes or Badgers will make enough noise to affect the top four places in the standings, although it’s possible they swap places at the end of the season.

Penn State’s Guy Gadowsky could be on his way to the coach of the year award (photo: Jim Rosvold).

These guys will take home some hardware

Here are my picks for postseason Big Ten honors:

Coach of the year — Guy Gadowsky, Penn State

I think Gadowsky will lead the Nittany Lions to a winning season and into the NCAA tournament. He’s certainly proven in just three short years that he was an excellent choice to build Penn State’s new program.

Player of the year — Casey Bailey, Penn State

The junior forward is on pace for a career scoring season (11-8–19) and if the Nittany Lions can take their lessons from the second half of 2013-14 and the first half of this season all the way to March, they’ll be a team to reckon with in every single series. Bailey will be a big reason for Penn State’s success. He’s the kind of guy who scores in the clutch, and I think he’ll do so repeatedly in the second half.

Goaltender of the year — Adam Wilcox, Minnesota

The Big Ten hasn’t exactly established itself as a league of fearsome goaltending in the early going, but the Minnesota junior has been steady and is likely to remain so. His .926 save percentage at midseason is slightly down last year’s final season total of .932 and his 2.15 GAA is up from last year’s 1.97, but I attribute that to an overall Golden Gophers team defense that will only improve as the season progresses.

Defensive player of the year — Mike Reilly, Minnesota

The junior defenseman plays both sides of the puck well, and can play in any situation.

Freshman of the year — Zach Werenski, Michigan

It was tough to choose between Werenski, a defenseman, and Michigan forward Dylan Larkin. They’re both terrific players, but I think Werenski is the kind of player who noticeably elevates the level of play of every player on the ice when he’s in the mix.

First team

Casey Bailey, F, Penn State
Andrew Copp, F, Michigan
Connor Reilly, F, Minnesota
Michael Downing, D, Michigan
Mike Reilly, D, Minnesota
Adam Wilcox, G, Minnesota

All-freshman team

Tony Calderone, F, Michigan
Scott Conway, F, Penn State
Dylan Larkin, F, Michigan
Josh Jacobs, D, Michigan State
Zach Werenski, D, Michigan
No goalie

This year’s playoff champion: Michigan State

Yup. I predict that the Spartans will play their way into the NCAA tournament by capturing the league’s second playoff championship — and I think it’s the only way that Michigan State will get a bid.

When this Michigan State teams plays the game it can, it can compete with anyone and take points in every weekend. I don’t think, however, that the Spartans will take points in each series and Michigan State will wind up on the losing side of hard-fought, close, heartbreaking games, like this year’s 2-1 Great Lakes Invitational title game loss to Michigan.

That kind of effort — coupled with significant belief in their collective mission — will fuel the Spartans in Detroit in March. The Big Ten tournament this year will be gritty regardless, given the way each of the league’s teams plays, but Michigan State’s determination will make it even grittier, with low-scoring matches that are toughed out by players who are not yet and may never be household names.

Look for forwards Michael Ferrantino and Brent Darnell to be named to the all-tournament team.

Four Big Ten teams will make the NCAA tournament

This is an incredibly unlikely scenario. Only Minnesota is among the top 16 teams in the PairWise Rankings at midseason. Still, Michigan and Penn State aren’t that far off and a lot can happen between now and March.

Minnesota will be a high seed in the NCAA tournament and Michigan will play its way up to a top-10 seeding. Penn State will be a bubble team that gets to go in just its third year of Division I play, and Michigan State will be the 15th or 16th seed in the tournament, depending on everything else that transpires.