Pickin’ the Big Ten: March 11-12

It’s the last weekend of regular-season play. It’s not the last weekend, however, for Drew Claussen and me to predict how B1G teams will fare.

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

Drew: 74-51-18 (.580)
Paula: 75-50-18 (.587)

This week

Last weekend was a weekend of missed opportunities for the top three Big Ten teams. While it’s possible for Michigan to finish ahead of Minnesota when all is said and done, it’s unlikely given that the first-place Gophers play the last-place Badgers. It is entirely possible, though, for third-place Penn State to overtake second-place Michigan. It’s also possible for fifth-place Michigan State to sweep Ohio State and tie the Buckeyes in points at the end of the season and take the tiebreaker to finish fourth.

A single win by Minnesota gives the Gophers their third consecutive Big Ten regular-season championship.

A single win by Michigan gives the Wolverines a second-place finish and a first-round bye for the Big Ten championship tournament next weekend.

A single win by Ohio State would secure fourth place for the Buckeyes.

A single win by Michigan State would do nothing for the Spartans in the standings, but would bolster their confidence as they face off against Ohio State again next weekend in St. Paul, Minn.

A single win by Wisconsin would give the Badgers three B1G wins this season, one more than they had in 2014-15.

Ohio State at Michigan State

Drew: Not much to be determined here, except maybe what color jerseys each team wears when they face off at the Big Ten Tournament. I’m sure both teams, and their fan bases, would take getting swept this weekend if it meant that they would get a win on Thursday in St. Paul.

Ohio State is coming off of an impressive sweep of Michigan. The Buckeyes finally won a close game on Sunday and I think they will be one of the more dangerous teams that has to play three games at the tournament. They made it to the finals in the first year of the Big Ten Tournament and it wouldn’t surprise me if they made another run. Ohio State can score with anyone; the problem is that the Buckeyes are also prone to letting a lot of pucks into their own net. Michigan State had a nice rebound win against Minnesota on Saturday and will try to keep that home magic going. Jake Hildebrand got the shutout last Saturday and the Spartans will need him to do his best brick wall impression to do well the rest of the way.

Paula: The Buckeyes scored 13 goals last weekend against the Wolverines and were rewarded for it — a nice change of pace for OSU after having scored 11 against Michigan in December and only earning two points for the effort. Ohio State has averaged six goals per game in its last five contests, all against B1G teams that can give up a lot of goals — Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan — but allowed 4.4 goals on average in those games. In that stretch, OSU is 4-0-1. The Spartans are averaging 3.2 goals per game in their last five while allowing 2.0 goals, with a record of 3-1-1 in that span.

The Spartans and Buckeyes split a pair of one-goal games (one with an ENG) in Columbus at the end of January. Michigan State is 4-3-3 in its last 10 against Ohio State, and the Spartans were 3-1-0 against the Buckeyes last season. Games are at 7:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday night and are untelevised.

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

Penn State at Michigan

Drew: Missed opportunities for each of these teams last weekend. Michigan missed out on the opportunity to keep the pressure on Minnesota when the Wolverines got swept by Ohio State. Penn State missed out on making this series very, very interesting when it couldn’t solve Wisconsin’s Matt Jurusik in the third period of Saturday’s loss to the Badgers. A win there would have meant that both of these teams would have come into the weekend with 35 points. As it stands, Penn State needs a sweep or a win and a shootout win to jump Michigan this weekend. The Wolverines swept Penn State when the two played earlier this season. The first game of that series was a home game for PSU with the second being a neutral-site contest at Madison Square Garden.

I see this one going as a split. Ohio State had to have been a wake-up call for Michigan and the Wolverines will want to get on a roll heading into the playoffs. I think Penn State is good enough to capture a win this weekend, but I can’t see the Nittany Lions going into Ann Arbor and sweeping.

Paula: The Nittany Lions came from behind against Wisconsin last weekend in that 4-3 loss, scoring two late in the third period but — as Drew said — Jurusik was the difference, as PSU put up 49 shots on goal to UW’s 26 in that contest. If the Nittany Lions do the same this weekend, the Wolverines’ team defense may be exposed again. During the second period of their 7-4 loss to Ohio State last Friday, the Wolverines played horribly — there is no other word for it. While the Buckeyes won both of those games outright, the Wolverines did very little to further their cause.

After their losses last weekend, the Wolverines slipped from sixth to a tie for eighth in the PairWise Rankings. After their single loss to Wisconsin, though, the Nittany Lions officially became a team no longer under consideration; while still on the PWR bubble, Penn State now ties Minnesota for 17th in the PWR, so the Nittany Lions know that they need to win the Big Ten championship outright to get their first invitation to the NCAA tournament. Besting the Wolverines in points this weekend would help them tremendously in St. Paul.

Michigan knows, though, that a loss to Penn State will hurt the Wolverines’ chances to go to the NCAA tournament as well. This is the first Michigan team that I’ve covered in 21 years of college hockey reporting that has no NCAA tournament experience. While a first-time bid for PSU’s program is a mighty motivator, the Wolverines will be no less motivated — especially since this the last year of Red Berenson’s contract. Games are at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday night, and each game is carried by Comcast Cable.

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

Wisconsin at Minnesota

Drew: This series made me think back to the series between the same two teams that ended the 2011-2012 season. The Gophers faced the Badgers at home with a chance to clinch the MacNaughton Cup. Wisconsin took Friday’s game before Nate Schmidt made a great individual play to keep the puck in the offensive zone, elude a defender and launch a rocket for the game-winning goal in the third period of Saturday’s game. The video doesn’t exactly do it justice, but that was the loudest I have ever personally heard Mariucci Arena.

In two ways this weekend’s series will be similar; Minnesota has a chance to lock up the regular-season championship for its conference and the Gophers play Wisconsin. It’s just not the same, though. Wisconsin is terrible and has been for two seasons now. While the Gophers are leading the conference, their play hasn’t been great this year either. Minnesota has been downright bad at times.

Oh, and that loud arena. I’m sure attendance will be announced as more than 9,000, but I’d be surprised if the building is more than 75 percent full.

Minnesota killed Wisconsin when the two teams played at Kohl Center and there’s no reason to predict anything but a Gophers sweep this time around. Which, of course, means that the Badgers will sweep.

Paula: Both of these teams surprised me this season. Minnesota’s young team is loaded with talent, but the Gophers’ season-long learning curve wasn’t something that I expected. Conversely, I am impressed with how hard the Badgers play. At the start of the season, coach Mike Eaves said that his seniors would be motivated by “redemption” in 2015-16. That attempt at redemption hasn’t shown up on the wins and losses ledger, but the Badgers work hard as consistently as they can. I know that fans of each team are frustrated, but both the Gophers and Badgers have been interesting to watch for reasons beyond their numbers this season.

All of that having been said, I think Minnesota sweeps this weekend, too. Friday’s 7:00 p.m. start is carried by ESPNews and Saturday’s 7:00 p.m. game is televised by the Big Ten Network.

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