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As the Penn State community eagerly awaits the Nittany Lions appearance in football’s Big Ten Championship game, they’ll have the beginning of another conference slate to hold them over until Saturday’s festivities.
The crowning of football’s conference champions often coincides with the beginning of conference play for ice hockey teams. This season, the No. 3 Lions play host to perhaps their most bitter rival in the Michigan Wolverines.
The Wolverines took all five meetings from the Lions last season, outscoring the blue and white 33-11. These are two very different teams from a season ago, however. The Wolverines lost all three members of their explosive CCM line while the Lions have the most skilled players since they joined Division-I.
While the Wolverines don’t have the constant threat that was Kyle Connor, coach Guy Gadowsky isn’t taking the series any more lightly, believing that their offense can be just as explosive even without the likes of Connor. He is relieved, however, that he won’t have to face that top line again.
“I’m not sure I saw a line like that in college,” he said Monday. “They may not have a line like that, but they have a lot of great players.”
The difference between the two seasons has been obvious for the Wolverines, however. In non-conference play last season, they ranked fourth in goals per game. This season, they have fallen to 33rd.
Instead the Wolverines are finding success with a stronger defense. Led by a pair of freshmen netminders in Hayden Lavigne and Jack LaFontaine, the maize and blue are in the top 10 in goals against this season.
“They’re doing it with defense now, and that’s scary,” Gadowsky said, “because they’re always Michigan, they’re always explosive, but obviously they’re playing a really tough defense so that’s going to create problems.”
With the Wolverines taking a step back and teams like Wisconsin and Michigan State rebounding from tough seasons, the Big Ten may foster the most potential to have a team make a run at the National Title.
With conference play opening this week, we felt it would be a good time to share our thoughts on the six Big Ten teams and how they may fare this season:
Michigan: I would make the argument that the Wolverines have at least the second-most talented roster in the Big Ten on paper, maybe even the most talented. While the big names of last season's CCM line have moved on, there remains a number of players that can cause headaches for opposing teams. With legendary coach Red Berenson, the team will be a solid contender this season. While Michigan is off to a slow non-conference start (6-5-1), the team still has several important non-conference games remaining that could turn it into a positive by the time it's all said and done. Minnesota had a slow start last season but came back to its previous form during the Big Ten schedule. Michigan could do the same this year. The team is in a spot where it could compete for a top spot in the conference and the bye in the Big Ten Tournament, or it could fall to third or fourth in the conference and consider this year a down year.
Michigan State: The Spartans are in a similar position as the Badgers. After dwelling in the bottom of the national standings last season, the team has shown signs of life early in the year. With a recent win on the road versus North Dakota, MSU gained a huge non-conference victory. In recent years the Spartans found success with netminder Jake Hildebrand and a stingy defense. Last season MSU had a harder time scoring, and as a result the defense and solid netminding was not enough. Hildebrand is no longer with the Spartans and the offense has loosened up a bit this season, although it still has averaged fewer than three goals per game thus far. If the Spartans can maintain a solid non-conference record it could use this season as a stepping stone to the future, pulling themselves out of the bottom of the national standings. The program was a rudderless ship last season, a shell of its former self, but this year it should give its Big Ten contemporaries a tougher challenge, though that may not translate into many more conference wins than last season.
Minnesota: The Gophers have everything that a good program needs. It has a great fan base, a home-ice advantage due to the unique size of the arena, a great coach, and a roster full of future-NHL players. After getting out to a shaky non-conference start last season the Gophers have put together a respectable 6-4-2 record thus far. With wins versus Boston College and North Dakota, the team has built a solid resume heading into Big Ten play. Due to the uncertainty surrounding Ohio State and Penn State, and the slight dip in expectations for Michigan, it would make sense to list the Gophers as the front-runner for the Big Ten regular-season championship.
Ohio State: Other than Penn State, the Buckeyes are one of the most mysterious teams in college hockey. As it is with the Lions, the national stage is not accustomed to equating OSU with a top hockey program. So the early-season waves that OSU has made have been mostly ignored by the pollsters and the established national media engine. PSU and OSU are the only two teams in college hockey that have yet to lose a second game this season. Led by Nick Schilkey, the Buckeyes have a scary scoring ability. Speed is the greatest asset of the team and that is one element of the game that Penn State struggled to match in recent seasons. This year the Lions should have an easier time of keeping up with the Buckeyes as the team has added a number of talented players. It wouldn't be a shocker if Ohio State won the Big Ten title, the team is that solid. It's also possible that the young, new-to-national-attention team could falter along the way during the conference schedule and settle into the middle of the pack by the time the Big Ten Tournament is held in March. OSU and PSU are in similar positions.
Penn State- To this point in the season the Lions have proven to be one of the best teams in the country. While slowly moving up the voting polls, currently residing at No. 7 in the USCHO.com poll, the Lions have been in the top-5 in the only rankings that matter at the end of the season, the PairWise, for over a month. The college hockey world is not used to seeing the Lions as a top team, if it were, PSU may be ranked No. 1 at this moment. Luckily for the Lions, the voters don't have any voice in selecting the 16-team field for the NCAA tournament at the end of the season. With an historic 11-1-1 run through the conference schedule, Penn State has set itself up for the Big Ten schedule in a way that there is much less pressure than in past seasons. If the team simply plays .500 hockey through Big Ten competition, it is a lock to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. An influx of young talent has made it so that the Lions have a complete roster, four lines of offense, three defense pairs, a top-tier starting goalie, a solid backup goalie, and a compliment of bench players that can produce when called upon. The sky is the limit for Penn State. It is in a similar position as Ohio State. It could continue its amazing run to this point in conference play, and finish in the top-5 at the end of the season in the PairWise. Or it could struggle and find itself on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament. There's a lot of hockey to be played, but coach Gadowsky has the team playing at the highest level the program has ever achieved.
Wisconsin: For the past couple of years Wisconsin has struggled at the bottom quarter of the national standings. While there was talent sprinkled around the roster, it wasn't enough to maintain the level of success that Badger fans had come to expect over the past few decades. Wisconsin may not compete for the Big Ten title, but the team has taken a serious step forward this season toward returning to their former glory as a regular on the national stage. With Luke Kunin and Grant Besse, the team has established scoring threats. The success the team has had through this point in the non-conference schedule (7-5) shows that the team is not going to be an easy sweep during conference play, as it has been in years past. With wins already versus Boston College and St. Lawrence, Wisconsin has proven that it can get a win on any given night.
Michigan: This is a vastly different Wolverines squad from a year ago. Gone is the CCM Line, comprised of Hobey Baker Award finalist Kyle Connor, JT Compher and Tyler Motte, who finished first, second and fourth, respectively, in scoring last season. Without that trio and top defenseman Zach Werenski, the Wolverines haven’t been as explosive as they were last season when they led the nation in scoring. Instead, Red Berenson's team is relying more on defense, led by a pair of freshman netminders in Hayden Lavigne and Jack LaFontaine. Berenson is a master of getting the most out of his players, and this year seems to be no different. The reigning Big Ten champions may be considered underdogs this season, but another conference title would hardly be a surprise.
Michigan State: It has been a difficult transition for the Spartans from the Jake Hildebrand era. The former Goaltender and Player of the Year graduated after last season, leaving the goaltending reins to junior Ed Minney, who had played in four and started just one game last season. The results haven’t been abysmal, but they have been fair inferior to what the Spartans got used to with Hildebrand. It doesn’t help the cause that the Spartans’ offense is ranked near the bottom in goals per game. As Minney builds his confidence as starter and if the Spartans offense can pick up the pace, they could find themselves in a better position to compete by season’s end.
Minnesota: The Golden Gophers have not put together the best out-of-conference record, but they’ve also had one of the toughest schedules of all the Big Ten teams, having played the likes of North Dakota, Boston College and Minnesota State. The Gophers still have a respectable record at 6-4-2, and they always seem to hit another gear when conference play gets underway. They also have arguably the best goaltender in the Big Ten in Eric Schierhorn, who has started every game since he stepped onto Minnesota’s campus as a freshman last season. Success in hockey starts at goaltending, and Schierhorn has shown he can steal games for the Gophers. The perennial favorites in the conference are once again in one of the best positions to capture the Big Ten crown.
Ohio State: Few could have predicted that the Buckeyes would enter Big Ten play with the second best record in the conference to the Nittany Lions, having gone 8-1-4. Along with the Lions, the Buckeyes have been one of the most impressive teams in the nation. Included in their record is a victory over now-No. 2 Denver in the first game of the season. While the strength of most other teams in the conference is in goal, the Buckeyes, much like the Lions, have been a force on offense, ranking second in the nation to the Lions at 4.38 goals per game. The Buckeyes hasn’t been as impressive, and should be the primary area of concern for coach Steve Rohlik in the event their scoring hits a dry spell.
Penn State: It’s hard to find a team that has started the season as strongly as the Nittany Lions. As a matter of fact, it’s virtually impossible. They have posted the best record (11-1-1), the best winning percentage (.885), have the most potent offense (4.77 goals per game) and one of the best defenses (2.00 goals against per game). There’s a lot to like about this team. The run and gun style the Lions play hasn’t translated to conference success, however, as defensive troubles have plagued the Lions the past couple of seasons. If Peyton Jones can continue his strong play and the Lions’ defensemen continue to build chemistry with each other, Guy Gadowsky’s squad may finally get over the hump and challenge for a Big Ten title.
Wisconsin: The Badgers appeared to be heading in the wrong direction the past two seasons, having won just 12 games the two seasons following their inaugural Big Ten Championship. Head coach Mike Eaves was fired after last season — his 12th with the Badgers — and former Detroit Red Wings assistant coach Tony Granato was named Eaves’ replacement. Granato has brought the Badgers back to prominence, leading them to a 7-5-0 record with upset wins over Boston College and St. Lawrence. Grant Besse has led the way on offense with 15 points in 11 games for a Badgers team ranked 16th in scoring. The other side of the puck has been the issue for the Badgers, as they are ranked 43rd in defense.