Three Things I Think: Big Ten Week 6

Posted by: Nate Wells

A lot happened throughout the Big Ten with yet another weekend of non-conference play. Wisconsin traveled to Miami and Michigan went on the big stage to play Nebraska-Omaha in Omaha. Both B1G teams lost on national television Friday while winning the Saturday game, which has been par for the course so far this year. Other than Penn State beating Army to open Pegula Arena, every game initially intended for national broadcast has ended with the Big Ten team falling short.

Even 8-1-1 Minnesota’s tie and loss happened on BTN and NBCSN, respectively.

As conference play gets closer to starting, last weekend’s games – sandwiched around weeks where multiple Big Ten teams are off – does make me wonder what the national perception is so far for the conference. Has television hurt? Or are the non-televised games coming through to show a full picture where half the conference is among the nation’s top dozen teams?

(After the jump, Penn State’s measurement weekend, one area where Minnesota is struggling, and Wisconsin winning a game the Badgers needed.)

Nittany Lions come a yard short in measurement weekend

Prior to last weekend’s home series against Massachusetts-Lowell, Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky said that the two games would be a great measuring stick for his team. Unfortunately, the Nittany Lions started from behind Thursday and never recovered.

UMass-Lowell struck 1:51 into the game en route to a 4-0 shutout win. Friday’s finale was closer for Penn State. The Nittany Lions threatened to send the game into overtime. However, a three goal first period for the River Hawks was too much to overcome.

Gadowsky is wise to schedule Lowell and see where a young 3-5-1 Penn State is before conference play begins for the first time. The River Hawks are coming off a Frozen Four run and pose the same threat that the top tier of the Big Ten do. Penn State, meanwhile, is still young – PSU’s top 5 scorers are all underclassmen. While playing non-conference teams again hasn’t worked as well the second time around, there does need to be a challenge.

(Oddly enough, UMass-Lowell is the lone team from last year’s Frozen Four not off to a fast start despite being ranked #1 to start the season. Maybe last weekend will be what Norm Bazin’s team needed.)

It may not have been the result wanted, but it was a truthful measurement. Things don’t get easier for the Nittany Lions. Penn State next plays Union, who swept North Country rival RPI last weekend.

Minnesota has been scary despite an impotent power play

It’s hard to be knocking the Gophers right now. No team is perfect (not even the Minnesota women’s team is anymore after North Dakota snapped a 62 game winning streak Sunday) and nitpicking an 8-1-1 team after sweeping Minnesota State feels like just that.  Of course, no team wants to be at its best in November. There should be something to improve upon as a group. That includes Minnesota.

One thing that has been masked because of the Gophers’ start is a lackluster power play. While freshmen forwards like Hudson Fasching, Taylor Cammarata and Justin Kloos have helped the team overcome the departures of Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula and Zach Budish, most of it has been at even-strength. Minnesota is second in the country in goals per game yet 48th out of 59 teams on the power play, converting on just 6 of 44 chances with the man-advantage.

“We know that our power play and penalty kill haven’t been what we wanted,” goalie Adam Wilcox said Friday about the Gopher special teams, which includes a penalty kill that is tied for 39th. “Last year (special teams were) our bread and butter. There were only a couple games where we lost the special teams battle. So if we can get that on track, I think it’s one of the things that’s an M.O. for a team like us.”

This season hasn’t relied upon that traditional success. Fewer players on both units are looking to shoot. Movement hasn’t been in sync. Easy tap-ins off of rebounds are not happening.

So far the chemistry bringing in new players has yet to materialize. Only Kyle Rau remains of last year’s first power play unit, which included the three above departures and defenseman Nate Schmidt (now with the Washington Capitals). That unit was one of the best in college hockey. The Gophers last season finished second in the country with success 24.55% of the time. Bjugstad had 11 power play goals last season by himself.

The good news for Minnesota is that the power play did look better in limited action last weekend against the Mavericks. Although the goals weren’t there, the movement and chances were despite the Gophers scoring once in eight chances. Minnesota also did not allow a PPG in a weekend series for the first time this season. Minnesota State only had one power play Saturday that lasted all of four seconds.

“We got the one goal, which is good,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said about Friday. “We were plus-one on the power play and special teams. That’s a step in the right direction.”

Being so successful offensively without power play help is scary. Every other team in the top-seven of total offense is twenty spots ahead on the power play. If that continues next weekend against Minnesota-Duluth, currently fifth in the nation on the penalty kill (89.5%), the Gophers will be even scarier in November.

Wisconsin got back Joel Rumpel and a much-needed win Saturday

This gets brought up every time the Badgers show up in this space, but the team has been hard to place this season. A pair of dominating losses to Boston College and Boston University one weekend were followed by a tie coming back from three goals and a dominate win against Lake Superior State the next time Wisconsin played.

Even the team’s schedule has been consistently off and on. UW will be off next weekend for the third time already in week 7. The Badgers are in a stretch where the team only plays 8 games between October 18 and November 30.

So it was important that with the lack of games Wisconsin took at least one game against Miami. There needs to be something for the Badgers to hang its hat on against a top team on the road. There needs to be something that shows off the work in practice.

It didn’t happen Friday – Miami goalie Ryan McKay recorded his third straight Friday shutout – so coming back from a 2-1 deficit in the third period on Saturday with goals by upperclassmen Michael Mersch (his 50th for Wisconsin) and Joseph LaBate is huge. Just as important was the return of goaltender Joel Rumpel. The junior, who had been the Badger goalie down the stretch last season, missed the last 5 games with an ankle injury. Rumpel made 32 saves in his return, including a pair of Miami breakaways to keep Wisconsin’s lead.

“It was a gritty effort by this group,” head coach Mike Eaves told reporters after Saturday’s game. “When you come back on the road against a team like this, it starts at the heart.”

If that’s how Wisconsin (and maybe the Big Ten from the intro) needs to win, then that’s good, but not as much as having both Rumpel back and maybe the consistency that comes with it.

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