December brings Big Ten conference hockey – for a couple of weeks, anyway.
Last weekend, four B1G teams played their first league games and this weekend two more will join in before the holiday break, before the new year brings a second half that seems to go at breakneck speed for a conference with just six teams.
One of the surprises brought by the first half of this season is the Big Ten’s nonconference win percentage of .627, the best so far among Division I leagues.
Another surprise is Penn State. The Nittany Lions finish the first half 13-1-1 with the best win percentage in college hockey, the best offense nationally (4.87 goals per game) and the third-best defense (1.87). The Nittany Lions have the top-scoring rookie in the country, forward Denis Smirnov (10-17—27) and a freshman goaltender, Peyton Jones, whose goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.920) speak for his consistency.
The Nittany Lions have victimized a lot of teams this season. Last weekend, Penn State opened the Big Ten season by extending its unbeaten streak to 13 games (12-0-1), finishing a 10-game home stand with its 11th consecutive victory, and outscoring its opponent 11-2 in two games.
That opponent was Michigan. That the Wolverines are 6-7-1 at this point in the season is just yet another surprising development of 2016-2017; that Michigan opened league play on the receiving end of such a shellacking is more than surprising.
“That was a real eye-opener,” said coach Red Berenson. “They found the cracks in our armor.”
Berenson is the kind of coach who is able to see things exactly as they are, in a given moment. “They’re probably the hottest team in college hockey right now, so we got to see a real good team in their home rink and why they’re successful,” said Berenson. “For our team, it was an awakening in terms of things we have to do better.”
Everyone knew coming into this season that Michigan had lost a lot of offense and that goaltending was a question mark. It’s improbable that anyone expected the Wolverines to be averaging 2.50 goals per game approaching midseason, tied with Bentley for 43rd nationally. “We haven’t filled the spots of some of the players we lost and we don’t have even secondary scoring.”
Through 14 games, junior Tony Calderone leads the Wolverines in goals with seven, and freshman Will Lockwood leads Michigan in scoring (6-4—10). Three of Lockwood’s goals have come on the power play. Michigan’s power play is 16th nationally (20.3).
“On paper, at least, we are good defensively,” said Berenson. “We were among the top ten in the country defensively going into the series against Penn State. We know that was what was keeping us in games, that and our goaltending has been good.”
Before last weekend’s series against the Nittany Lions, the Wolverines were allowing 2.17 goals per game. That increased to 2.64 and they’re now 19th in the country.
“I thought our goalies played well,” said Berenson. “Our special teams weren’t up to the mark and our d-zone and overall awareness and puck sense wasn’t good.”
When talking about the series against Penn State, about the season so far and about his team, Berenson sounds like the veteran he is. None of this sounds like a mystery to him and he is patient. This season, perhaps, he’s having to exercise more patience a bit longer into the campaign than usual.
“It’s challenging,” he said. “We know we’re young, but it’s not our young players exactly. It’s every aspect of the game, from chemistry to making good decisions with and without the puck.”
This weekend, Michigan hosts an improved Wisconsin team and the only thing Berenson is focusing on is his own squad. “You work on the things that you’re able to do better. There are a lot of things that were exposed at Penn State. It wasn’t a matter of our speed or skill. It was a matter of awareness.”
Berenson did like the play of freshman Jack LaFontaine in net. After senior Zach Nagelvoort’s fourth goal in Thursday’s 6-1 loss, LaFontaine came in for the third period and allowed two goals on 19 shots. In Friday’s 5-1 loss, LaFontaine made 53 saves.
“He played well,” said Berenson. “He didn’t stand on his head. They throw a lot of pucks at you from everywhere, but they’re not all quality shots. He had to make some good saves.”
The Wolverines host the Badgers at 7:35 p.m. Friday and Saturday night in Yost Ice Arena. It will be the last games for Michigan until the Wolverines face Michigan Tech the first night of this year’s Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, Dec. 29. This series will be the last for Wisconsin until the Badgers host Michigan State Jan. 6-7.
Penn State, incidentally, doesn’t play again until that first weekend in January, when the Nittany Lions play Ohio State on the road. That’s a 35-day break for PSU.
The other B1G team in Michigan a bit more optimistic
Sixty-five miles separate Yost Ice Arena from Munn Ice Arena, Michigan State’s home barn. This season, the gap between the teams seems wider because the programs appear to be experiencing reversals of fortune. While the Wolverines are struggling to create any success, the Spartans are improving weekly.
That, at least, is the optimistic message of coach Tom Anastos.
“I think our early season has been a season of progress,” said Anastos. “That’s what we anticipated coming in. We opened the season with a lot of newness on our team – new in goal, new defense, and a lot of unknowns.”
The Spartans have a 4-6-1 start to their season and have yet to begin Big Ten play. Last weekend, Michigan State beat the U.S. National Team Developmental Program’s Under-18 Team in exhibition, 5-1, a confidence-builder for a team averaging 2.45 goals per game.
“It was good to play because it breaks up the monotony of just practicing,” said Anastos. “It gave us the opportunity to give guys minutes who haven’t had many minutes of game time.”
The Spartans finished the 2015-2016 with 10 overall wins. Coming into this year with 10 rookies on the roster, Anastos knew that he’d have to be patient but that the Spartans would have a chance to take some steps forward.
“We’re still building an identity,” said Anastos. “I think there’s really good chemistry again. We’ve had more skill than we’ve had in the past number of years and yet, we’re incredibly inexperienced. You see that in the ups and downs. I’m not surprised where things are. I’m happy with the weekly progress we’re making.”
One glaring area is Michigan State’s special teams. The Spartans’ power play is converting at 14.5 percent (42nd) and their penalty kill (73.1) is dead-last in the nation.
“I think we’ve been able to stabilize our lines a little bit, which is helpful with a new group of guys that are building chemistry with one another,” said Anastos. “Our group is learning how we want them to play. Our special teams are improving. We had a huge turover on special teams and we’ve started slowly improving in that area for sure.”
This weekend, the Spartans open their Big Ten schedule with two home games against Minnesota. The Golden Gophers (7-5-2) split at home last weekend with Ohio State in the first conference action for each of those teams. Anastos knows what Michigan State is up against when the Gophers come to town.
“Their team has experience and has depth,” said Anastos. “They’re as experienced and have probably more depth than any team we’ve played so far. Each week, we’re finding some new tests. Early in the year we played teams that were older and experienced and hard to play against. Now you play a team like Minnesota with returning goalie coming off a real good season. They’re special teams really look good to me. We’re looking at the series as a new test.”
Minnesota and Michigan State face off in Munn Ice Arena at 6:35 p.m. Friday and at 8:05 p.m. Saturday.
Three stars of the week
Two Nittany Lions and a Golden Gopher.
First star – Penn State freshman goaltender Peyton Jones
Jones (Langhorne, Pa.) made 50 saves in Penn State’s home sweep of Michigan, allowing one goal each night. This is Jones’ third career weekly Big Ten award.
Second star – Minnesota sophomore forward Tyler Sheehy
Sheehy (Burnsville, Minn.) had the game-winning goal in Minnesota’s 5-3 win over visiting Ohio State Friday. Sheehy had four goals and an assist in the Gophers’ split with the Buckeyes, tying for the lead among all conference players in points for the weekend. This is his third career weekly Big Ten honor and his second this season.
Third star – Penn State freshman forward Denis Smirnov
Smirnov (Moscow, Russia) registered a goal and four assists in the Nittany Lions’ sweep of the Wolverines, tying him for the lead in points among all conference players. This is his third career weekly Big Ten honor.
3. Penn State
4. Boston College
6. Boston University
7. Ohio State
9. North Dakota
13. St. Cloud
14. Western Michigan
16. St. Lawrence
17. Bemidji State
18. Minnesota State
19. Notre Dame
At the rinks this weekend
The Big Ten comes to my backyard this weekend, like an early gift from Santa. You can follow along on Twitter (@paulacweston) when I’m at Munn Friday night and Yost Saturday.