Pickin’ the Big Ten: March 6-7

It’s the penultimate week of the regular season. Yes, I wait all year to be able to use that word.

Last week
Drew Claussen: 2-4-0 (.333)
Paula Weston: 4-2-0 (.666)

Drew: 71-61-10 (.535)
Paula: 63-66-11 (.496)

I can still hold out some hope for hitting .500 before the regular season ends. And poor Drew has had two weeks like I had for two months in the first half.

This week

Eight points separate first-place Michigan from fourth-place Penn State this week, and the Wolverines travel to Pegula Arena for two. Second-place Minnesota is three points behind Michigan and two points ahead of third-place Michigan State, and both the Golden Gophers and the Spartans are playing opponents significantly behind them in the standings. An interesting week, for sure.

Michigan at Penn State

Drew: Where Ohio State has been heating up at the right time, Penn State has gone ice cold at the absolute worst time of the season, and losing senior Taylor Holstrom for the rest of the year is going to make things that much more difficult. The Nittany Lions’ saving grace may be that they are hosting Michigan this weekend because Pegula Ice Arena is quickly becoming one of the nation’s toughest buildings to play in.

Michigan is riding a high right now; the Wolverines have followed a three-game losing streak with a three-game winning streak. These two teams split a series at Yost earlier this season and I’m tempted to pick that result again, but I think the Wolverines are going to out-gun the Nittany Lions this time around.

Paula: Holstrom (7-26–33) is second on the PSU team in scoring and was injured in last Saturday’s 5-3 loss to Ohio State. It is a blow for a team that is 1-5-0 in its last six, having dropped two games to OSU by the same score last weekend. When the Nittany Lions and Wolverines met in Ann Arbor Nov. 21-22, Penn State took the first game 3-2 but Michigan dominated the following night in an 8-1 win.

As good as the Nittany Lions are at home (11-2-3), I think these are Michigan’s game to lose — and this will be a big test for the Wolverines, who have yet to find week-to-week consistency in team defense. Michigan swept Wisconsin last weekend, scoring three goals in the third period of Saturday’s 5-2 win and looking like Michigan teams of old. How that translates through an entire weekend in Hockey Valley, though, is anyone’s guess. Friday’s game begins at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday’s at 3:00 p.m. and — sadly — neither is televised.

Drew’s picks: Michigan 5-2, 6-3.
Paula’s picks: Michigan 4-2, Penn State 3-2.

Minnesota at Ohio State

Drew: A split with Michigan State last weekend landed the Gophers back in second place in the standings and now Minnesota will head on the road to face a team that is playing a heck of a lot better than it was a month ago. The Gophers did sweep Ohio State at Mariucci, but I believe we will see a much closer series in Columbus this weekend. Though the Buckeyes’ sweep over Penn State may not be as impressive as it would have been if the Nittany Lions weren’t riding a 1-3 streak going into the series, I don’t think those results were an anomaly. When healthy, Ohio State can play some decent hockey.

Like many others, I wasn’t very impressed with the Gophers’ effort at home last weekend. Other than the second and third periods that led to the comeback on Thursday, their play was flat, boring and rather uninspired. That being said, with the way this team is capable of playing it’s hard to pick anything but a Gophers sweep this weekend. Ohio State stealing one wouldn’t shock me, but I’m not going to bet on it.

Paula: As Drew says, the key to Ohio State’s success is the team’s health. For long stretches of the season, the Buckeyes were playing with injuries to several key players and they did look good against PSU last weekend. The Golden Gophers look more mortal this season than they have in recent years, but they have the weapons they need to be dangerous in the hunt for a regular-season title.

Minnesota is 17-2-1 against Ohio State all-time, and last season the Gophers were 3-1-1-0 against the Buckeyes. If Minnesota wins Friday night, the Gophers sweep. If not, it’s a split — and that’s what I’m calling. Friday’s game begins at 5:00 p.m. and is televised by ESPNU and TSN2; Saturday’s 6:00 p.m. start is carried by ESPNews.

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

Wisconsin at Michigan State

Drew: This is a must-sweep for the Spartans at home. There’s really no other way to put it. Wisconsin has improved over the second half of the season, but if Michigan State wants to continue to be a threat to nab one of the top Big Ten Tournament seeds, it needs six points at home against the Badgers. Jake Hildebrand has been playing very well and should be able to shut down Bucky this weekend.

Paula: Last weekend, the Badgers dropped those two games in Ann Arbor and the Spartans split in Minneapolis, never trailing in Saturday’s 4-2 win. These teams met two weeks ago in Madison, when the Badgers picked up their second conference win of the season with a 2-1 game Friday, Feb. 20, a victory that gave Wisconsin its only consecutive winning game days of all of 2014-2015, as the Badgers beat the Buckeyes the previous Saturday night. Since that win, Wisconsin is 0-3; since that loss to the Badgers, the Spartans are 2-1.

The Spartans are 6-2-0 in their last eight games, all in conference play. In that stretch, MSU has allowed 10 total goals and Hildebrand’s save percentage has been .963. Friday’s 7:00 p.m. game is not televised, but Saturday’s 7:00 p.m. rematch is carried by Fox Sports Detroit and Fox Sports West Plus.

Drew’s picks: Michigan State 3-1, 3-0.
Paula’s picks: Michigan State 3-1, 3-1.