Pickin’ the Big Ten: Feb. 20-22

As the regular season winds down, we have a full weekend of Big Ten conference play. First, a look at how Drew Claussen and I are doing with the picks.

Last week
Drew: 5-1-0 (.833)
Paula: 4-2-0 (.666)

Drew: 67-53-10 (.554)
Paula: 57-62-11 (.481)

I am grateful for any week in which I am over .500.

This week

There are two Friday-Saturday, single-site series and one home-and-home that goes Friday-Sunday. With Michigan and Minnesota tied for first place, Michigan State and Penn State tied for second and just two points out of first and four weeks of regular-season play remaining, things — as the kids say — are getting real.

Michigan vs. Ohio State

Drew: Michigan and Michigan State are two of the conference’s top four teams that absolutely need to sweep this weekend to keep their respective title hopes alive. Dropping points to a cellar dweller would be devastating right now. Red Berenson told me that for any team to guarantee a regular-season championship they would have to run the table, and he might be right. The Wolverines’ defense has caught up to them in the last couple weekends when their offense has failed to pour in goals routinely, but Ohio State has had some lopsided defeats this season, including two glaring ones to Michigan. If Michigan can get its defensive play and goaltending figured out in the next eight games, it could be a very dangerous playoff team. That is a very difficult task, however, and, while I am picking the Wolverines to sweep this weekend, I still can’t see them making a deep playoff run.

Paula: I agree with nearly everything Drew says, except in not seeing Michigan making a deep playoff run. If the Wolverines do shore up their team defense and goaltending in the last four weeks of the season, they’ll be doing so at the exact time of year when every team wants to play its best hockey — and that will make them dangerous postseason. Like Drew, though, I have my doubts about this team’s ability to do so. Michigan was an amazingly fun team to watch a few weeks ago. I’d like to see that team again. And again. And again.

Last weekend, the Wolverines dropped a road series to Minnesota, losing 6-2 and 2-0. I was impressed by their ability to limit the Gophers to two goals on the second night after giving up six, but I was also impressed by the Gophers’ ability to silence a potent offense that had netted two the night before. The Buckeyes split a home series with Wisconsin last weekend, winning 2-1 and losing 3-2, and at this point OSU can only hope to play itself up the standings for the best match possible in the Big Ten tournament. The Wolverines lead this all-time series 77-33-12, and they’re 35-16-5 in Columbus. More importantly, Michigan is 9-0-1 in the last 10 meetings between the teams.

Friday’s game in Columbus begins at 7:00 p.m. and is not televised. Sunday’s game starts at 5:00 p.m. in Ann Arbor and is carried by Fox Sports Detroit and SportsTime Ohio.

Drew’s picks: Michigan 4-2, 5-3.
Paula’s picks: Michigan 4-2, 4-2.

Michigan State at Wisconsin

Drew: I still can’t get myself to fully believe in this Michigan State team, but that hasn’t held them back, considering they’ve gone 5-2-1 in 2015. With the potential to hold any opponent to one or less goal any given night, Sparty is a dangerous team. Half of the Spartans’ final eight games are against the Badgers, which obviously should help their chances of winning the conference or capturing a first-round bye in the conference tournament. That being said, their other four games are against Minnesota and Michigan. Regardless this last month is going to be fun to watch.

Paula: Michigan State can be fun to watch, without question — but the Spartans can also play workaday, blue collar, clog-the-neutral-zone hockey … which can be effective but not so much fun to witness in real game time. No matter how the Spartans do it, that they can stymie opponents is one of their greatest strengths and will certainly make the next four weeks interesting. The thing about Michigan State is that the Spartans work harder and more consistently than any team I’ve seen play this season. When they let down, they let down in ways that betray their weaknesses, like their struggles with goal scoring, but they do not disappoint unless they disappoint themselves.

Last week, Michigan State swept Penn State at home, 3-0 and 3-2, and limiting one of the most powerful offenses in the country to two goals in a weekend is a very positive sign for the Spartans heading into this last month of regular-season play. In their last five games, the Spartans are 5-1-0, having allowed eight goals in that span, fewer than any other team in the country since Jan. 23. Also, goalie Jake Hildebrand has posted a 1.17 GAA and .964 in that stretch with two shutouts. Michigan State may be a quietly hot team — or hot-ish, at the very least.

Wisconsin registered its first league win last weekend, picking up a 3-2 win on the road against the Buckeyes Saturday after losing 2-1 the night before. Like the Buckeyes, the Badgers are now playing to put themselves in the best possible position for the Big Ten tournament.

Friday’s game is the later Big Ten Network contest, starting at 8:00 p.m. CT. Saturday’s game begins at 7:00 p.m. and is carried by The Wisconsin Channel.

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

Minnesota at Penn State

Drew: One could very easily argue that this is the biggest series Pegula Ice Arena has ever hosted. The Nittany Lions are coming off of a disappointing road sweep and will host a team that is two points in front of them in the standings, one which hasn’t lost in six contests. The good thing for Minnesota is that the majority of its players traveled to Penn State last season so the new-experience factor shouldn’t come into play this weekend. I could make an argument for this series to go to either team. Minnesota’s seniors have really stepped up recently and have brought the Gophers back to a level that we all thought them capable of. On the other hand, Penn State is a team that gets a lot of shots on net, which is something that Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox has struggled with this season. Goaltending will be key this weekend (like it always is) because both teams have high-octane offenses. I say home ice nets Penn State at least one victory in this series.

Paula: This one is certainly tough to call and is the series of the weekend to watch. With the home sweep of Michigan last weekend, Minnesota is 5-0-1 in its last six games, a stretch during which the Golden Gophers averaged 4.83 goals per game, having netted at least four goals in five of those contests. After allowing nine goals to Wisconsin in the first two games of that stretch, the Gophers allowed two in the three that followed that series immediately and then capped the run by shutting out Michigan’s nation-leading offense.

Penn State suffered its first sweep of the season last weekend with the two road losses to Michigan State, but the Nittany Lions play particularly well in Pegula Arena, with a record of 11-2-1 at home. Junior goaltender PJ Musico (2.13 GAA, .933 SV%) is expected to start in the Friday contest; he was in net for PSU’s sweep of Wisconsin two weeks ago and for the first loss against Michigan State. Musico hasn’t seen much action this year, but he is 4-2-1.

These are the first matches of the season between these two teams. Minnesota was 4-0-0 against Penn State last year. Friday’s game is the Big Ten Network’s early contest, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Saturday’s game starts at 5:00 p.m. and is carried by ESPNU.

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