Another weekend of the season passed, bringing us closer to the end. The Gophers split the last-ever North Star College Cup, falling to Minnesota-Duluth 3-2 and beating Bemidji State 4-0. Penn State lost to Princeton, while Wisconsin swept Ohio State.
The Pairwise have shifted quite a bit. Unsurprisingly Penn State has dropped to fifth, while Ohio State has fallen to 16th. The Badgers are creeping up and now sit at 18. Minnesota is seventh. In the Big Ten Wisconsin now is tied for first place with Minnesota. Penn State is two points behind, while Ohio State is back by five points. It looks like Michigan and Michigan State, while not mathematically eliminated, most likely won’t get a bye.
Over the past few years the bye day has been huge because teams needed to win the tournament to get into NCAAs, but this year it looks like at least a couple teams will be high up enough for an at-large bid.
Tanner Laczynski returned for Ohio State but Nick Schilkey is still out. The Buckeyes have still been playing well, and it’s a testament to them they’ve won without their top scorer. Speaking of the Buckeyes, Josh Healey was suspended for Friday’s game against Michigan for making a hit he wasn’t supposed to on Saturday. In that game Grant Besse was also hurt and didn’t return. After the game Tony Granato said Besse was sore so the trainers didn’t want him to come back.
(After the jump The Badgers are on fire, Who’s going to make the NCAA tournament and Penn State is going to struggle)
The Badgers are on fire
I was watching a game last weekend, I think it was on ASN, and during the intermission they said the Badgers could sneak in with an at-large bid. I have to apologize because I was flabbergasted and thought it was a ludicrous statement, but here we are. After three straight wins and five in their last six, the Badgers have shot up pretty quickly. They’re a good team and they look much more consistent than they have in the past. I’m not sure Ohio State is the best test for this, but it looked like Wisconsin has been playing much better.
Early on I remarked that the Badgers weren’t solid defensively. Their defense and goaltending still need work, but the team looks much improved from the beginning of the year. At that time they were getting used to creativity offensively which led to some turnovers and the like, but I didn’t see much of that – or as much of that – on Saturday. And a team like Ohio State has proved they can make/capitalize off turnovers.
They were already a better team when puck dropped on their season opener, but now they’ve got some more wins to prove it’s more than a fluke. They’ll be a threat in the Big Ten and look for them to sneak into the NCAA tournament.
Who’s going to make the NCAA tournament
I said that Ohio State would probably be the team to fall out, and I stand by that. The Buckeyes are getting a little bit healthier, but they’ve always been so inconsistent that I don’t believe they’ll win most of their games as the season ends. They’re already in the bubble now, and dropped about eight spots in one weekend.
Penn State will struggle but they’re still fifth and I don’t think they’ll lose enough games to drop out of the Pairwise (but it’s an interesting thing to keep an eye on). I could see Penn State getting an at-large bid but I doubt they’ll win the tournament.
That leaves me with Minnesota and Wisconsin. I think the Gophers – who’ll probably be eligible for an at-large bid – will win the Big Ten tournament. I also feel like, as I mentioned above, that the Badgers will sneak their way into an at-large bid.
So the final three Big Ten teams I have in the NCAA tournament are: Wisconsin, Minnesota and Penn State
Penn State is going to struggle
Penn State dropped to fifth in the Pairwise, which isn’t shocking. Their strength of schedule has dropped to 35th, though, and I think that’s a bi-product of losing to a Princeton team that, while having a few good out-of-conference wins, also competes in a pretty weak ECAC. Anyway, that doesn’t really matter right now. The Nittany Lions have now lost two in a row and have won three out of seven games the past month, and even though I picked Princeton to win, I was a little surprised. The Tigers hadn’t played well since Christmas break and had the disadvantage of having a week-plus off before this game because of finals.
The Nittany Lions will now play only conference opponents until the season ends. As I mentioned last week, that won’t be an easy task, since Penn State has all four remaining games against Minnesota and Wisconsin. The easiest contests on the schedule will the games against Michigan and Michigan State, but that makes up just four of the remaining 12 games.
The competition is now tougher than anything Penn State has faced this season. Ohio State was one thing, but Wisconsin and Minnesota are something else. Penn State won’t be facing teams they can pin into their defensive zone, and defensive struggles will hurt the Nittany Lions.