Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Goodbye 2013, Hello 2014: What The First Half of Big Ten Hockey Season Taught Us

College hockey season has officially reached the halfway point. Two weeks – or more for some teams – of holiday break and fans are ready to have hockey back.

But before we jump in to the New Year full of constant Big Ten hockey action, let’s glance back at how the first part of the conference’s inaugural season panned out. Amazingly the college hockey universe didn’t implode with Big Ten’s inception, nor did any aspect of our game look different. The puck still dropped and goals were still scored, just with new match-ups in the mix.

Ranked: No. 1/1
Overall: 12-2-2 (conf. 3-0-1)
Top Producers: Sam Warning 20 pts (5g, 15a), Justin Kloos 16 pts (6g, 10a), Kyle Rau 16pts (3g, 13a), Hudson Fasching 14 pts (6g, 8a)
Biggest Surprise: A 2-2 OT tie to Michigan State Dec. 6 and a 6-2 loss to rival University of Minnesota-Duluth on Nov. 24 after a 6-1 romping the night before.
To no real surprise, the Golden Gophers have opened up the season and conference red-hot. Minnesota has potted a total 71 goals against opponents this season with a 4.17 goals per game average. This compared to allowing just 1.94 goals from opponents has allowed the Gophers to reign atop both major college hockey polls for the majority of the season. Minnesota did have a wakeup call during its last trip of 2013 to East Lansing where Michigan State forced a 2-2 overtime, adding a bonus point by winning the shootout. Minnesota won game two of the series but I imagine they had hoped for a better showing against the struggling Spartans. Scoring is spread out and a number of Gophs can tally a point on any given night. Adam Wilcox meanwhile is keeping the puck out of the net with a .924 save percentage. The one glaring mark against the Gophers is continuous struggles on the powerplay. They are only 11-for-73 this season, a grim 15 percent. As long as Minnesota keeps its wits about them and the team continues to play the game it's capable of, the rest of the season should be a smooth ride for the maroon and gold.

Ranked: No. 7/3
Overall: 10-40-2 (conf. 2-0-0)
Top Producers: JT Compher 15 pts (6g, 9a), Andrew Copp 14 pts (9g, 5a), Alex Gupitll 12 pts (6g, 6a)
Biggest Surprise: Dropping the last four in a row, including one to rival Michigan State at Comerica Park on Dec. 28. Also somewhat surprising is the emergence of Zach Nagelvoort in net (more on him below).
Zach Nagelvoort has been lights out for the Wolverines. The freshman goaltender is a huge reason Big Blue is staying in the mix of the top 10 across the nation. Currently Nagelvoort is posting a .94 save percentage and a 1.78 goals against average through 11 games. He has been named a Big Ten Star four times already this season and I expect him to only continue his dominance. On the offensive front, Compher and Copp lead the charge and further showed their prowess as members of Team USA in the World Junior Championships. Combined in the season, Michigan has tallied 47 goals and allowed just 2.2 goals per game by opponents. But three loses right before break to Western Michigan (2-3 OT), Michigan State (0-3) and U.S. NTDP (4-5 OT) are some cause for concern.

Ranked: No. 13/15
Overall: 10-5-1 (conf. 2-2-0)
Top Producers: Mike Mersch 17 pts (11g, 6a), Nic Kerdiles 17 pts (8g, 9a), Mark Zengerle 17 pts (1g, 16a), Tyler Barnes 15 pts (1g, 16a)
Biggest Surprise: Another slow start for Bucky and Co., even with the prolific scorers.
Without question, the Badgers have hands down some of the best offensive returners in the nation. Nic Kerdiles, Tyler Barnes, Mark Zengerle and Mike Mersch are phenoms in their own rights. In 14 games Kerdiles has managed 17 points (8g, 9a) and was excellent on Team USA in the World Junior Championships. Backed by Joel Rumpel (.929 save percentage and 1.87 goals against average) and Landen Peterson (.883 save percentage and 3.38 goals against average) who are splitting time this season, it's still a wonder as to why Wisconsin isn't dominating the conference. Though interesting to note, the Badgers started out the same way -- admittedly much more grim -- last year with high expectations that they didn't amount to until the second half of the season. Remember that? When they went on to win the WCHA Championship before a first round NCAA loss to UMass-Lowell after a 5-7-5 first half start. Maybe the will be ok after all. Though they have proven players who can put the puck in the back of the net, Wisconsin leads the Big Ten with most goals against, allowing 51 from opponents this season. The Badgers currently sit in third in the conference with its lone two conference losses coming to rival Minnesota. Expect them to be a contender for that No. 1 and No. 2 spot.

Ohio State
Ranked: NR
Overall: 10-6-0 (conf. 0-2-0)
Top Producers: Ryan Dzingel 23 pts (10g, 13a), Max McCormick 18 pts (7g, 11a), Alex Szczechura 17 pts (5g, 12a), Tanner Fritz 17 pts (3g, 14a)
Biggest Surprise: Not ranked but playing quality hockey, which I think surprises quite a few in the Big Ten.
A team that gets little mention, Ohio State is off to a fairly successful start this season. Often overshadowed by the big M's and Wisconsin, the Buckeyes are riding high behind the likes of Tanner Fritz and Ryan Dzingel. Dzingel is the highest scoring leader among Big Ten players, ranking 19th in the nation with 23 points (10g, 13a). Their downfall however lies in the merry-go-round of goalies. Ohio State has utilized four goalies through the first half of the season. Logan Davis and Matt Tomkins seem to have gotten a leg up in competition but it will be interesting to see what happens the second part of the season.

Michigan State
Ranked: NR
Overall: 6-9-2 (conf. 5-4-1)
Top Producers: Greg Wolfe 13 pts (7g, 6a), Jake Chelios 11 pts (2g, 9a), Mackenzi MacEachern 10 pts (6g, 4a)
Biggest Surprise: Pushing No. 1 Minnesota to overtime and earning the bonus point in a shootout.
It's been a dismal start for the Spartans. The squad is currently allowing 2.4 goals against per game which wouldn't be so bad if they could score more than 2.4 goals per game. In between the pipes, Jake Hildebrand has been sturdy through 14 games. If the offense can get going and some of the young guys can step up the second half of the season, MSU might be able to turn some things around, especially with a holiday break win over rival Michigan to inject some energy.

Penn State
Ranked: NR
Overall: 4-10-1 (conf. 0-2-0)
Top Producers: Eric Scheid 13 pts (8g, 5a), David Goodwin 9 pts (4g, 5a)
Biggest Surprise: There really hasn't been any.
It's the Nittany Lions' second season as Division I -- can we really knock them for their performance so far? Penn State's beautiful new arena was finished and opened to the fanbase with great revere. We've known it all along that it will take some time for the program to build up. Narrow losses to UMass, Union and a 4-3 loss to Big Ten foe Wisconsin, shows that their is some fight in Penn State, and they won't be taken lightly. Unfortunately for them, the schedule only seems tougher, with the first games back being against Minnesota on a rare Sunday/Monday series. I think of some other players can step up for PSU, things might start coming together. If not, again, can we really get down on them?

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