Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Tourney Talk: Thoughts Heading Into Big Ten Tournament

By Miles McQuinn

What a wild finish to the Big Ten Conference regular season. All six teams are set to make their journey to Joe Louis Arena with the hopes of not only a conference title, but the chance to play for an NCAA title as well. Unfortunately, it looks like the Big Ten will only have one, maybe two representatives in the big dance this year. Regardless, here's my thoughts on each team as an exciting weekend in the motor city quickly approaches.

#1 Minnesota

While the Golden Gophers did win the conference regular-season title with a sweep over Penn State last weekend, they didn't run away with it as I thought they would've prior to the season starting. My biggest concern for Minnesota is how they play away from Mariucci Arena. The Gophers were 7-9-2 during away and neutral site games compared to their 14-3-1 record at home. Barring Wisconsin making a very unexpected run to the final, Minnesota won't have to deal with a Michigan/Michigan State crowd until Saturday.

If they take home a title, it's because of their tremendous depth. For the second year in a row, Mike Reilly was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a First Team All-Big Ten selection. Kyle Rau, Adam Wilcox, and Travis Boyd were given Big Ten Second Team honors. Don't forget about other high end contributors in Justin Kloos, Hudson Fasching, playmaker Taylor Cammarata, Sam Warning and Seth Ambroz. All of those players tallied more than 20 points this season.

Wilcox has been under some speculation for his play in net this season. It goes without saying that he'll need his A-game this weekend. Ohio State beat Minnesota at the Xcel Energy Center in last year's playoffs, and with the way the Buckeyes are playing, it's possible that we might see a rematch of last years semifinal between the two teams. I would think that the Gophers want some revenge after losing in front of the home fans last year.

Minnesota isn't guaranteed an NCAA tournament spot even with a trip to the final. Realizing this, expect head coach Don Lucia to have his team ready to go for a possible season ending game on Friday.

#2 Michigan State

“Good goaltending can take you anywhere.”

Isn't that the old saying?

Fortunately for head coach Tom Anastos and his Spartans, they have one of the better netminders in the nation in Big Ten Player and Goaltender of the Year Jake Hildebrand. He is the straw that stirs the drink in East Lansing. With an offense averaging a meager 2.41 goals per game, the Spartans are used to playing tightly contested, low-scoring games. In fact, 23 of their 34 games were decided by two goals or less. In one goal games, the Spartans were 4-7 while they finished 7-3 in two goal games.

Michigan State won four of its last five games to give themselves a first round bye in this week's tournament. Their most impressive wins recently came in Minnesota on Feb. 27, as tough a place as there is to pull out a win, and their last game of the regular season in Ann Arbor against Michigan, holding the high-flying Wolverine offense to one goal in a 2-1 win.

Matt Berry, Mackenzie MacEachern, and Michael Ferrantino are their offensive culprits up front.

Michigan State is a team that plays defensively tough then strikes when given the opportunity. If they are able to give Hildebrand a lead, they excel better than any other team in the conference in playing shut-down defense.

#3 Michigan

I love the way that this offense is able to generate scoring opportunities. Their skill players like Zach Hyman, Andrew Copp and Dylan Larkin make them a must-see team. There's a reason that they are ranked No. 1 in the nation in goal production (3.88 goals per game).

And on the back end? Future NHL first-round draft pick Zach Werenski provides a big body and offense from the blue line. Brennan Serville, Kevin Lohan, and Nolan De Jong bring a physicality to their craft that is tops in the Big Ten.

My big concern for the Maize and Blue heading into this weekend is their goaltending. The combination of Zach Nagelvoort and Steve Racine will be the “x factor” for the team if they wish to bring Michigan back to the postseason after a two-year absence. When either netminder is hot between the pipes, they're very tough to beat. However, I've seen some pucks find the back of their net throughout the course of the season that left me scratching my head.

*A side note: I'm more than interested in seeing the attendance that will take place in my predicted Michigan/Michigan State matchup on Friday. Attendance in Saint Paul was horrendous last year and a matchup like this would be great between the two rivals, especially since both of their seasons ended in their first games in last year's tournament.

#4 Penn State
A great story for a young program could be all for naught on Thursday afternoon in Detroit. Penn State, in just its third year as a D-1 program, made fantastic strides in making a run at a Big Ten regular season title, which fell short thanks in large part to being swept at Ohio State and Minnesota in two of the final three weekends of the season.

I didn't forget the sweep at home against Michigan, in case you were about to be up in arms.

But that's the problem.

Much like Minnesota, I'm heavily concerned about their 5-12-1 record away from Pegula Ice Arena compared to their 13-2-1 record in Hockey Valley.

“But Michigan went 5-10 in away games! What about them?”

Michigan won the Great Lakes Invitational at the Joe in late December without some of their best players because of the World Junior Championships (and beating a top 10 team in Michigan Tech might I add). The home crowd that I'm hoping will show up can give them a much needed boost. It's essentially the same type of deal for them that Minnesota had at the Xcel Energy Center last year.

Back to Penn State.

A tip of my cap regarding the job Big Ten Coach of the Year Guy Gadowsky has done. A turnaround of the ages from last season has them in a position where they have an outside shot at winning the tournament, as opposed to having to pull off upsets which they did in the quarterfinal against Michigan last season.

The line of Casey Bailey, Taylor Holstrom, and David Goodwin has been up there with some of the best in the nation, and Bailey, a First Team All-Big Ten selection, has been especially great in putting up 40 points this season.

My worry for them comes with the fact that their opponent on Thursday, Ohio State, won three out of four contests against Penn State this season and the Nittany Lions were recently swept in Columbus. They haven't won a game outside of Pegula Ice Arena since Jan. 31 against Vermont in a neutral site contest at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

#5 Ohio State

This is probably the last team that you want to be playing right now.

I say this because all the right things are happening for the Buckeyes as of late, as they were in a similar fashion last March.

They've won five of their last six games (yes, I'm counting that shootout win over Wisconsin last Friday), Christian Frey has been a brick wall as of late, and the offense, while not great, has been better.

If they are to make a run again as they did last year, I would type up the same exact script that they wrote in Minnesota.

It all started in the net with Frey, if he gets hot, watch out, because that allows the Scarlet and Gray to push the pace in the opposing offensive zone, fully knowing that Frey can make the big stop if they get caught in transition.

There's nothing spectacular at all about the way the Buckeyes play hockey. Success on both offense and defense will stem from systematic play. Finding guys in the slot, forechecking through the dump and chase and shots from the point with traffic in front create the majority of Ohio State's lamp-lighting. Don't expect too many highlight reel goals.

Tanner Fritz is the main facilitator, but the speed of Anthony Greco and the emergence of Matt Johnson as a scorer this season gives the Buckeyes something to work with up front.

Blocking shots has been the key to their success on the defensive end, and it will remain that way if they are to get back to the championship game again. Head coach Steve Rohlik puts a heavy focus on this aspect of the game, and it can make things very frustrating for opposing teams.

This weekend is where Ohio State would love to have Ryan Dzingel or Max McCormick back for that extra firepower. I'm looking for freshmen Christian Lampasso, Matthew Weis and sophomore Nick Schilkey to step up with some secondary scoring.

#6 Wisconsin

Let's not kid ourselves here -- It's been a pretty miserable season in Badger country. A 4-25-5 record, accompanied with a 1-14-1 record away from the Kohl Center does not add up well when facing a highly talented team in Michigan on Thursday.

So let's cut right to the chase.

Grant Besse, Joseph LaBate and Morgan Zulinick are going to need to score on their every opportunity. Joel Rumpel needs to have the weekend of his life, especially in game one against the Wolverines.

If they go down early on Thursday, the Badgers need to persevere and not cave in. I say that because Wisconsin has been shut out in five of its last seven games.

My key for the Badgers is just for them to hang around. Upsets always happen if the David is able to just keep things close against its Goliath.

And remember, Wisconsin has tied Boston University and they've tied Minnesota twice, which can make you think maybe, just maybe, they've got a little something in them.

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