Thursday, November 29, 2012

1° Below Freezing: Quick Hits In B1G Hockey

By Jessi Pierce

Each week, we at B1G Ice Hockey will bring you our weekly check-in with Big Ten teams, starting with teams on the hot streak and ending with teams that seem to be ice cold. Enjoy.

° Gophers stay hot — After pulling out three of four points at Mariucci against neighbor Wisconsin and a clean sweep at Vermont, Minnesota seems to keep the wins coming, remaining unbeaten in its past six contests. The only Big Ten team to be ranked in the top 20 in either national college hockey poll this week, — ranked third in both the USCHO and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine — the Gophers 9-2-2 record stands apart from the B1G pack, too.

A scoring prowess up front, a solid blue line defense and even better goaltending, Minnesota fans are feeling like they once again hold the state's, and nation's, "Pride on Ice." But the Gophers will be tested this weekend when Nebraska-Omaha comes to town with the same six-game winning streak. Even more similarities, the Maverick's leading scorer Ryan Walters is tied for fifth in the WCHA in scoring with Minnesota's Erik Haula at 16 points a piece. Omaha also boasts a big sweep over the University of Minnesota-Duluth and is without a loss the entire month of November.

Minnesota will have to take control early and shouldn't expect a cake walk this weekend.

Puck drops Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. CT.

° Buckeyes holding their own —I have been fairly impressed with Ohio State's play so far this season.   A young squad, they are holding their own, tied for second in the CCHA with Notre Dame and Ferris State. Holding a 5-4-3 record, the Buckeyes boasted early season wins over Minnesota-Duluth, Bowling Green and a sweep at home against Northern Michigan.  Sophomore Tanner Fritz is leading the offensive charge for the team with 11 points through 12 games. Between the pipes senior Brady Hjelle is leading the CCHA with a mere three goals allowed this season and a .62 goals against average. Hjelle was also named the CCHA Goaltender of the Week for the second time this season following the Buckeyes split with Lake Superior last weekend.

Ohio State hits the road to East Lansing, Mich., this weekend for a Big Ten match-up and current CCHA rival series with Michigan State. The Spartans have had their own struggles establishing consistency this season (more on that below) but tend to have the upperhand over Ohio State as all-time history shows with the Buckeyes recording 26-84-8 against the Spartans. In the last 30 match-ups however, the series is even at 14-14-2.

It's anyones game this weekend.

Puck drops Friday at 8:05 p.m. ET and 6:05 p.m. ET on Saturday.

° Penn State on the upswing — To be honest, it seems Penn State still hasn't gotten the credit they deserve. It's a big leap from ACHA to NCAA but this is a squad that is holding its own against some of the big boys. Point proven by keeping with No. 7 Union on the road last weekend, the nation's leading offense. Remember, Union was in the Frozen Four last year and is a remarkably good program. Sure Penn State lost, first 2-0 on Friday and managed to get on the board Saturday with a 4-1 loss. But they played with Union each period right to the end.

Another big rebound night came when Air Force put up 5 against them Nov. 9  (in a game where even Air Force head coach Frank Serratore said that Penn State deserved to win) and the Nittany Lions turned that score around for a 5-1 win on Saturday.

The thing that I enjoy about this team is they know they are the underdogs and they welcome the challenge. Scheduled games in the second half of the season against future Big Ten foes Michigan State and Wisconsin will be another true test but for the most part, despite the 6-5-0 record, I think PSU is one of the stronger teams right now in the conference.

Up next for the Nittany Lions is a visit from ACHA's Arizona State.

Puck drops at 7:30 p.m. ET both Friday and Saturday.

° Michigan struggles — Typically a dominant force in the CCHA and expected to be a top powerhouse in the Big Ten next year, Michigan can't seem to find their footing yet this season. With a roster stocked with the NHL draft picks, the Wolverines should be doing better than their 5-7-1 record shows.

A.J. Treais, Mac Bennett, Alex Guptill and Jacob Trouba are all putting up the points (46 between the four of them) but lazy third periods and finishing the game seems to have Michigan working against itself. Some of the top CCHA opponents are behind them for now (split with Miami, split with Michigan State and a recent sweep by Notre Dame) but if Michigan doesn't get the wheels clicking soon, it's going to be a tough road ahead.

Coming off a schedule that had a win at Yost against Bowling Green on Nov. 21 followed by a loss to No. 13 Cornell at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 24, the Wolverines head to Big Rapids, Mich., for a series this weekend with Ferris State.

Kyle Bonis is the go-to guy for Ferris State. If the Wolverines can shut him down and limit the amount of shots he puts on net, they should be able to pull out the sweep and start their climb back up the CCHA.

Puck drops Friday and Saturday at 7:05 p.m. ET.

° Spartans still middle of the pack — Michigan State has yet to face some of its toughest opponents and even some worthy ones defeated the Spartans already this year. A record of 4-6-2 on the season so far, the Spartans have typically been known as a middle of the pack team, and remain to be. A big CCHA (and ego) win over Michigan is the team's only notable win so far and a rally for a 2-2 tie with Miami was another big point. But ultimately it's a team that has yet to impress me.

The offense is inconsistant and, like its foe Michigan, has yet to get everything working together. According to Neil Koepke with "In 12 games this season, MSU has scored two or fewer goals in seven contests."

Heading into Ohio State will be another big test for the Spartans and should be a great series matchup, with Friday's game televised on the Big Ten Network.

° Wisconsin woes continue — The only more inconsistent team and one that has scored less than Michigan State is Wisconsin. While of course my inner Gopher smiles slyly at putting the Badgers at the bottom, even loyal fans are questioning whether this is rock bottom for Wisconsin, who is just 1-7-2 this season.

As Andy Johnson, Badger writer for Bucky's 5th Quarter tweeted: "UW's record now stands at 1-7-2. They've scored more than two goals only once. I'd say this is rock bottom but we go to Denver next week."

It seems like there will be no time for the Badgers to come up from air after dropping their last weekend  games at Minnesota. Ineligible Nic Kerdiles will be able to return to the lineup for this coming weekend against the Pioneers, but is that the only spark that Wisconsin so desperately needs? We will see.

Puck drops at 9 p.m. CT Friday and 8 p.m. CT Saturday.

B1G Rankings
1. Minnesota
2. Ohio State
3. Penn State
4. Michigan 
5. Michigan State
6. Wisconsin