As this Big Ten season progresses, the hockey only becomes more and more interesting. There’s a single team apparently running away with the conference title at the top of the standings, five teams separated by a single point each in what we can call the middle, and the team at the bottom of the standings is an improved squad that cannot be dismissed.
1. Notre Dame is unbeaten in its last 13 games and undefeated in Big Ten play.
The Fighting Irish extended their win streak to 13 games with a road sweep of Wisconsin, beating the Badgers 3-2 and 6-2. It was the first time that the two teams had met as members of the same league since 1981, when both were playing in the WCHA. While it’s been suggested that Notre Dame is benefiting from playing in a league that has yet to fulfill its potential, at this point the argument can be made that Notre Dame is just plain good. In both wins, the Irish scored three third-period goals. In Saturday’s game, sophomore Cal Burke netted his first career hat trick, with his second goal late in the second period standing as the game-winner. Burke leads the Irish with a dozen goals in 19 games after scoring three in 35 games a season ago.
His classmate, goaltender Cale Morris, has the best save percentage in the nation (.954), second-best goals-against average (1.53), and the best win percentage (.938) with a record of 15-1-0. He has five shutouts so far this season. He played one game last year. Morris made 73 saves in the weekend set against Wisconsin.
Notre Dame is clearly at home in the Big Ten. The Irish have faced five of their six league opponents and have beaten them all, every single game, and they’ve outscored conference opponents 33-13. They’re off until they resume play with a Michigan home-and-home series, Jan. 5 and Jan. 7.
As for their success, coach Jeff Jackson says, “I can’t explain it, but I try to stay out of the way.”
2. Ohio State sweeps Minnesota and changes part of the landscape of the Big Ten — for this moment, at least.
With two very different wins over the visiting Golden Gophers, the Buckeyes moved from fifth place in the Big Ten to second, a reminder that six points can make a big difference.
In Friday’s 2-1 win, Minnesota’s Rem Pitlick tied the game, 1-1, late in the third period after the Gophers had trailed for 40 minutes, but Christian Lampasso had the game-winning goal for the Buckeyes at 3:44 in OT. In Saturday’s 4-1 win, Ohio State scored three third-period goals, including two empty-netters in the final two minutes. The score in that game was tied 1-1 until Matt Miller found the net at 14:47 in the third to give Ohio State a 2-1 lead.
Now 5-4-0 in B1G play, the Buckeyes have 16 points but are still 14 points behind first-place Notre Dame. A single point now separates each of the five teams in the middle of the pack: Ohio State (16), Penn State (15), Minnesota (14) Wisconsin (13) and Michigan (12). Crazy.
Worth noting is that senior goaltender Sean Romeo joins Notre Dame’s Cale Morris among goaltenders in the top 10 statistically in the nation. Romeo, a transfer from Maine, has the seventh-best save percentage nationally (.928) and ninth-best goals-against average (1.93).
The Buckeyes next play when they host Niagara Dec. 29-30. Minnesota next plays when the Gophers host Army West Point the same nights.
3. Michigan State manages to answer a big defeat with a big comeback.
After having been shut out 4-0 in Yost Ice Arena Thursday night, Michigan State answered with a 5-0 home win over Michigan Friday, the Spartans’ biggest win over their archrival since January 2012.
This may be a bit of hyperbole, but this is exactly what college hockey needs right now. Once upon a time, the hockey rivalry between Michigan and Michigan State was legendary — to the point where the coaches were barely civil to each other and the teams played in an outdoor game in Spartan Stadium aptly called “The Cold War,” which at the time set a hockey attendance record of 74,544. Given the reaction of the Wolverine players to Friday’s loss — a combination of bitterness and sadness that they’ll be dealing with a for an idle stretch of 19 days — that rivalry is still relevant to each squad, but neither of these games was televised, even though no one else in the Big Ten was playing Thursday night. In recent years, even with both teams underperforming, I’ve seen them sell out Joe Louis Arena in Detroit for regular-season games.
But I digress.
In Thursday’s Michigan win, senior Tony Calderone netted his first career hat trick, a natural hat trick that spanned from late in the second period to late in the third and one for which linemate Cooper Marody picked up three assists. Calderone leads the Wolverines with 13 goals in 16 games, two shy of his career-high 15 in 31 games from a season ago. Sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne stopped 21 pucks in his first shutout of the season, the third of his career.
In Friday’s Michigan State win, Lavigne played two periods and gave up four goals before being replaced by Jack LaFontaine — not as commentary on Lavigne’s play so much as goaltender coach Steve Shields wanting LaFontaine to see some game action.
Michigan State opened the scoring at 8:18 in the first on Patrick Khodorenko’s game-winning power-play goal and then never looked back. The Spartans dominated that game from that point on, helped a bit by Khodorenko’s second goal with less than five seconds remaining in the first and the excellent play of sophomore goaltender John Lethemon (.918. 2.28), who made 29 saves in his third shutout of the season.
It’s been a decade, easily, since I’ve heard Munn Arena so loud. The attendance was listed at 6,007 and the place was packed and rocking. In such a small barn, it was everything that college hockey ought to be — and so much that’s been missing from many B1G venues for a long time. The Wolverines and Spartans know how fierce their rivalry is. By exchanging shutouts, maybe they’ll recapture the imagination of the rest of the college hockey faithful, too.
Both Michigan and Michigan State return to play in the Great Lakes Invitational Tournament, held this season for the first time in Detroit’s brand-new Little Caesars Arena. The dates do this rivalry — and college hockey — no justice, as the tournament is competing with football bowl games Jan. 1-2. Michigan Tech (of course) and Bowling Green round out that field.
Also worth noting.
With a sweep of Robert Morris, Penn State extends its unbeaten streak to eight (6-0-2). The Nittany Lions return to action at home against Wisconsin Jan. 5-6.
This is the last blog before we break for the holidays. We’ll have some tournament previews but no new columns until after the first of the year. Have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, a Happy Kwanzaa, a very merry solstice, and here’s to the happiest of new years in 2018. As always, thank you for supporting USCHO and for keeping me company in my love for college hockey for the last two decades.