Three Things I Think: Big Ten, Dec. 8

Posted by: Jashvina Shah

Last weekend was the first, full slate of Big Ten conference play. Penn State swept the once-feared Badgers at the Kohl Center, Michigan routed Ohio State 8-3 and Minnesota defeated Michigan State before the two teams tied.

Penn State is now first in the conference with a 3-1-0 record. The Wolverines are second, while the Gophers and Spartans are tied for third. To Minnesota’s credit, they’ve only played two Big Ten games.

The rough season for Wisconsin continues, and the scoring losses combined with inexperience have been a terrible combination for the Badgers. What the team wanted to happen, which was find an identity behind Joel Rumpel, hasn’t happened. It’s a bad sign the Badgers, who lost just two games at home last season, weren’t expected to win this weekend.

Michigan is now on a four-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 25-6. The Wolverines have defeated RPI, Penn State and Ohio State over that stretch, and two of those teams might not count as quality opponents. RPI has been inconsistent this season, and went to Michigan without netminder Jason Kasdorf. And it’s not the offense that was a question for the Wolverines – it was the defense and goalkeeping.

There’s not much I can say for the Buckeyes, except they used all three goalkeepers including Logan Davis, who last played on Dec. 2, 2013 – a 5-4 loss to Michigan.

Michigan State losing to Minnesota 5-0 is a little surprising. The two teams played close games all of last season, but I think Michigan State’s defense might be losing some of last season’s characteristics. (Allowing five goals to Princeton Thanksgiving weekend was a huge surprise, more than the five goals in Friday’s game). Saturday’s game against Minnesota was Michigan State’s first tie of the season. Last year, the Spartans played seven games that went into overtime.

Still, a tie to Michigan State isn’t a good look for a Gopher team that’s 2-3-1 in its last six games. And the Gophers can’t afford to play poorly in the conference, especially since the rest of the league isn’t at Minnesota’s level. With both Brady Skjei and Travis Boyd back, there are no excuses.

It’s still early to panic about PairWise, but  Minnesota and Penn State are the only Big Ten teams in the top-16. Yes, Penn State. Michigan is down at 28.

(After the jump: Why Penn State will probably finish second, the conference’s new offense, and the Big Ten’s out of conference record.)

Big Ten’s offensive powers

Last season, leading the conference was Ohio State’s Ryan Dzingel and Wisconsin’s Mark Zengerle. Five of the six leading scorers left at the end of the season, all save Minnesota’s Kyle Rau. The top scorers belonged to the high-power offenses of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio State.

Now, Penn Sate’s offense leads the charge. The team’s top line of Taylor Holstrom, Casey Bailey and David Goodwin have quietly become one of the conference’s most productive lines, and Holstrom and Bailey are tied for the Big Ten lead in points. And Holstrom hasn’t even played the past two games but averages 1.50 points per game.

Michigan has taken the other slot at the top of the conference, thanks to their top line of Zach Hyman, Dylan Larkin and Zach Werenksi. The Wolverines’ average of 4.07 goals per game leads the Big Ten, but that’s largely inflated by the last four games. Zach Hyman has already matched his point total of 17 from last season.

Minnesota’s offense hasn’t dropped off, and Rau’s 17 points are tied for third. Three of the league’s top-10 scorers are Gophers. Three belong to Penn State, and the other four are Michigan’s.

Don’t underestimate Penn State

Hopefully you’re not anymore. Yes, Penn State’s early-season record was boosted by a bunch of wins against AHA teams, but the Nittany Lions have been one of the most consistent Big Ten teams.

I just mentioned the offense. Last year, Penn State’s leading scorer was Eric Scheid, who finished the season with 20 points. Now, both Casey Bailey and Taylor Holstrom are each two points away from tying that total. Both those players have surpassed their totals from last season, and David Goodwin is four points away from matching his total. He was the team’s second leading scorer last season.

While Penn State’s record last season wasn’t great, the Nittany Lions were a difficult team to play against. They played well, and a big difference was Penn State’s inability to score. As a young team, the Nittany Lions struggled to win their close games.

Before this season started, I thought Penn State would struggle and I picked them to finish dead last in the conference. Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky made it clear the team still had a long way to go before they could be a force in the conference.

But now, they’re winning some of the games they would’ve lost last year.

Penn State’s biggest strength was its returning core, and that has helped the Nittany Lions become one of the most consistent teams in the conference. They’re first in the Big Ten with a 3-1-0 conference record, and won their first Big Ten game this season. The offense helps, no doubt.

The Big Ten is not good out of conference

But you should probably already know that. The Big Ten has the second-worst out-of-conference winning percentage in the country, only ahead of the AHA. The conference is 7-0-1 against the AHA, 4-2-0 against the ECAC, 11-10-1 against Hockey East, 2-12-0 against the NCHC and 5-10-2 against WCHA teams.

The conference’s winning percentage is 46.3 percent. But if you take out the Big Ten’s record against the AHA – which accounts for seven wins — the six Big Ten teams have combined for a 22-34-4 record. Take out the two wins against a Jason Kasdorf-less RPI team, and it’s down to 20-34-4.

Comments are closed.