Conference play, and the official second half of the season, starts this year. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State are in action, while Michigan and Minnesota are off and will resume next weekend when they face each other. Currently
Luke Kunin, Joe Cecconi, Ryan Lindgren and Tanner Laczynski all spent the last week-plus at World Juniors. They should be back in time for the weekend, but some players are still question marks for this weekend.
This seems to be, again, the year of scoring for the Big Ten. Four Big Ten teams are in the to 15 in scoring – Penn State, Ohio State, Minnesota and Wisconsin. I think this year, like last year, the offensive production is a mix of talent and of poor defense and goaltending.
Last year’s theme was how weak and inconsistent the conference was, and so far it looks like more inconsistency as the second half of the season begins. But we’ll see. Before I go, though, here’s my “revised” Big Ten prediction:
1. Ohio State
4. Penn State
6. Michigan State
Wisconsin vs. Michigan State: Jan. 6 at 8:07 p.m. CT; Jan. 7 at 7:07 p.m. CT
The Badgers and Spartans meet in what, last year, would’ve been a matchup of the bottom two teams in the conference. But while the Spartans are still struggling, the Badgers have played better. Michigan State has snuck out with some wins – see North Dakota – and have a better offense than in years past, but defense and goaltending has hampered them. The Badgers also have some defensive issues, a byproduct of a young offensive team.
But it’s the second half of the season now, so being young isn’t an excuse anymore. The Badgers split their last series against Michigan but have already surpassed their win total from last year. Some games have been high scoring and others have been low scoring, but there’s no question Wisconsin has an offense that can match anyone. Grant Besse still leads the attack with 19 points but captain Luke Kunin, who was at World Juniors, has 17. Wisconsin’s goaltending has been up in the air thanks to an injury to Matt Jurusik, but neither Jurusik or Jack Berry have cracked the .900 save percentage ceiling.
The Spartans are on a five-game losing streak and haven’t won since Nov. 25, although that was the victory over North Dakota. Michigan State has won just four games this year and non against conference teams. Sophomore Mason Appleton as 16 points, split evenly amongst goals and assists. He’s on pace to pass his point totals from last year.
Remember, these aren’t your Badgers from last year. They’ve got the skills that can hurt – especially against struggling defense and goaltending.
Prediction: Wisconsin sweeps
Ohio State vs. Penn State: Jan. 6 at 7:05 p.m.; Jan. 7 at 8:05 p.m.
This is a matchup of offense. Penn State leads the country with 4.87 goals per game while Ohio State is third with 4,44 goals per game. Penn State’s offense has been inflated by weakness of opponents and the nearly 50 shots they take per game, but Ohio State’s offense is still pretty strong – even if Tanner Laczynski doesn’t play.
The Buckeyes have had a better strength of schedule and opened with a big win over Denver and have lost just three games this year, although two have been in their last three contests. In their only conference play so far, Ohio State split with Minnesota – and also scored eight goals in one game. Laczynski leads the Buckeyes with 22 points, but right behind him with 21 is senior Nick Schilkey. Both Buckeye goaltenders are healthy and rotating, but Matt Tomkins has a higher save percentage at .900.
Penn State’s leading offense features Dennis Smirnov, who leads all freshman with 27 points and his next point will give him the program record for points by a rookie. Peyton Jones has also played well with a .920 save percentage. Penn State has the longest unbeaten streak in the country and hasn’t lost in 13 games and has an 11-game winning streak.
The Nittany Lions have been winning but they haven’t faced any tough competition since October, when they played Notre Dame. The Buckeyes are still inconsistent but they’re better than the other teams Penn State has faced of late and will be much tougher for Penn State to beat. But how do you pick a team that lost to Minnesota and then won the next night by scoring eight goals?
Prediction: Ohio State sweeps