Happy New Year! It’s the first 2017 edition of Three Things I Think. A few teams have already kicked off the 2017 portions of their schedules, mostly through holiday tournaments (which I think shouldn’t exist, but more on that later). The first holiday tournament, the Great Lakes Invitational, ended with Michigan and Michigan State facing each other in the Big Ten consolation game, I mean the GLI consolation game. Michigan narrowly won that contest in overtime. The Wolverines dropped the opening round to Michigan Tech while the Spartans fell to Western Michigan.
At the Mariucci Classic, Minnesota reclaimed its home tournament after defeating…. UMass and Mercyhurst. Nothing to write home about. The Gophers won by a combined score of 9-2, and I’d be surprised if they hadn’t. Ohio State was the only other Big Ten team in action as the Buckeyes lost to Miami 6-3.
(After the jump: Penn State’s pairwise, holiday tournaments and each team’s New Year’s Resolution.)
Penn State’s Pairwise
Very recently, CHN published a piece about how the Pairwise should be looked at now, even if it just turned January. I suggest you read it, but it shows that basically by the new year you can see who’s going to make the NCAA tournament. Right now Penn State, thanks to its wins (albeit against an easy schedule) is second. But there are exceptions and some teams can fluctuate – and my editor pointed out to me that Penn State is one of the teams that could drop dramatically.
I want to say because Penn State has a large cushion – second is really high after all – it’s unlikely Penn State will miss the tournament. I feel more confidence in saying that because this year, unlike in years past, the Big Ten has a better non-conference record which will certainly help. (I actually think that’s why the conference has three teams in the top 15 right now). I used the Pairwise customizer on our site to mess around with a few of Penn State’s remaining games. The Big Ten is an easy conference, so the Nittany Lions should have no issue winning most of their games down the stretch. Even if they split a few series, I still have them in fourth.
But keep in mind, I only ran the customizer with Penn State’s results, so that didn’t account for other teams and their potential results. The teams that Penn State has beaten so far – Mercyhurst, Arizona State, Niagara. Canisius, Alaska-Anchorage – are going to lose a lot more as the season goes on, and that’s going to really hurt the Nittany Lions in the Pairwise.
I attended my first holiday tournament ever this year – the Three Rivers Classic – and I think all holiday tournaments should be removed. No one shows up, teams struggle to play in them, the quality of play isn’t good and I don’t see any benefits of it. In two of the three years I covered Princeton, the Tigers started their second half against Quinnipiac (which is funny because QU was at the Three Rivers Classic this year). It’s not that conference matchups are more important than non-conference ones – because these tournaments have huge Pairwise implications – but the two Princeton-QU series I saw were more engaging and featured better play than what I saw in Pittsburgh over the weekend.
I asked the coaches there why they schedule holiday tournaments, without expecting them to say anything negative about the experience. Some coaches said they liked the elimination feel which mimics the end-of-year tournaments and it gives them an opportunity to play different teams. I think both those points are fair, and are benefits you can’t get from regular non-conference matchups.
But after being in Pittsburgh and understanding how bad the attendance is elsewhere around the country in these holiday tournaments, I feel like it’s time to get rid of them. Students are on break, fans can’t or don’t travel, the product on ice is sub-par and it makes for a not very fun experience. The only tournaments I would advocate for keeping are the GLI, the Ledyard Classic and maybe the Mariucci Classic.
New Year’s Resolutions
New year, new self. Or something like that. Here’s what each Big Ten team should focus on improving for the second half of the season as conference play closes things out.
Michigan: Defense. Goaltending is strong for the Wolverines this year, but the defense is still bad. The Wolverines could use some more offense too but they’ve been better than expected in that area, thanks in part to junior Tony Calderone stepping up (that was a good prediction from Red Berenson, who said Calderone needed to score for them this year). But in the end it’s the defense that will – and has – hurt them the most. There’s only so much Hayden Lavigne and Jack LaFontaine can do.
Michigan State: Everything? Well, mostly offense. This has been an issue for years and now it’s both the offense and defense that’s struggling. I’m picking offense over defense, though, because I think the offense can be improved the most this season. The defense … might take a while. I’ve only been able to watch a little bit of Michigan State this year but when I did was impressed with the way the offense moved and how they generated chances. The Spartan offense looked like a group that could score, and they could actually set up and generate chances instead of scraping together maybe one or two chances at a time.
Minnesota: Finally meld together as one. There’s been some issue with the Gophers the past few seasons who, since making the Frozen Four in 2014, have not been able to mush their talent together to form a winning team. I still don’t know why that’s happening, but it’s the second half of the season now and Minnesota should be able to start winning – especially in an easy conference. The Gophers were picked to win the Big Ten, but they haven’t played like the team we expected them to be so far.
Ohio State: Stay consistent. The Buckeyes, over the last few years, have always finished strong. But they’ve never started strong, which means they’re wandering into unfamiliar territory this season. They have offense, they’ve gotten passable goaltending and a renewed vote of confidence in head coach Steve Rohlik. They’re in an okay position in the Pairwise right now but might not be able to secure an at-large bid depending on how conference play goes. The Buckeyes have usually been hot at the Big Ten tournament, though, and if they play well enough to get at least a bye they might be able to get back to the NCAA tournament.
Penn State: Win out. It’s doubtful they can, but really important they win as many games as possible. There’s a chance Penn State might get a first-day bye for the Big Ten tournament, but I think their best chance lies through an at-large bid than an automatic one. Penn State is high up in the Pairwise right now, but as I mentioned above, their easy non-conference schedule means they could dip quite a bit in the second half. So while yes, every team should always try to win, Penn State is going to have to play well against its conference opponents for an at-large bid.
Wisconsin: Limit defensive mistakes. Having talent like Wisconsin does, and being able to use it, means defensive lapses will happen. This offense is good but is a little bit young and the mistakes have happened, and the Badgers now need to control that. It’s too early for Wisconsin to make the NCAA tournament this year, but the Badgers’ best bet lies in a bye day for the Big Ten tournament in the hopes that maybe they can win the championship. To do that, the Badgers need to start winning in conference… and limiting those defensive msitakes.