Pickin’ the Big Ten: March 4-6

We are getting down to it. Last week, I was bitten by the wrong-way split in the Michigan-Minnesota series. Drew Claussen, however, was not.

Last week
Drew: 2-1-1 (.400)
Paula: 1-2-0 (.400)

Drew: 72-47-18 (.555)
Paula: 73-46-18 (.599)

This week

Everyone plays in this penultimate week of the regular season. Minnesota still holds first place by a single point ahead of Michigan, who’s six points in front of Penn State. Neither Drew nor I see that changing.

Minnesota at Michigan State

Drew: Each Big Ten team has a possible 12 conference points on the table. I think the Gophers will need to get at least 10 to finish ahead of Michigan. A rivalry series against Wisconsin on the season’s final weekend should be an easy one for Minnesota to get up for next weekend, but it is crucial that the Gophers don’t give away points against Michigan State. Minnesota has proved this season that it is good at rebounding after a loss, but when you close the season playing the bottom two teams in the conference you can’t afford to lose those games.

Michigan State will need to lean on Jake Hildebrand. If the Spartans are able to jump out to a quick lead they could lean on their home crowd and make life more difficult for the Gophers heading into the final weekend. I’m picking the Gophers to sweep.

Paula: There’s more at stake than the regular-season championship, and the Gophers know that. Minnesota cannot afford to lose to Michigan State or Wisconsin and expect to stay viable in the PairWise Rankings. Minnesota did what it needed to do last weekend to remain in first place, beating Michigan 3-2 in overtime Friday after Thursday’s 6-2 loss. The Spartans come into this weekend rested, having last played Feb. 19-20, a road sweep of Wisconsin. Michigan State is 5-4-1 in their last 10 games; Minnesota is 6-4-0. The Gophers swept the Spartans at home Jan. 15-16 with 5-2 and 3-1 scores. I’m with Drew, though. I don’t see Minnesota losing this weekend. Games begin at 7:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Friday’s contest is carried by both Fox Sports Detroit and Fox Sports North.

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

Ohio State vs. Michigan

Drew: The Gophers have the “luxury” of playing their final four games against the conference’s bottom teams, but Michigan gets to play its final three contests at home. Will either of these things matter much? Probably not. Truth is this conference has been wide open all season; there’s probably pretty equal chances that Minnesota or Michigan win out, lose out or go 2-2.

Michigan will need to let cooler heads prevail this weekend against Ohio State. I know these two schools don’t like each other very much, but taking a dumb penalty or — worse — getting suspended could kill a team’s chances this time of year. I like Michigan to outscore the Buckeyes this weekend, even though Minnesota slowed down the Wolverines’ offense last time out.

The key game will be Friday’s contest. Ohio State has proven that it can score when the offense is hot, but I feel like if Michigan is able to get that home win on Friday it will be able to roll the momentum into Sunday’s game on the road.

Paula: I agree. I think a win Friday night at home for Michigan fuels the Wolverines in Columbus on Sunday. This is such a big season for the Wolverines. They can taste a share of the regular-season title and, for the first time since 2012, are nearly assured an NCAA tournament berth. Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss against Minnesota was one of the best games I’ve seen this season, and Michigan looked mighty fine indeed; the loss wasn’t for lack of trying, and the Wolverines didn’t make many mistakes. Play like that this weekend will nearly guarantee Michigan two wins as the Wolverines have returned to a form that fans haven’t seen in years.

That doesn’t mean that Ohio State doesn’t have game or that the Buckeyes will make anything about this weekend easy. Drew’s right about OSU’s offense; when the Buckeyes roll, they can score with the best of them, and when the whole OSU team plays as a cohesive unit, it’s a pretty darned good one. At home last Friday and Saturday, Ohio State tied Wisconsin 4-4 and beat the Badgers 6-5. The Buckeyes are in fourth place, three points ahead of fifth-place Michigan State and 10 points behind Penn State. The Wolverines took four of six points from the Buckeyes in their previous Friday-Sunday, home-and-home series in mid-January. Friday’s game in Ann Arbor begins at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday’s rematch in Columbus starts at 3:00 p.m. Surprisingly, neither of these games is televised.

Drew’s picks: Michigan 5-3, 4-1.
Paula’s picks: Michigan 5-2, 4-2.

Penn State at Wisconsin

Drew: Our editor, Todd Milewski, wrote a great piece for The Capital Times this week about the state of Wisconsin Hockey. It’s a great read that touches on just how bad things have gotten in Madison. This year is not going to end mercifully for the Badgers. They play two nationally-ranked teams that dealt them four consecutive losses in January.

Other than the fact that they want to be playing well going into the playoffs, the Nittany Lions don’t have much on the line for the final weekends. Penn State is six points behind second-place Michigan but PSU has a 10-point cushion on fourth-place Ohio State. Two convincing victories this weekend against Wisconsin, a team Penn State will probably meet in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, could help its confidence going into the match up. I’d like to pick a Wisconsin victory for those home fans that actually are still showing up, but I think Penn State wins a close game and a blowout.

Paula: I respectfully disagree with Drew that the Nittany Lions have little at stake this weekend or next. Like Minnesota, Penn State needs to beat teams that are not under consideration to remain viable for the NCAA tournament. No. 14 in the PWR is not a very comfortable spot, and a loss to Wisconsin could hurt the Nittany Lions. Also, Penn State is still trying to catch second-place Michigan, a team that is just six point ahead of PSU. Keeping pace with the Wolverines is vitally important, as a first-round Big Ten tournament bye is on the line. I think the Nittany Lions will be exceptionally driven this weekend — especially since they end the season in Ann Arbor next weekend.

The trick for PSU, of course, is not to look past the Badgers to the Wolverines. The Nittany Lions had a bye last weekend, having last played Feb. 19-20, a split against the Buckeyes in which they won the opener 6-1 before losing their final home game of the season 7-4. That loss, no doubt, will be another thing that fuels Penn State this weekend. The Nittany Lions beat the Badgers at home Jan. 15-16, but the first game took overtime. Both games Friday and Saturday begin at 7:00 p.m., and Saturday’s contest is carried by the American Sports Network.

Drew’s picks: Penn State 3-2, 6-1.
Paula’s picks: Penn State 5-1, 5-2.