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.