College hockey officially kicks off this weekend for the rest of the nation and it marks the first regular-season games for Big Ten teams. Penn State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin all begin their non-conference competition while Michigan State has the lone bye.
Penn State vs. St. Lawrence: Oct. 6 at 7 p.m.; Oct. 7 at 7: p.m.
The Nittany Lions begin their regular season hosting St. Lawrence. These teams played last year at Pegula, skating to a 2-2 tie on the first night. On the next night, St. Lawrence won 4-2. The Saints were one of the biggest tests the Nittany Lions faced last year, and their defense was one of the only good ones that could stop Penn State’s offense. The Saints are still the same defensive team they were last year but lack some offense. But, St. Lawrence also lost its head coach and skates into the season with Mark Morris at its helm.
Penn State, meanwhile, lost a portion of its offense, defense, leadership group and its goaltenders. The Nittany Lions still have David Goodwin, a player who’s improved each season and led the team in scoring last year. Penn State is looking to improve defensively, but the team’s success depends on its freshmen, especially goaltender Peyton Jones.
Both teams are in interesting situations. For St. Lawrence, it’s adapting to a new head coach. For Penn State, it’s creating a cohesive group with a lot of new faces. The Saints’ defense and goaltending is hard to beat, though.
Prediction: St. Lawrence sweeps
Wisconsin vs. Northern Michigan: Oct. 7 at 7:07 p.m. CT, Oct. 8 at 7:07 p.m. CT
A new era of Badger hockey begins this weekend as the Badgers host Northern Michigan. The Wildcats and Badgers also played at the beginning of last season, with teams playing to a pair of low-scoring ties. Wisconsin won eight games last year while Northern Michigan won 15.
Both teams destroyed their opponents in exhibition games. The Wildcats won 10-1 against Victoria while the Badgers beat the same team by the same score. Wisconsin has its leading scorers returning in Grant Besse and Luke Kunin. The offensive talent is there, but the team needs to use it and needs to play better defensively. Northern Michigan lost its leading scorer but returns Dominick Shine, who had a career-high 30 points last season. The Wildcats also have goaltender Atte Tolvanen, who had a .929 save percentage last year.
It’s an early test to see if the Badgers can play a different style of hockey cohesively, but if the exhibition game is any indication, Wisconsin is already using its talent better than in seasons past.
Prediction: Wisconsin sweeps
Michigan vs. Union: Oct. 7 at 7:35 p.m., Oct. 8 at 7:35 p.m.
The Wolverines take the ice against Union to open their season. The Dutchmen, after winning the NCAA tournament three years ago, have struggled ever since. But this won’t be an easy test for the Wolverines, who lost the offensive power they used to win with. The teams played last year and the game ended in a 5-5 tie, illustrating Michigan’s lack of defense.
Michigan’s leading returning scorer is Alex Kile, but the team will also be without promising sophomore Cooper Marody. The Wolverines still have the same defensive and goaltending troubles in the past, so they might not be able to win a shootout against the Dutchmen. Union hasn’t been as offensively strong lately, but their leading scorer from last season, Mike Vecchione, is still with the team.
Since Michigan can’t outscore its opponents anymore, the key will be defense.
Prediction: Series split
Minnesota vs Alaska Fairbanks: Oct. 7 at 7:07 p.m. AT; at Alaska at 4:30 p.m. AT
After not playing any exhibition games, Minnesota opens its season with a trip to Alaska. The Gophers have only played Alaska Fairbanks four times and last played Alaska Anchorage in 2011-12.
The Gophers had some offseason losses but retained a good portion of its roster. In net they still have Alaska native Eric Schierhorn who could be better this year but turned in some good performances for the Gophers last season. Minnesota has retained captain and leading scorer Justin Kloos, who has 107 points in his three-year career.
This is a tumultuous time for Alaska hockey, as a budget crisis in the state has led to budget cuts at both schools, leaving the future of both hockey programs is a question mark. The Nanooks’ lost their top three leading scorers but return Marcus Basara, who posted 18 points last year. The Seawolves have Matt Anholt, who recorded 22 points last season.
Last season it took Minnesota a few non-conference games to start winning, but with most of the team returning it should be easier for the Gophers to adjust this year.
Prediction: Minnesota sweeps
Ohio State vs. Denver at 7:35 p.m. CT; vs. Air Force/Boston College at TBA (Ice Breaker Invitational)
The Buckeyes begin their season with the biggest test out of all Big Ten teams. Denver, a Frozen Four member last year, is one of the top teams in college hockey this season. The Pioneers lost some key players but have skaters like Dylan Gambrell and still have goaltender Danny Jaillet. The Buckeyes have struggled for the past few seasons but have some of their scoring back and added a few good freshmen.
Ohio State will either face Air Force or Boston College afterward. Air Force finished high in Atlantic Hockey last year but failed to make the NCAA tournament. Boston College did, and made a Frozen Four appearance, but lost much of its roster to graduation and early departures.
It’s a tough test for the Buckeyes to start the season, and they might not be ready to handle them.
Prediction: Ohio State loses both games