Big Ten Tournament Preview
The Big Ten regular season concluded over the weekend, with Minnesota and Wisconsin finished as the top two seeds. Ohio State and Michigan State will face off in the earlier Thursday play-in matchup, while Penn State will face Michigan.
Minnesota is the only team guaranteed to make the NCAA tournament regardless of its performance in the Big Ten tournament. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are on the bubble, while Wisconsin is completely outside. For those three teams, the easiest path to the NCAA tournament comes through a Big Ten championship.
1. Minnesota (23-10-3, 14-5-1 B1G)
The Gophers cruised to their sixth-straight regular-season conference championship after winning 14 Big Ten games and earned a Thursday bye. The Gophers will face the winner of the Michigan-Penn State series in the semifinals on Friday.
While Minnesota swept Penn State this season, the last game between the teams ended in overtime. And Michigan has been a good team lately, even beating Minnesota on March 4.
Minnesota struggled at the season’s start against a difficult non-conference schedule, but that early-season adversity has helped the Gophers through conference play. Now Minnesota is coming together as a team and are fifth in the Pairwise.
“It’s hard to win a national championship,” Gophers head coach Don Lucia said. “You begin the year saying, 'You know what, we want to do well in our league.' And if you do well in your league it’s going to take care of itself, But to win six in a row, it’s never been done before, it’s something we talked about when the year began. nobody’s ever done that.”
Minnesota has one of the nation’s top offenses, averaging 3.78 goals per game thanks largely to the team’s top line of Tyler Sheehy, Justin Kloos and Rem Pitlick. Sheehy is tied for seventh in the nation nationally with 52 points, and was named a Hobey Baker Award finalist, while Kloos has 52 and Pitlick has 30. Also stepping up for Minnesota is Vinni Lettieri, who’s having a breakout season with 35 points.
“It’s been a really good college hockey line, some skill, some speed, those guys can all make plays,” Lucia said. “Undrafted guys that maybe are a little more undersized but have really good hands and thinks the game well and [Sheehy’s] got a great release. those are the things that really separate him a little bit, (and) how well he thinks the game.”
Eric Schierhorn has started every game for the team and has been one of the more consistent goaltenders in the conference and has a .906 save percentage.
“I think the most important thing this time of year (is) you've got to take care of the puck,” Lucia said. “You [have] to be good defensively. I think Eric Schierhorn’s playing his best hockey of the year. Certainly he’s gotten better the second half and even here at the end he looks a lot more comfortable and consistent."
Minnesota lost center Tommy Novak earlier in the season, and last weekend found out freshman defenseman Ryan Lindgren would miss the remainder of the season after breaking his leg.
2. Wisconsin (19-14-1, 8-9-1 B1G)
The Badgers, backed by Big Ten Coach of the Year Tony Granato, have composed one of the biggest turnaround seasons in the college hockey. Wisconsin finished second in the Big Ten to earn a bye and have a chance at winning the tournament. But after a pair of losses to Ohio State last weekend, the Badgers’ best route to the NCAA tournament lies through winning the Big Ten championship.
“I think it was a learning curve really trying to find our identity, trying to work through some things to battle in some pressure situations,” Granato said. “I think we’ve made great strides, I think last week against Ohio State we were a little bit on our heels maybe for the first time in a couple months where we had that opportunity to have a good weekend and probably solidify our position in the tournament and we stood around and watched for a little bit before we got going.”
Overall Wisconsin is better, but the offense has especially received a boost. Captain Luke Kunin leads the team with 36 points, while standout freshman Trent Frederic has 33 and junior Cameron Hughes has 31.
"He’s 19 now, I think when we named the captain he was still 18 and that’s a big responsibility for a young kid but it’s certainly something he’s handled and handled extremely well,” Granato said.
Matt Jurusik was Wisconsin’s starter, but after an injury Jack Berry took over — and both players have roamed the net for Wisconsin. Berry has a .892 save percentage and Jurusik has a .882 save percentage.
“I think we’ve got some good hockey left in us and I think we can go to the Big Ten tournament and have a good weekend,” Granato said.
3. Ohio State (20-10-6, 11-8-1 B1G) vs. 6. Michigan State (7-23-4, 3-14-3 B1G)
The tournament opens with Ohio State facing Michigan State. The Buckeyes won the season series, 3-1, but three of those games were decided by one goal. The winner of this game will face the Badgers in the semifinals.
“Both teams are very familiar with each other,” Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos said. “We have great respect for their team, the kind of season they’re having, the dynamics of their roster. Certainly their power play has been super dynamic for them so that presents lots challenges for our team. ... Our team’s excited to get kind of a fresh start and we look at this as a new season come Thursday.”
The Buckeyes started the season well, but a strong non-conference record turned into inconsistent play in conference competition. Ohio State has shown glimpses of greatness, but inconsistency has hurt the Buckeyes this season. They still has an extremely potent offense that ranks third in the country and averages four goals per game. Backing that offense is Mason Jobst and Nick Schilkey, who have 51 and 39 points respectively.
“The biggest thing for us is we just got to continue to get better in a lot of areas as far as our discipline, and I say that with as far as our systems and what not,” Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik said. “We respect them. We understand they play hard. Obviously they scored four goals on us in the first period on Friday when they came down here. They’re very capable of putting you in your place so we’re just trying to stay focused on what we need to do, we’re trying to get better at everything and we’re trying to peak at the right time.”
Ohio State has used both goaltenders this season. Christian Frey has seen most of the playing time — and backstopped the Buckeyes for a stretch after returning from his injury — but Matt Tomkins started the last few games.
Michigan State has struggled this year and earned most of its conference wins against Michigan. While the Spartan offense has not been a power like Ohio State’s, Mason Appleton and Taro Hirose have given the Spartans a boost with 30 and 24 points respectively.
“I think a lot of Taro. I think he’s had a real good freshman year. I think he’s going to be a very exciting very dynamic college player to follow,” Anastos said.
Goaltending has been an issue for the Spartans. Ed Minney was meant to be Jake Hildebrand’s successor, but Minney struggled a bit. He finished with a .888 save percentage and that left space for John Lethemon to earn some starts.
“You can look at the season like we’ve had and say, 'Gosh, it’s been a long season,' but it hasn’t,” Anastos said. “It’s actually gone fast. It’s a new season we’re looking at it as a fresh start and certainly guys have lots of experience compared to when we started back last October and I think that’s positive.”
4. Penn State (21-11-2, 10-9-1 B1G) vs. 5. Michigan (13-18-3, 6-12-2 B1G)
Penn State and Michigan will face off for the third time in the past three games. While Penn State has struggled of late, winning just three of its last eight, Michigan has been one of the hottest teams in the conference with four wins in its last five — including a sweep of Penn State and a victory over Minnesota.
“We just played Penn State twice and they outshot us pretty [badly] but we found a way to win the games,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I thought we were fortunate, nevertheless this is the best momentum we’ve had during the season. It’s been an up and down season for Michigan and we finally put together a couple of better games at least going into these playoffs we fill a little better about our team than we did a month ago.”
Michigan’s offense has struggled this year — leading scorer Jake Slaker has just 21 points — but the Wolverines have received their best goaltending in a long time. All three netminders — Zach Nagelvoort, Hayden Lavigne and Jack LaFontaine — have played for Michigan with save percentages of .924, .912 and .911, respectively.
“We’ve got better goalkeeping,” Berenson said. “Not that our goalkeeping was poor before, but it’s been way above average in recent games and it’s had to be because we’ve been outshot in every game. ... (And) maybe our penalty killing was a little better and we’re a little healthier now than we were a month ago.”
The Nittany Lions were first in the Pairwise around the midway mark of this season thanks to wins against an easier non-conference schedule. But Penn State struggled somewhat more in conference play. They dropped in the Pairwise and needed to sweep Michigan to secure an NCAA tournament berth. But after losing both games to a resurgent Wolverine team, Penn State’s fate is uncertain.
“We were the cause of a lot of our ailments and we can learn from that,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said. “On Saturday, I thought we played a pretty good hockey game. I thought their goaltender was excellent, we also had a couple goals called back. So really Saturday we really just want to forget and move on from, Friday we want to learn from.”
Penn State still has the nation’s second-best offense, averaging 4.03 goals per game. That’s partly thanks to freshman Denis Smirnov’s contribution of 43 points, the most amongst rookies nationally. Freshman Peyton Jones has been Penn State’s only goalkeeper. He started the season strong but has faced adversity in conference play and has a .899 save percentage
“He’s extremely calm,” Gadowsky said. “And how he’s adapted, I think he went through one experience at Wells Fargo (in Philadelphia, against Princeton), it was the first time I’ve seen him come unglued. It was a winning goal that the puck went out of play and he stopped playing and the refs didn’t see it and he came unglued, and I think he’s learned a lot from that. He’s adapted that to the ups and downs of Big Ten play whether it’s bounces or calls or what have you.”