By Fred Pletsch –
Big Ten Hockey’s inaugural regular season is in the books and the focus shifts now to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, where all six teams get a shot at becoming the first to hoist the league’s championship trophy.
Four of the teams involved need to win three games in three days to receive B1G Hockey’s AQ (Automatic Qualifier) into the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championship Tournament and, while it’s a cliché to say that ‘any team can win’ in a single-elimination format, consider the following questions:
Do you want to face player of the year Adam Wilcox and Minnesota, a team that has lost just five times all season, and just once in the ‘State of Hockey’?
How do you like your chances against Wisconsin, the pre-season favorite that has all but three players back from the team that captured the WCHA Final Five title in the same building one year ago?
Maybe you want to line up against Ohio State, a team that boasts a killer power play and four of the Top-14 point producers in the league, including Hobey Baker hopeful Ryan Dzingel, the overall and conference scoring champion?
Do you think you can shut down Michigan’s game breakers (JT Compher, Andrew Copp, Alex Guptill, etc.) in a one-game showdown while stifling the Wolverines desperation of not wanting to miss the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year?
Is your lineup the one that has all the answers for Michigan State’s Jake Hildebrand, the sophomore goalie who routinely posts 40-save performances ending in ‘W’?
How about facing a big, physical, grinding Penn State team that will have been told ‘You’ve got nothing to lose’ so many times before face off in St. Paul that the players start thinking ‘Okay, so we might as well win!’
Here’s a preview of what to expect starting with Thursday’s quarterfinals:
Penn State (#6 Seed) vs. Michigan (# 3 Seed)
3:00 p.m. EDT
It’s not if the Nittany Lions think they can beat the Wolverines but rather know they can. Before defeating Ohio State in the regular-season finale, PSU’s only two conference wins had come at the expense of the Maize and Blue. Red Berenson has to hope the team that takes the ice on Thursday is the one that handled Penn State with relative ease, 7-3 and 5-2, and not the one that was blanked, 4-0 on the road, and surrendered a pair of two-goal leads before losing in overtime at Yost Ice Arena. The Wolverines have an edge in firepower up front and talent on the blue line. If rookie goalie Zach Nagelvoort stops the shots he should stop (i.e. no bad goals), Michigan continues its NCAA quest with a berth in the semifinals against Wisconsin.
Michigan State (#5 seed) vs. Ohio State (No. 4 seed)
8:00 p.m. EDT
The good news for the Spartans is three of their four regular-season games against the Buckeyes resulted in an overtime tie and with the shootout shelved in St. Paul, the teams would have to declare a winner the old-fashioned way. (Don Lucia hopes for triple overtime, I’m sure.) The bad news is that Hildebrand, who logged 116 saves and allowed just five goals in 195 minutes of action in those games versus OSU, was pulled in two of the Spartans last three regular-season outings and surrendered 12 goals over his last six periods (120 minutes) of play. Junior forward Dzingel is the Buckeyes’ barometer. He was held to one assist by the Spartans in the three tied games but fired a hat trick and added an assist in a 5-3 win. Playoff hockey often produces unlikely heroes but it seems quite likely that when this game is over, either Hildebrand or Dzingel will be designated in the boxscore as ‘First Star’ for the team that advances to meet Minnesota.
Friday, March 21
Penn State/Michigan vs. Wisconsin (#2 Seed)
3:00 p.m. EDT
The Badgers swept Penn State in their four regular-season meetings but the games in Hockey Valley were one goal or empty-net goal games.
The Badgers took two at home against Michigan but the Wolverines responded with a win and shootout victory on home ice.
Wisconsin is deep and talented at every position. You have to outplay the Badgers in the neutral zone to give yourself a chance to beat them.
Ohio State/Michigan State vs. Minnesota (#1 Seed)
8:00 p.m. EDT
The Golden Gophers beat the Spartans twice and tied them twice with MSU picking up a couple of extra points in the standings by winning the ensuring shootouts.
The top team in the country took 10 of a possible 12 points from the Bucks in regular-season action with their record blemished only by a 2-2 tie and shootout loss in Columbus.
With all their offensive weapons, both up front and from their high-scoring defensemen, it’s somewhat surprising that the Gophers are the top-rated team defensively in the nation. They allowed a total of 11 goals to the Buckeyes and Spartans in eight games.
‘FREDDIES’ VERSUS THE FIELD
BTN unveiled the ‘FREDDIES’ on Saturday (my picks for all-conference and all-rookie). Here’s how they stack up to the selections made by the coaches and two media members from each market.
First Team – B1G FREDDIES
Ryan Dzingel, F, Ohio State Ryan Dzingel, F, Ohio State
Michael Mersch, F, Wisconsin Nic Kerdiles, F, Wisconsin
Mark Zengerle, F, Wisconsin Mark Zengerle, F, Wisconsin
Jake McCabe, D, Wisconsin Frankie Simonelli, D, Wisconsin
Mike Reilly, D, Minnesota Mike Reilly, D, Minnesota
Adam Wilcox, G, Minnesota Adam Wilcox, G, Minnesota
In both cases, Mersch and McCabe were on my Second Team. Kerdiles outscored Mersch by four points in conference action despite playing four more games. They both had 33 points overall with Kerdiles skating in nine fewer games. I weighted conference play more heavily while voters were obviously impressed by Mersch’s 20 goals. Fair enough!
My conference emphasis also influenced the Simonelli selection. The senior captain outscored McCabe by four points in league games and was five notches better in plus/minus. It came down to pick ‘em based on their numbers, and I thought they favored Simonelli.
All-Freshman Team FREDDIES
JT Compher, F, Michigan JT Compher, F, Michigan
Hudson Fasching, F, Minnesota Hudson Fasching, F, Minnesota
Nick Schilkey, F, Ohio State Justin Kloos, F, Minnesota
Michael Downing, D, Michigan Michael Downing, D, Michigan
Drew Brevig, D, Ohio State Drew Brevig, D, Ohio State
Christian Frey, G, Ohio State Christian Frey, G, Ohio State
Schilkey, the lone Michigander on the Ohio State roster, had a fabulous finish playing alongside Dzingel and was my Honorable Mention on the rookie squad. With their statistics nearly identical (although Schilkey’s shootout success almost tipped the scales), my nod went to Kloos for centering a high scoring second line, with another freshman on his right side, on what is the No. 1 team in the nation.
The best part about individual honors in hockey is that the players really don’t pay attention to them at this time of year. They’re focused on Saturday’s victory lap at Xcel Energy Center with the only hardware that matters.
Fred Pletsch, the former CCHA and NAHL commissioner, is a ‘Frozen Friday’ broadcaster with the Big Ten Network. He will be between the benches for all the action at the first-ever Big Ten tournament for men’s ice hockey. Follow him on Twitter at @PletscHockey.