With three weeks to go in a six-team league, maybe things are more fluid than they seemed just a few short weeks ago. With Minnesota idle and Michigan playing nonconference, Penn State couldn’t take advantage of the situation to completely close the gap with the second-place Wolverines, but the standings are a lot more interesting now:
1. Minnesota (33 points)
2. Michigan (32)
3. Penn State (29)
4. Michigan State (16)
5. Ohio State (15)
6. Wisconsin (7)
Here are three things — three maybes — that I take away from the past weekend of play.
Maybe Michigan State’s not done.
For reasons that are difficult to understand, the Spartans went through a wretched stretch from the end of November through mid-January, but things are looking up for Michigan State as of late. The Spartans swept the Badgers in Wisconsin this past weekend, winning 4-3 and 3-1, and I admit that this outcome surprises me quite a bit. Michigan State looked quite good at the start of the season, when the entire team was clicking and Jake Hildebrand looked like his All-American self in net.
But when the Spartans tanked, they tanked. This is a team with talent and chemistry, but from the net out, Michigan State seemed to forget how to defend and the Spartans had difficulty scoring. In their last eight games, all B1G contests, the Spartans are now 4-3-1, with one blowout loss to Minnesota and some tidy goaltending; in five of those games, Hildebrand and the Spartans limited opponents to two or fewer goals, and Michigan State took the extra shootout point in the tie.
In each of their road wins over Wisconsin, the Spartans had to come from behind. Hildebrand had 60 saves in the weekend. And with the sweep and Ohio State’s split against Penn State, Michigan State has surpassed the Buckeyes in the standings.
The Spartans still can’t finish higher than fourth in the final standings, but Michigan State can continue to improve and head into the Big Ten championship tournament with confidence and — maybe, maybe — with a hot goaltender.
Maybe defense doesn’t win games.
Seriously, maybe the old adage has an exception, and the exception’s name is Michigan.
I had a dandy of a time Friday night in Yost Ice Arena watching the Ferris State-Michigan game. I know we’re talking B1G hockey here, but let me say how impressed I was with Ferris State. The Wolverines may have won 5-2, but through two periods of play, it was a very, very competitive contest. In a few weeks, I’ll be covering the WCHA Final Five in Grand Rapids, and I am now looking forward to that more than ever having seen the Bulldogs play. I don’t know if FSU will be there — I suspect they will — but I’m sure that I’ll be covering some really intense WCHA hockey and I can hardly wait.
Having said that and as good as Ferris State is, the Bulldogs didn’t have a chance. As soon as that third period began, I knew we were seeing the replay of a script we’ve seen all season: Michigan exchanges goals with an opponent through two periods and simply takes the game away in the third. The Wolverines have the top offense in the country, averaging 4.79 goals per game, but in the third period, Michigan has outscored opponents 55-20 this season. The Wolverines led the Bulldogs 3-1 heading into the third, but there was no doubt in my mind that Michigan would not only outlast Ferris State but outscore them in the third as well.
When FSU coach Bob Daniels and I were talking after the game, Daniels talked about how Michigan’s speed just wears an opponent down and that the Wolverines can seemingly score at will to make up for any defensive mistakes they do make. When I brought up the idea that the Wolverines may run into a team in the NCAA tournament that exploits their defense, Daniels was skeptical. He said that beyond Michigan’s talent, the Wolverines play with a relaxed confidence and their chemistry on the ice is palpable. We talked about how defense usually wins games, but Daniels said that — with this specific Michigan team — perhaps all they need to do is keep scoring.
This is a very talented offensive team. The potency of that first line of Kyle Connor, JT Compher and Tyler Motte cannot be exaggerated. They’re wicked fast, each has great hockey sense — and Connor’s sense of the ice is uncanny — and each can score. With points each night, Connor and Compher extended their individual point-scoring streaks to 17 games, and Motte extended his goal-scoring streak to a dozen games.
And they’re not the only ones with talent that is easy to recognize. The assist that Cooper Marody made on Connor’s goal — the fifth of the game Friday for the Wolverines — was one of the prettiest plays I’ve seen this season, and I’ve seen a lot of pretty plays.
It’s important to note, too, that Michigan has improved defensively. I’ve been particularly impressed with Steve Racine in net lately.
Maybe — just maybe — all the Wolverines need to do is keep that offense going. And maybe — maybe, maybe — they’ll be playing in Tampa.
Maybe it’s a three-way race for first place.
And maybe that seems like an obvious statement, but both Minnesota and Michigan have two games in hand over the Nittany Lions. The Wolverines travel to Minneapolis for a Thursday-Friday series this week, then play Ohio State in a home-and-home stand, and then finish the season with two games against Penn State.
After they play the Wolverines, the Gophers travel to Michigan State for two and end their season at home with two against Wisconsin.
The Nittany Lions have a bye next week and then end the season on the road, with a series against Wisconsin before heading to Ann Arbor.
Maybe Penn State can contend for first place. Maybe Michigan will overtake Minnesota. But maybe — just maybe — Minnesota will earn its third consecutive regular-season championship.