Three Things I Think: Big Ten Week 13

Posted by: Nate Wells

Finally, the “less Big Ten teams played than number of things” week is upon us and honestly, it isn’t as bad as I would have thought.

Okay last weekend wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was probably for the best that Big Ten play did not start again right after the holiday break. Everyone besides Ohio State (and many of the top ten teams nationally) has had at least one game where rust was prevalent in the last couple weeks. Friday may have been the worst night in conference history.

(After the jump, this week’s 3 Things about just 2 clubs playing turns in 5 things. Things discussed include the lack of Big Ten expansion, Minnesota’s shootout woes, Wisconsin’s Jake McCabe scoring twice to save the weekend for the Badgers, and next weekend’s showdown with Michigan.)

Leading up to this weekend my idea was to use the third thought as a piece on Big Ten expansion (or lack of it right now). Having two league teams play in one weekend has happened in the past. This time of the year is weird between finals, the World Juniors and in-season tournaments. With six teams, however, the weekends of two and three teams seems to be more of the norm.

Thankfully that changes with conference play taking over the second half.

In my old gig covering the WCHA, there were troubles fitting three things for 12 teams. Sometimes I wanted to discuss more or would compare and contrast. That isn’t as feasible with half the teams, but it’s also the hand we’re dealt.  Six teams have brought some great non-conference action that wouldn’t be available if there were more Big Ten schools that sponsored hockey.

At the same time, it would be nice to see a couple more schools look into the possibility given the conference’s profile and recruiting ground. It’s a conversation that will be revisited – even if none is on the horizon. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Rome, Illinois.

For Minnesota, lines and results are easier to change than shootouts

Coming into this season, I thought (in spite of my feelings on the non-charity charity point) Minnesota would be successful when it came to the shootout. There is a lot of skill and speed on the team and sophomore goalie Adam Wilcox was tough to beat on breakaways as a freshman. Sure, 3 of the other 5 teams have experience with shootouts, but last season featured multiple Sportscenter Top 10 goals from returning Gophers.

Turns out it isn’t that easy. Minnesota has had 3 ties and 3 shootouts. So far the Gophers are 0 for 3.

The latest, a 2-1 shootout loss to Colgate following a 2-2 tie, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Although the Gophers came back to tie the Raiders and played with only 5 defensemen, the mood Friday night was one every bit as intense as a loss. The glass was not half full at Mariucci Arena.

“I think it feels half-empty because it’s the third time this year,” Gopher associate head coach Mike Guentzel said following the Colgate game, which stopped a #1 vs. #2 matchup with Ferris State (the Raiders beat FSU 3-0 Saturday). “We have three ties on our record and have lost all three games in a shootout. That might have been the first time we’ve scored in a shootout.”

It wasn’t – Kyle Rau scored against BC in the first shootout back in October – but the junior forward, who makes most of his offense in front of the net, remains the only Minnesota player to score in one.

That fact alone makes it seem like maybe there is more to this deal. The 12-2-3 Gophers have been successful when it comes to adapting. In the last year and a half, it has lost back-to-back games only once.

This season every non-win has been followed up with a “W” and one reason for Saturday’s 6-2 victory over RPI was switching lines. With head coach Don Lucia and freshman forward Hudson Fasching back from the World Juniors, only the third line, matched to shut down Engineers forward Ryan Haggerty, kept its normal lineup.

The decision paid off as Rau, who scored his 100th point the prior evening, had his first multi-goal game of the year.

“We just felt that as we get back to Big Ten play, some of the guys felt a bit stale and hadn’t scored in a while,” Lucia said Saturday. “It was good to see Rau get a couple goals tonight.”

That hasn’t been the case with shootouts so far, which has been frustrating to a team expected to do well. At the very least, adjustments aside, a Minnesota team currently #1 in the Pairwise knows what is at stake.

“We have to start winning some shootouts,” Rau said Friday. “At the end of year, in the Big Ten, we need those points. I know (Colgate was) not a Big Ten game, but we got to start winning.”

Jake McCabe saves the day for Wisconsin

Given how close the Badgers came to being swept at home by Alaska-Anchorage, the title might be an understatement. McCabe scored twice Saturday night, including the game-winner 6:27 in the third period, as Wisconsin overcame the Seawolves scoring the first goal for the second straight night.

The junior defenseman continues to be one of the best in the conference – I had him on my all-Big Ten first team last week – and he is able to set up teammates offensively. McCabe can also set himself up, although the game-winner, which went off an Anchorage defenseman, likely wasn’t the way he drew it up Saturday.

“I’ll take that second goal any night of the week,” McCabe told reporters Saturday. “To get puck luck like that, it hasn’t really been in our favor. So I guess the hockey gods were on our side tonight and we’ll take that any day of the week.”

This 12 game stretch at home is supposed to be Wisconsin’s salvation after a 4-5-1 start to the season’s first two months. McCabe and getting a little puck luck to boot may keep it that way.

Seeing which team throws off rust and injuries for consistency is why I’m looking forward to this weekend’s Michigan-Wisconsin series

If Wisconsin almost getting swept by Alaska-Anchorage was bad, then Michigan’s performance last week was something to be forgotten. The Wolverines have had a week to let the outdoor GLI results stew and get back Andrew Copp, who was at the World Juniors, along with a slightly healthier Tyler Motte and J.T. Compher. Michigan lost in OT to Western Michigan before being shut out by Michigan State.

Of course, the Badgers don’t have a rust excuse for losing to Alaska-Anchorage at home on Friday after playing the previous weekend. Unfortunately, there is a chance “not having Nic Kerdiles” could be one, as the sophomore forward and Team USA WJC mainstay, who leads Wisconsin in points per game, left Saturday’s game with a shoulder injury and could be out longer. Being without Kerdiles hasn’t treated Wisconsin kindly in the past between Friday and last year if he is in fact out.

Whether or not the GLI was a case of rust, the outdoor ice or an off weekend instead of an off stretch remains to be seen, but the Wolverines do have a tough test this weekend in Madison. Wisconsin knows more than anyone about rust. It’s one reason why I’m looking forward to this weekend’s series.

Even more, this series looks to be big in the grand scheme of the Big Ten. Whichever team can shake off the rust and injuries for a more consistent weekend will be in a good position.

One for the road: Props to BTN for picking up Saturday’s Mariucci Classic consolation game between Minnesota and RPI. The possible #1 v. #2 match-up never materialized yet the fact a channel picked up the opportunity is a good sign. (Side note: If you haven’t used BTN2Go to watch games or even go back and catch things that were missed, I highly recommend it).

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