Three Things I Think: Big Ten, Oct. 17

Posted by: Jashvina Shah

The Big Ten actually has the second-best winning percentage against other conferences this season, behind only the NCHC. That’s much different from years past, when the conference teams have struggled in early-season non-conference games. Two Big Ten teams are undefeated – Minnesota and Ohio State. The Badgers split with Boston College in an interesting series, Michigan State was swept and Penn State won against Mercyhurst.

It’s still early, but it looks like Penn State’s offense will be okay this year. The Badgers are definitely already a better team than they were last season, and Michigan has a bigger goaltending question than in the past few seasons.

The Gophers were off last weekend but defeated the NTDP U-18 team 9-0. Rem Pitlick had three goals and an assist, Brent Gates had two goals and Leon Bristedt had three assists. Ohio State skated to a 1-1 tie with Miami, and the Buckeyes have not allowed more than three goals in a game this season. Matt Tomkins earned the start and made 22 saves, while David Gust scored the lone goal.

Michigan defeated Ferris State 2-1 thanks to goals from Jake Slaker and Sam Piazza. The Wolverines started their third goaltender in as many games, and Jack LaFontaine made 28 stops in the win. So far, thanks to his shutout, Hayden Lavigne has the best save percentage on the team. LaFontaine has a .966 save percentage. Penn State defeated Mercyhurst 7-0. Nate Sucese had two goals and Peyton Jones made 20 saves. Sophomore Chase Berger had three points.

The Spartans started their season last weekend and it ended badly. Michigan State dropped a 6-1 decision to Lake Superior and followed with a 7-3 loss. In the first game, Ed Minney made 28 saves. John Lethemon had the save the next night but was pulled after allowing four goals on 13 shots. Minney replaced him and made 14 saves on 17 shots.

Wisconsin played a couple of interesting games against the Eagles. The Badgers won the first game 3-1 but lost the second 8-5. While the Eagles probably won’t be a great team this season, a split and eight goals on the weekend is encouraging for the Badgers. Ryan Wagner and Grant Besse both had two goals on the weekend. Matt Jurusik played in both games but Jack Berry saw some playing time on Sunday.

(After the jump: Cameron Hughes, Rough year for Michigan State and Penn State’s scheduling)

Cameron Hughes is that talent

I’ve stressed – and Tony Granato has said it too – that the Badgers have a lot of talent. I picked Wisconsin to finish second because of players like Grant Besse, Luke Kunin and Cameron Hughes. I’ve always thought Huges was a great player, and he was a standout on the first disapointing Badger team a couple of years ago. That’s why it was such a big deal last year when initially there was speculation that he had severely injured his shoulder. Luckily for Hughes it wasn’t that serious.

But he’s a phenomenal player and he proved it this weekend. He scored an incredible goal against the Eagles (watch it on repeat) as Wisconsin scored six goals in an 8-6 loss. Giving up eight goals is never good, and defense is definitely a weak spot for Wisconsin this year, but that offense is definitely back.

There’s a rough year ahead for Michigan State

It’s still very early, but the series against Lake Superior is not a good indication of where Michigan State’s season is going. The Spartans still have a struggling offense, so their best chance of staying competitive comes from defense and goaltending. That’s the focus for this season, but giving up 13 goals to Lake Superior State is not encouraging. But so far both goaltenders have bad save percentages (.692 for Lethemon and .824 for Minney), and the Spartans allow 6.50 goals per game, which is second-worst in the country.

A few teams in the Big Ten have questionable defenses and goaltending, but they’ve – Ohio State and Michigan – been able to win in shootouts. The Spartans don’t have that kind of offense to compete, and that puts a lot of pressure on inexperienced goaltenders and a defense made up of mostly underclassmen. Five out of Michigan State’s eight defenseman (if you include redshirted Jerad Rosburg) are playing in their first season.

Defensively things have fallen apart for the Spartans since Josh Jacobs left, and there’s no player who can take his place yet. Not having someone like Jake Hildebrand in net hurts too.

Penn State needs to schedule tougher opponents

As my colleague Josh Seguin pointed out this morning, after Penn State travels to Notre Dame the Nittany Lions will be at home for the next five series. Four of those series are against non-conference opponents in Canisius, Niagara, Alaska Anchorage and Arizona State. This reminded me of the one mistake Penn State has been making – they’re not scheduling tough competition.

Scheduling easy opponents hurts in the pairwise, but that’s not the biggest reason why the Nittany Lions need to stop. It’s just impossible for the team to become better unless they’re playing better competition. Last year Penn State had a pretty good record and was fairly high in the pairwise, but they weren’t a great team because they weren’t playing difficult competition. The Nittany Lions burned through their opponents in the first half, but their wins were against Canisius, AIC, Sacred Heart and Alaska Anchorage. They also played Niagara, a game that ended in a 1-1 tie.

For a new program, playing easier competition is a good way to get acclimated. But the Nittany Lions have been around long enough, and are good enough, that they need to schedule tougher non-conference opponents. It’s also important because the Big Ten competition isn’t very strong right now.

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