This Week in Big Ten Hockey: Competitive conference seeing ‘margin between victory and defeat is getting smaller and smaller’

Michigan State’s Josh Nodler netted the game-winning goal for the Spartans with less than a minute left against Michigan last Saturday night (photo: Matthew Mitchell Photography).

Leave it to Danton Cole to sum up this whole wild ride of a college hockey season with an axiom that neither oversimplifies nor underexplains:

“You know what? Sports are an interesting thing.”

Yes. Yes they are.

Cole made the remark during his press conference following Michigan State’s come-from-behind, redemption-producing 3-2 home win over Michigan last Saturday, the day following the Wolverines’ 9-0 thumping of the Spartans at Yost Ice Arena, Michigan State’s worst loss in 27 years.

In that 9-0 Michigan win, Thomas Bordeleau’s goal at 5:08 in the first period held up to win the game and Johnny Beecher’s goal a little over six minutes later knocked Drew DeRidder out of the Michigan State net. Seven different Wolverines scored in the thorough routing.

Less than 24 hours later, DeRidder had his fifth win of the season against the Spartans’ archrival, a 38-save performance that held Michigan State in a 2-1 game until Cole Krygier tied it up 2:02 to go in regulation and Josh Nodler scored the game winner with 37 seconds left on the clock.

It was a stunning turnaround, the kind of atonement that sports fans love.

Yes, a very interesting thing – and in a weekend full of interesting things in college hockey, but especially in the Big Ten.

Every B1G series or series involving a Big Ten team ended in an outright split last weekend, each series providing more insight and perspective about how this unusual season may continue to unfold.

Saturday night, the conference’s other century-old archrivalry resumed when Wisconsin hosted Minnesota and delivered the first defeat of the season to the Golden Gophers, a 3-1 Wisconsin win that pulled the second-place Badgers three points closer to Minnesota.

Until Sunday when the Gophers won the rematch 5-3. Of course.

“I like Wisconsin,” said Minnesota coach Bob Motzko. “I think they’re a really, really good hockey team and I think they’re going to be in it at the end of the year.”

Wisconsin’s Tony Granato returned the favor.

“They’re as good of a college team as there is right now,” Granato said. “They were able to make more of their chances tonight. We were able to make more of our chances last night. And I think if you look at it, how hard both teams played, I think it probably deserved to be a split.”

In Columbus Friday night, Ohio State beat Penn State 6-3, but the Nittany Lions took Saturday’s game 5-2. OSU assistant coach JB Bittner said that the difficulty in pulling off a sweep in college hockey comes from the parity in preparing for that second game.

“You beat a team the first night, and you know the coach is all over them,” said Bittner. “There’s video, there’s meetings. To try and beat them again the next night, you have to play better than you did the night before. We played better, too, but they upped their game.”

Heading into the weekend, first-place Minnesota was eight points ahead of second-place Wisconsin, four points separated fourth-place Ohio State from last-place Penn State, and the Wolverines and Spartans were tied for fifth.

At the end of the weekend, the only thing in the standing that changed was that the Buckeyes moved up to third place, one point ahead of Notre Dame because the Fighting Irish played nonconference opponent Arizona State.

And the Irish split with the Sun Devils, too, coming from behind early in the third period of Saturday’s 5-4 win and trailing for nearly the entirety of Sunday’s 5-3 loss. Arizona State’s Matthew Kopperud scored two goals 1:58 apart late in the third on a major penalty to Notre Dame’s Colin Theisen, but the Irish scored with Theisen in the box, too, a shorthander six seconds after Kopperud’s second marker.

That win brings Arizona State’s record to 5-9-2, all against Big Ten opponents. If the Sun Devils were B1G conference members, they’d have the fifth-best win percentage in the league.

What does all this mean for the Big Ten? Penn State’s Guy Gadowsky thinks that it means that B1G Hockey is producing consistently good, evenly-matched hockey.

“I can tell you it’s better than any other conference in the nation and that’s been over the past few years,” said Gadowsky. “That’s what we expect this year.

“Obviously, because of the COVID situation and what teams were allowed to get on the ice early and what weren’t, I think at the start of the season there was much greater variance that what we’re used to, but now that everybody’s been on the ice a little longer and gotten a chance to play together, I think that margin between victory and defeat is getting smaller and smaller and I think that’s going to continue.”

After the Badgers split with the Gophers, Granato said, “Games are mistakes. The team that makes the fewest mistakes generally wins. I thought it was a great hockey weekend.”

Yes. Yes it was.

That’s got to burn in you

In spite of the resources available to Big Ten programs and the high visibility of the conference, the league has been emerging since its inception in 2013.

When the league formed, several teams were rebuilding programs that struggled in their previous conferences, Penn State was brand new, and aspects of several programs seemed like they were in a state of flux.

Seven years later, the league is far more competitive and perceived to be tougher nationally – even more solid than in 2017-18, when the conference placed three teams in the Frozen Four field. Part of the reason for that is the improvement in individual programs. The Golden Gophers, once rebuilding, appear to have arrived. Near the other end of the standings, the Spartans are continuing their rebuild.

“I like this about this group. Every year we’ve done a little more winning, but they’ve got a good winner’s mentality where there’s a certain calmness,” said Cole.

That Michigan State could play a competitive game after losing 9-0 to Michigan surprises no one. That the Spartans could pull off a nearly last-minute victory raises some eyebrows.

“There was good intestinal fortitude, they kind of knew what they had to do, they got the next one and found a way to get the third one,” said Cole. “I like the way they handle themselves that way. They’ve done that a few times this year. They’ve got a little extra in them when they want to dig down.”

That ability to dig down, especially when playing their program’s fiercest and longest-standing rivals, is something that Cole sees as essential to playing for Michigan State. It goes back to what he experienced himself playing for the Spartans in the 1980s and something he wanted to share with his players before Saturday’s win over Michigan.

“I thought about a speech my sophomore year by Donny McSween, one of the best captains I ever played with and definitely one of the best captains ever here at Michigan State,” said Cole. “We had lost at home to Michigan and we didn’t lose to them that much back then, but it was a bad loss.”

Cole said that he couldn’t recall the exact words of the speech in 1986-97, his sophomore season when McSween was the senior captain, but that “it was more the emotion of it” that he wanted to impart to his players last weekend.

“The main point was, ‘Hey, that’s got to burn. That’s got to burn in you, not just for tomorrow and the next week or this season, but that’s the rest of your life. That’s got to burn in you,’ and that’s what we talked about,” said Cole.

“That got me, and I’ve been a Spartan my whole life and that made an impact on me. That’s hard to do. That’s how important these games [with Michigan] are and how hard you have to play.”

In continuing to build Michigan State from what seemed like the bottom up, creating the fundamental desire to “dig down” – especially against the Wolverines – seems as important to Cole as teaching any on-ice system, any playmaking skill.

“I’m a tough guy to impress,” said Cole after the 3-2 win. “And they did tonight. That was a gutsy bunch in there. Good Spartans.”

And better Big Ten.