Three Things I Think: Big Ten, Jan. 9

Posted by: Jashvina Shah

The second half of the season officially began and the four games this weekend were not very surprising. Wisconsin swept Michigan State while Penn State and Ohio State split. a bunch of NCAA players, including a few from the Big Ten, secured gold at the World Juniors on Thursday and then returned home – although they did not play on Friday (understandably). The Wolverines, who were off, held their alumni game against Red Wings alumni to benefit Scott Matzka, who has ALS.

The Gophers, who were also off, are tied for first with Penn State and Wisconsin, who all have nine points. Ohio State is fourth with six points (remember, regulation and overtime wins count for three points) and Michigan is fifth with three. The Spartans still have no conference points, and each team has played four Big Ten contests.

Luke Kunin, after captaining America to gold, was back in Wisconsin to watch the Badgers win 5-1 over the Spartans. On Saturday Kunin helped the Badgers win 5-1 after potting two goals. Matt Jurusik returned from his injury on the same day and stopped 20 shots. Michigan State’s Ed Minney made 61 saves over the weekend.

Tanner¬†Laczynski was another World Junior gold medalist, although he didn’t play for the Buckeyes over the weekend. Ohio State won 3-0 on Friday and then fell 4-2 with a last-minute comeback attempt failing. Without one of their leading scorers, Ohio State got five goals from three different players while Christian Frey made 46 saves in the win and 39 saves in the loss. Peyton Jones stopped 24 in the win and 18 in the loss. While freshman Denis Smirnov was kept from scoring, his assist on Saturday gave him 28 points – a new program record for points in a single season by a freshman.

Michigan’s Joe Cecconi and Minnesota’s Ryan Lindgren also came home with gold, although both their teams were off.

(After the jump: What this means for Penn State, the problem for Ed Minney and what Wisconsin’s offense should be)

What This Means for Penn State

This is the last time I’ll talk about Penn State’s situation. After splitting their series with Ohio State, the Nittany Lions sit first in the Pairwise. The win placed Penn State in a three-way tie for first place in the Big Ten. I see a lot of people claiming this win as a key of how good Penn State is. Ohio State – as with the entire conference – is not that good of a team. (After all they did lose to Miami…) but it’s a down year in college hockey in general, so no one is good. This is the last time I will repeat this. The “top” teams are wildly inconsistent, no one is truly strong – not even North Dakota (although Brock Boeser’s return might help) and that’s part of the reason why Penn State will have a better-than-expected season.

Here’s the other thing – Penn State’s offense, which was first in the nation heading into the weekend is now second to Harvard. The Nittany Lions were shut out – largely because Frey was insane in net – on Friday. So in total, excluding the empty net goal, Penn State scored three goals. Ohio State’s defense isn’t even that good and the Buckeyes still shut out Penn State. Frey is an okay goaltender but definitely not the best, and Ohio State’s defense ranked 33rd heading into the weekend.

Penn State’s offense isn’t as good as it seems. Like with Michigan, the quality of opponents as well as opponent defense and goaltending has inflated the numbers. And – I’ve said this before – if you take 50 shots per game, yes you will score a lot. That is how Penn State plays. At some point, someone will stop that. Unfortunately the Big Ten does not feature good defense or good goaltending, so whether Penn State’s offense will actually diminish this season remains to be seen. But if and when Penn State makes the NCAA tournament, it’s something to watch.

On the goaltending note – there are only four goaltenders with save percentages over .900 who play in the Big Ten – Hayden Lavigne (.937), Peyton Jones (.920), Jack LaFontaine (.919) and Matt Tomkins (.900). Lavigne, one of the best freshmen goaltenders in the country, did not make the trip to State College earlier in the season.

Just beating Ohio State does not make Penn State the best team in the country. Currently being No. 1 in the Pairwise, right now, also does not. It’s not just about wins, losses and stats – you need to look at the context of those stats.

The problem for Ed Minney

Minney’s save percentage is bad – as I’ve mentioned before – and sits at .886 right now. But after watching this weekend’s games, it’s not really his fault. He had a couple of good games against the Badgers – maybe not statistic wise – but definitely in terms of play. He had to make some difficult saves and was fighting off a lot, whether it be breakaways or just chaos in front of the net.

Michigan State netminders haven’t had to face this in recent years because the defense was always good. Jake Hildebrand was a good goaltender but he did not have a great senior year – and in his senior year that Spartan defense had started to crumble. I’m not saying the Spartan defense was the reason for Hildebrand’s success (because it wasn’t), but he had to face a lot less turnovers, breakaways and defensive gaps.

When Minney was recruited, everyone expected him to continue Michigan State’s goaltending success. He hasn’t, but he can’t really be blamed for it either.

What Wisconsin’s Offense Should Be

I talk way too much about this – how good I think Luke Kunin is, how underrated I think Grant Besse, how I think Cameron Hughes is also really good. I’ve talked a lot about Wisconsin’s offense and how it has the skill and speed to strike quickly, and last year’s inability to produce the way they should was … bad. The good news for Wisconsin fans is the offense is doing much better this year. Besse has 19 points, Kunin has 17, Seamus Malone has had a good season and has 14 points. Hughes is a little further behind but he has 12 while Trent Frederic, the freshman who missed two games, has 12.

Nationally Wisconsin is ranked 11th with 3.44 goals per game, as opposed to 2.66 last season which ranked 31st in the country. It’s good, but I still think this team should be producing more. It’s the second half of the season now, so any “freshman” mistakes should be gone (typically that’s for actual freshmen but I’m using it for the whole team since it takes time to adjust to a new coach). The learning curve should be gone and the Badgers are in a weak defensive conference, which should give players like Kunin, Besse, Hughes, Frederic (who are all great players) room to score more.

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