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Three Things I Think: Big Ten, Dec. 12

Monday, December 12th, 2016

The teams finished the last weekend of play and the results weren’t very surprising. The Big Ten – and the teams in it – have been pretty inconsistent since the league’s second year. Michigan and Wisconsin split, while the Gophers swept the Spartans. The Gophers are currently first with nine points but also have played two more games than all teams except for Michigan. Penn State is second with six. Reember – each regulation/OT win counts for three points because of the added shootout wins.

The Badgers held on for a 7-4 win on Friday night but the Wolverines took down the Wisconsin 4-1 on Saturday. Hayden Lavigne played in both games and earned the win on Saturday but allowed six goals on Friday. Zach Nagelvoort also played on Friday.

Minnesota won both games 4-2, and the Spartans struck first in both contests. The Gophers scored four unanswered on Saturday to win the game while they netted three of the last four goals on Friday to take the win.

There have also been a few injuries in the Big Ten this year – notably Wisconsin’s Trent Frederic and Matt Jurusik, both of whom missed some games. (Ferderic is back but Jurusik is not). But you can add another freshman phenom, Will Lockwood, to the list. Lockwood was hit from behind last weekend and suffered an injury. Per Wolverine 247’s Zach Shaw, sources said Lockwood has a dislocated shoulder and there is no timetable for his return.

(After the jump: What we know so far, Penn State’s second half and what teams need to work on for half No. 2)

What we know so far

Well, not much. Conference play has only just begun and the first half of the season never gives us much ti interpret. The two things about the conference we know for certain are that goaltending is still having a down year, scoring is still better than defense and the freshmen are making a big impact.

Penn State’s Denis Smirnov leads all rookies nationally with 27 points for 1.80 points per game. Tanner Laczynski is tied for second in the country amongst freshmen with 20 points. The Buckeye rookie has averaged 1.22 points per game and has tallied six goals. In the Big Ten, those are in the league top three for scoring. On the other side, redshirted Jerad Rosburg is having a great season for the Spartans defensively. And between Jack Berry, Hayden Lavigne, Jack LaFontaine and Peyton Jones, the freshmen are getting some good chances in net.

Big Ten defenses have been lagging since last year (a combination of bad defenses and really talented offenses) and that trend has continued. Lavigne has the best save percentage, and he’s a good goaltender, but most goaltenders are hovering close to .900 or below – including both of Ohio State’s netminders, Wisconsin’s netminders and Eric Schierhorn. And as far as offense goes, the Big Ten has four teams in the top 10 nationally – Penn State (first – 4.87 goals per game), Ohio State (second – 4.53 goals per game), Minnesota (T-6 – 3.62 goals per game) and Wisconsin (T-9 – 3.44 goals per game).

We’re in for another inconsistent year and, if Minnesota doesn’t strengthen, could see another season without a clear favorite for the Big Ten tournament. At this point the Gophers are probably still the favorite, but the Buckeyes are a close second.

Penn State’s Second Half

Penn State is in the midst of a long break. The Nittany Lions last played on Dec. 2 and won’t play for over a month with their next game slated for Jan. 6. While Penn State’s second-half schedule isn’t very difficult, it’s still tougher than the first half. And teams like Minnesota, Ohio State and even Wisconsin can pose threats on the offensive end.

This season playing in the Big Ten equals a relatively easy route through an automatic bid through the conference tournament. But Penn State would still need a first-day bye to have a chance at winning the tournament, so things get crucial once the calendar flips to 2017. These teams are still a little tougher than most teams Penn State played in the first half, and the Nittany Lions have a lot to prove. The key question here is if Guy Gadowsky’s game plan of “shoot as much as you can” will work against these teams. My guess is it won’t work so well against Ohio State, Minnesota and Wisconsin, because matches against those programs turns into more of an offensive, back-and-forth, transition shootout.

What teams need to work on for half No. 2

The big thing is consistency. I don’t like saying consistency because it’s an odd concept to peg as a weakness – how do you fix consistency? So the key is if Minnesota can get stronger down the road and can Ohio State, which traditionally loses in the first half and wins in the second, keep its stretch of second-half success alive.

Another big issue is defense and goaltending. Michigan’s Hayden Lavigne is probably the league’s best goaltender but Michigan’s defense is not good. Maybe Lavigne can steal games for them in the second half, but a Will Lockwood-less offense might not be able to help enough on the other end. You can apply this to Michigan State, although their offense is improving and Ed Minney’s numbers in net do not look good.

With Penn State it’s near impossible to tell. To know a teams weakness you first have to know the tea, but it’s hard to know a team when they play an easy non-conference schedule. And the teams Penn State will face now are much different, and that might change Penn State’s game plan of possessing the puck and shooting around.

And lastly for Wisconsin… Unfortunately for the Badgers, turnovers and defensive mistakes will happen when young players are being creative offensively. That should shake away as the season progresses, but the Badgers aren’t particularly strong – nor have been in a while – on the defensive end anyway.

Denver ‘Relentless’ Last Night vs. No. 1 UMD

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

Last night’s showdown in Denver between the DU Pioneers and Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs was the obvious highlight of the night’s college hockey schedule, and it certainly lived up to expectations. It was a wild showdown between the top team in the Pairwise Rankings (UMD) and No. 3 Denver, but more importantly, a showdown between two teams who expect to be playing in Chicago this April.

And appropriately, the game felt like a Frozen Four matchup, a fiery contest that followed a week of, at times, sub-zero temperatures in the Mile High City. Denver overcame a first goal deficit for the fifth time in less than a month, extended its unbeaten streak to 15 games (12-0-3), and held off the Bulldogs in a chaotic final minute to secure a 4-3 win.

After the game, Denver coach Jim Montgomery used the word ‘relentless’ repeatedly in describing his team’s performance.

Said Montgomery, “If you look at the success we have had here, it’s always because of our relentless pursuit of pucks and getting on the right side — continuing to go at people, forcing people to make tough decision with pressure on top of them.”

That’s precisely what Denver did, particularly during a five minute span in the second period, when the score turned from 1-0 in favor of UMD to 3-1 in favor of the Pioneers. It started with freshman Kevin Conley gaining inside position in the crease on UMD senior Dan Molenaar — collecting a Colin Staub pass to score his first career goal — and it ended with a Dylan Gambrell no-look pass from behind the net to Troy Terry, who converted a dizzying backhand shot in front of UMD netminder Hunter Miska, sending the Magness Arena crowd into a frenzy.

Terry also had two assists in the game and is now tied with standout defenseman Will Butcher for the team lead in points.

And Conley’s important contribution was, yes, ‘relentless’. And a reward for Montgomery’s ‘process.’

“He’s one of those freshmen who hasn’t been rewarded for all the chances he’s had,” said Montgomery. “It’s hard when you don’t score goals to keep believing in the process, but he played relentless hockey tonight.”

The reality is that offensive players — on any team — get most of the attention and certainly most of the accolades. But watch any Denver game, and it’s clear that the most ‘relentless’ aspect is its defense. Five of the six blueliners in the lineup last night have played in all 17 games this season. The other, sophomore Blake Hillman, has played in 16. It was Hillman’s turnover in the first period while exiting the defensive zone that led to UMD’s Alex Iaffalo opening the scoring.

“It was really hard for me to bite my lip when he came back to the bench,” said Montgomery of Hillman. “I just went up to him and said, ‘Look, he’s the first forechecker. Even if you get by him, there are still four more guys to go through. Let’s put it behind him and let our forwards work.'”

And that’s what the Pioneers did for the rest of the game. Relentlessly.

“That’s a hard team to gain offensive opportunities against because of they way they skate, the way they check, and their relentless pursuit of pucks,” said Montgomery. “A lot of players are gaining confidence, and we’re going to continue to get better throughout the year.”

The teams face off again tonight, as Denver looks to extend its unbeaten streak to 16 games. Check CHN this week for a full feature on the critical weekend series.

Weekend Preview: Big Ten, Dec. 8

Friday, December 9th, 2016

It’s almost time for teams to start winding down for the holiday break and then the holiday tournaments. But before that we have a couple more series left, headlined this weekend by … well, there are only two series this weekend. Minnesota heads to Michigan State while Wisconsin will play Michigan at Yost. That first one could be interesting, but the second one should be more exciting.

Michigan (6-7-1) vs. Wisconsin (7-6-1): Dec. 9 at 7:35 p.m.; Dec. 10 at 7:35 p.m.

Last year this would’ve been either a blowout in favor of Michigan or a high-scoring, one-goal affair. But both these teams are very different than last season. Michigan’s strength is goaltending but their weakness is still defense, while the Badgers have the lethal skill that can hurt any team.

Grant Besse now has 17 points for the Badgers, over half of his total from last season. Luke Kunin is right behind him with 14. Goaltending is not Wisconsin’s strongest aspect this year, and an injury to Matt Jurusik has left Jack Berry at the helm. The Badgers are inconsistent, but the talent on the team is undeniable.

Michigan has a weak enough defense and Wisconsin has enough talent to exploit it.

Prediction: Badgers sweep

Michigan State (4-6-1) vs. Minnesota (7-5-2): Dec. 9 at 6:35 p.m.; Dec. 10 at 8 p.m.

Normally this would be Minnesota sweeps Michigan State, but the Spartans did just defeat North Dakota. And Minnesota is still pretty inconsistent.

Like the Badgers the Gophers have the talent but have been too inconsistent. That’s been a theme in recent years, although it’s a little stranger this year since they aren’t relying as much on freshman. Tyler Sheehy has 20 points while Eric Schierhorn has a .882 save percentage.

You know it’s a backward season when scoring is a stronger point for the Spartans than defense. But Mason Appleton is a good offensive player to have, and he’s averaging a point per game. More than that, the offense is just getting better looks and looking more cohesive than it has recently. The defense, not as much. Ed Minney has a .892 save percentage.

Who knows what will happen this series?

Prediction: Minnesota sweeps

Three Things I Think: ECAC 12/5

Monday, December 5th, 2016

Another week and another great weekend of conference play, for some teams. Harvard swept in the North Country, doing so in fine fashion outscoring SLU and Clarkson by an aggregate of 11-5. Union also picked up a sweep of Princeton and Quinnipiac on the road. The loss by the Bobcats marked their first home loss, within ECAC play, since December 6, 2014 against Harvard. Princeton picked up a dramatic 6-5 win over RPI on Saturday night, in a game it trailed 4-1 and stormed back to win in overtime. It was the Tigers’ first ECAC win of the year and it bumped them up to ninth in the league standings.

Cornell picked up an impressive home sweep of Miami over the weekend, as it defeated the Red Hawks 4-1 on Friday night and a 2-1 victory on Saturday. The Big Red join a mess of ECAC teams in the Pairwise top 20. Five of the top 20 teams hail from the ECAC, as Harvard (4th), Union (14), Quinnpiac (15), Cornell (16) and St. Lawrence (18) all find a spot among the 20 best in college hockey, according to the numbers. Clarkson also sits on the outside looking in at 22 in those ratings. The interconference record of 33-33-9 is fourth among the other conferences, but in recent weeks that has been improving. There are many key games in upcoming weeks, that can change that and one can assume the progression of some teams will bode well for the non-conference window, which starts this weekend for many teams.

Without further ado, here are my thoughts of the week: (more…)

Three Things I Think: Big Ten, Dec. 5

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

The first weekend in Big Ten play taught us… nothing, really. Penn State beat Michigan, a team with spotty defense (and no Hayden Lavigne) 11-1 combined. Ohio State and Minnesota split, although the Buckeyes avenged a 5-3 loss with an 8-3 win. The Badgers had an interesting weekend against Omaha, tying 3-3 the first night and then falling 7-4.

So after two Big Ten series, what do we know about the Big Ten? Nothing new, really.

After the jump: No one in college hockey is good this year, strength of schedule matters for measuring success and the Big Ten inconsistency is killing me)

(more…)

Weekend Preview: Big Ten, Dec. 1

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

This weekend features the first foray into Big Ten play, starting with Michigan and Penn State. The Gophers and Buckeyes will also face off, while the Badgers host Nebraska-Omaha in their last non-conference slate before their Big Ten play starts.

After a good weekend the Spartans have the week off the face the U-18 NTDP.

And since Big Ten play is going to start, here is my revised poll:

1. Ohio State
2. Wisconsin
3. Minnesota
4. Michigan
5. Penn State
6. Michigan State

(more…)

Three Things I Think: ECAC 11/29

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016

It seems like it has been forever since I have done one of these, because well it has been. I hope everyone had a great holiday and was able to check out some of the great hockey over the last two weekends. I was in the UK the week before the Friendship Four and for the people that crossed the pond for the SLU/Quinnipiac visit to Belfast, I am sure that was a great experience because Europe is such a great place to visit, no matter where you are.

In watching the games the last few weekends, there seems to be a big divide between the top half of the league and the bottom half. Struggling teams such as Yale, Brown, RPI and Princeton seem to be struggling to keep up with the offense of teams like SLU, Harvard, Quinnipiac, Union, Cornell and Clarkson. SLU and Clarkson are unbeaten in a combined 16 games, with the Saints unbeaten in nine and the Golden Knights without a loss in seven games. Quinnipiac is unbeaten in five league games, but dropped a 5-1 decision to Vermont on Saturday in Belfast.

To speak to this lack of parity so far, one can look at the records of the top teams in comparison to the bottom of the league. SLU, Quinnipiac, Clarkson and Union are a combined 18-3-6 in ECAC play thus far, with the Saints still undefeated approaching the halfway mark. SLU already has an 11 point lead on the bottom team in the league, Princeton, and a nine point lead on ninth place, Yale. One team near the bottom will make a run, it always happens but the difference between top and bottom certainly seems larger then normal.

Without further ado here are my thoughts for the week, which includes St. Lawrence, Clarkson and Princeton. (more…)

Three Things I Think: Big Ten, Nov. 28

Monday, November 28th, 2016

The biggest storyline from the weekend was Michigan State taking three out of four points in a series against North Dakota. But we’ll talk more about that later. This was a big weekend for the Big Ten and the last one before conference play starts. The Gophers, Wolverines and Badgers all split their weekends.

Wisconsin earned a 2-1 win over Colorado College and followed with a wild 6-5 loss to Denver. The Pioneers had a 5-2 lead heading into the third, but the Badgers scored three goals in the last frame to come so close to tying it. Jack Berry started both games and Trent Frederic did not play.

Minnesota had a two-goal lead as the third period began but gave up four goals in the third period to lose the game. The Gophers have been a team to make comebacks late in the game, not lose them. It’s more proof that the Gophers are struggling with consistency and figuring out how to put everything together. The Gophers then beat BC. While the Eagles aren’t the strongest team, but Joe Woll is a good goaltender.

That win over BC was also Don Lucia’s 700th win. Per Minnesota, Boston College was also the team Lucia earned his first win over on Oct. 29, 1999.

The Wolverines split their series with Lake Superior State, and it was Zach Nagelvoort who was in net for Michigan’s 4-1 win. Jack LaFontaine took the other start but only allowed two goals.

(After the jump: Let’s talk about Michigan State, Jerad Rosberg and when will Minnesota be consistent)

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More on North Dakota (CHN Team of the Week)

Thursday, November 24th, 2016

Four of the first seven CHN ‘Teams of the Week’ this season have been NCHC squads (first Denver, then St. Cloud State, then Minnesota-Duluth, and now North Dakota). You can read the full story about North Dakota’s back-to-back shutouts of St. Cloud State here.

I spoke to UND goaltender Cam Johnson on Tuesday evening. Johnson returned to form with a 62-save performance during the weekend, and the NCHC Goaltender of the Week propelled North Dakota to its first sweep at St. Cloud since 1998.

The performances helped quell some of the anxiety surrounding the Fighting Hawks’ six game winless streak heading into the weekend, especially with the pressure of trying to meet the highest of standards set by the 2015-16 national champions.

“We have a way different team than last year,” said a candid Johnson. “The standard people hold us to, which is tough, is that they expect us to be as great as we were last year. I think we have a really good team this year, but we have a much different recipe.”

That’s indisputable. Last season’s team was fueled by a series of dramatic Frozen Four losses and was led by a dominant top line of Drake Caggiula, Nick Schmaltz, and Brock Boeser. Caggiula debuted for the Edmonton Oilers last week, while Schmaltz has played in all 21 Chicago Blackhawks games this season. That left Boeser — now a sophomore — behind, and if this past weekend’s performance is any indication, players like Shane Gersich and Austin Poganski are helping shoulder the burden offensively.

Gersich, after a hat-trick on Friday, leads UND in scoring with 10 goals and 8 assists.

The last meeting between St. Cloud and North Dakota at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center was a 6-1 Huskies win last season — a game in which Johnson allowed three goals on 13 shots.

So the redemption, understandably, felt good.

“It felt unbelievable,” he said. “Especially because St. Cloud is a really quality opponent. They’re a team the last few years that we’ve had wars with. Obviously to get back-to-back shutouts, I don’t think that’s been done in their building, so that’s a pretty cool accomplishment. It was huge for our group.”
Indeed, after outscoring St. Cloud 7-0 over the course of the weekend, North Dakota became the first team to shut out the Huskies on consecutive nights in the history of the National Hockey Center, which opened in 1989.
In the big picture, though, the wins — to Johnson — were meaningful for what they represent for the Fighting Hawks going forward.
“It’s something that helps our group,” said the junior. “It fuels us to continue to get better and not get complacent. Day in and day out, it’s going to be a battle, and we’re going to see every team’s best every weekend.”

Weekend Preview: Big Ten, Nov. 24

Thursday, November 24th, 2016

If you’re searching for some post-Thanksgiving hockey, look no further. Four Big Ten teams are playing this weekend – Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State. It’s the last weekend before Big Ten play, so it’s the last chance for teams to get a tune up.

The toughest challenge of the week is definitely for the Spartans, who will face North Dakota. But the young Badgers also will have a tough weekend in a road trip out to Denver. Minnestoa’s trip to Boston may also be difficult though, as the Gophers are still struggling to find their identity.

(more…)