Congratulations to the Golden Gophers on their second consecutive Big Ten regular-season title! The last weekend of regular-season Big Ten play was very exciting and each series revealed quite a bit about the teams involved heading into next week’s championship tournament in Joe Louis Arena.
1. Minnesota took care of business. The end.
Heading into the weekend, the Gophers were tied for second place with Michigan and the Wolverines owned the first tiebreaker, number of Big Ten wins. In other words, Minnesota didn’t control its own fate. All the Gophers could do was take care of business — and that’s exactly what they did to ensure the best possible outcome for the weekend, sweeping Penn State at home and outscoring the Nittany Lions 11-2.
The first period of each game was critical. Friday night, the Gophers led 3-0 at the end of the first. Saturday, after Penn State opened the scoring at 15:16 in the first, two guys who should score for Minnesota — Seth Ambroz and Hudson Fasching — answered at 17:49 and 18:09, respectively, to give Minnesota a 2-1 lead after one. Kyle Rau made it 3-1 early in the second, but Penn State’s James Robinson scored to bring the Nittany Lions to within one at 6:30 … and the Gophers answered almost immediately. At 7:33, freshman defenseman Ryan Collins netted his first collegiate goal to give the Gophers some room.
This is not to take anything away from what Penn State accomplished this season, but when up against a team that was playing for its fourth straight regular-season conference title, the Nittany Lions — an offense capable of scoring many goals — found the net twice all weekend, two goals in Saturday’s 6-2 loss.
2. Michigan and Michigan State took care of some business, and it was glorious hockey.
The Wolverines and the Spartans were each playing for a regular-season title as well. While each obviously fell short, each delivered great hockey and each takes something unique into Joe Louis Arena next weekend.
First, the Wolverines. In Munn Arena Friday night, Michigan put on its own impressive display, scoring twice early in the first period and then twice late in the third to secure a 5-3 win over Michigan State, a win that helped them keep pace for the night with Minnesota. The three goals the Wolverines did allow in that game — Spartan Ryan Keller’s first career hat trick — were fluky, and without question Zach Nagelvoort would have liked to have had at least two of them back. The third was tipped in by UM defender Michael Downing. It was that kind of night.
While the Spartans won 2-1 the following night in Yost Arena, there was no shame in Michigan’s loss. The Wolverines attempted over 90 shots in the second contest and put a total of 38 shots on Michigan State’s Jake Hildebrand. For the weekend, Michigan registered 82 shots on goal and dozens of them — no exaggeration — were Grade-A chances. As Red Berenson said after Saturday’s loss, “I wouldn’t want to play us next weekend.”
Second, the Spartans. While Michigan clearly outplayed Michigan State Friday night, the Spartans did everything they could in that contest to win. They played physical, gritty hockey. They made the most of those three fluky chances, and Keller’s second goal of the night — a breakaway that he scored sprawled on his belly, sliding toward the Michigan net, pushing the puck through Nagelvoort’s legs to get the goal — was a single example of the determination that the entire Michigan State team displayed.
Saturday’s game was one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, and Berenson himself said in reference to Hildebrand’s play that he couldn’t recall a better performance by a goaltender. Hildebrand was amazing. To paraphrase an observer in the press box, in the third period Hildebrand put a “closed” sign on the net.
Michigan State’s response Saturday to Friday’s loss was, well, impressive. The Spartans scored in the first period and played a much more disciplined, focused, complete game, earning their first win in Yost Arena since 2009.
Each of these teams comes out of the weekend with a better understanding of themselves. Additionally, the Spartans come out winning their last regular-season game and earning a first-round bye for next weekend’s tournament.
3. Ohio State did everything it could to tune up for next weekend.
The Buckeyes took five of six possible points on the road last weekend from the Badgers, tying Wisconsin 2-2 Friday night and taking that extra point in the 10th round of the shootout — and everyone knows that winning the shootout feels like winning the game, so the Buckeyes feel as though they swept their last regular-season weekend.
In Saturday’s 2-0 win, Ohio State outshot Wisconsin 42-17. Sophomore goaltender Matt Tomkins earned his second shutout of the season, the third of his career, in that win. Christian Frey — who is 5-3-1 for the Buckeyes since Valentine’s Day weekend — had the tie the night before, so the Buckeyes head into next weekend knowing they have two goalies who are ready to play.
From Jan. 10 through Feb. 7, the Buckeyes lost six consecutive games, giving up 30 goals in that span. Since then, OSU is 6-3-1 and the Buckeyes have reduced their goals-against by half, going from 5.0 against on average during the losing streak to 2.6 against per game in their last 10 contests.
That is an impressive finish to a season for a team that finished in next-to-last place.
The Big Ten Tournament
For Thursday’s semifinals, No. 6 Wisconsin plays No. 3 Michigan and No. 5 Ohio State plays No. 4 Penn State. My early predictions: Michigan and Ohio State prevail, setting up yet another match between the Spartans and Wolverines Friday night.
I can’t wait.