Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Know Thy Enemy: Starting a New Era - Big Ten Play Begins with #1 Minnesota

This weekend begins a new era in the history of Michigan State hockey. This won't be the first time Big Ten hockey has been around before, but not in quite the same format as we are about to witness. The teams used to compete for a conference championship as part of the WCHA - and they even played in a conference tournament to help determine the conference champion.

Michigan State claims 5 Big Ten championships in its history: 1959, 1967, 1971, 1973 (shared), and 1976. These titles were claimed when the four teams that sponsored hockey (MSU, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) were all part of the WCHA running up until 1981. In fact, Big Ten roots can be traced back to even before that, but this is when the MSU record books started tracking it.

MSU claims a 94-124-6 all-time Big Ten record. Minnesota boasts the best all-time Big Ten record at 122-93-11 with 10 conference championships. Michigan and Wisconsin both claim 5 championships each.

Ohio State does have claim to 6 conference games prior to this season - losing all 6. After Michigan swept them last week, Ohio State is 0 for forever in the Big Ten, 0-8-0. I suspect that'll change this year.

DAWN OF A NEW ERA

Despite that history, this feels like the first time we really see a true Big Ten conference. All six teams are together, not part of the CCHA or WCHA, and instead will battle it out over 20 conference games, 2 home, 2 away. All six teams will qualify for the conference tournament - playing over a 3-day period in St. Paul for the right to play in the NCAA tournament.

It's a new beginning. And while the conference has taken a lot of heat, I think a lot of Big Ten fans maintained that this would be good for college hockey. It brings a major brand name to the table - in terms of conference play. The BTN has picked up just about every game (or the Fox Sports Network has) in the conference.

It also allowed smaller schools to form conferences and battle for their own spots in the NCAA tournament. Would Ferris State be 8-0-2 in the CCHA this year - if it still existed with the Big Ten teams inside the conference? That's what they are in the new WCHA - 11-2-2 overall. They might be, Ferris State has a good hockey program. What about the other teams? LSSU? Michigan Tech? Northern Michigan? Are they any worse off today than a year ago?

They still get games with the Big Ten schools - MSU went up to Michigan Tech for the first time in two decades. MSU still went to Western, and they still play Ferris State. Minnesota still played in-state rivals Bemidji State, Minnesota State, and Minnesota-Duluth. Wisconsin still has former WCHA rival Colorado College. The list goes on and on. People might hate the Big Ten right now, but it really seems like everyone is in a good position right now - so maybe it wasn't a bad move after all?

THE SECOND SEASON

Ok, so the non-conference season isn't over yet. Michigan State will have 3 non-conference games after this weekend - a single game at home against Ferris State and the two game GLI series at Comerica Park.

MSU is 5-7 on the year, but they've been much better at home posting a 5-2 record so far this season.

 Michigan State has beaten Princeton (twice), American International (twice), and Boston University so far this year. Those three teams are a combined 13-24-1. Not exactly a gaudy record there. In fact, BU is the only team that has an above .500 record of the three, and they are only 7-6-1. On the flip side, MSU has lost to UMass (twice), Mass.-Lowell, Michigan Tech (twice), and Western Michigan (twice). Those four teams are a combined 26-28-6. In fact, only Mass.-Lowell (11-4-0) has an above .500 record in this group as well - though WMU is .500 (6-6-2), and Tech isn't far off (6-8-2) .

Still, it doesn't make you giddy that things are looking up. With that said, MSU is coming off a weekend sweep against Princeton including posting an impressive 8-2 score on Sunday. I don't care who you are - when you win 8-2, that's pretty good. MSU's power play looked good going 3 for 7 on the day, and the d-men got involved, a huge sign for Michigan State.

And yes, the injury bug wasn't kind early, and the freshmen have shown flashes. Hildebrand and Yanakeff have played solid between the pipes. Maybe MSU is simply starting to turn the corner in December?

The schedule coming up will tell us - playing #1 Minnesota, #6 Ferris State, Michigan Tech again, then either Western Michigan or #3 Michigan. The good news for MSU is three of the games are at home - where things have been better. The last time Minnesota was in East Lansing, the Spartans defeated Minnesota 4-3 and followed that up with an exciting 4-4 tie the next night.


LOOK AT THE NUMBERS

Minnesota currently has the 2nd best offense in the country at 4.14 GPG. The defense isn't bad either tied for 8th at 2.14 goals against per a game. MSU is currently 39th in the country at 2.58 goals per a game, and the defense is ranked a little better at 26th overall at 2.69 goals against per a game.

The power plays have been struggling for both teams as Minnesota ranks 46th at 14.29% (10 for 70), and MSU is now only 51st overall at 13.56% (8 for 59). So yes, prior to that 3 for 7 game, MSU was converting at a less than 10% rate of 5 for 52. The PK units haven't been perfect either - Minnesota is tied for 37th at 80% (48 for 60) and MSU's is 40th at 79.6% (43 for 54). The good news is neither team is penalized much as Minnesota is at 11.86 minutes per game, and MSU is only at 10.5.

Minnesota is pretty young too - lead by a strong junior and freshmen class. Sam Warning (Jr.) leads the team with 20 points. Junior Seth Ambroz leads the team with 7 goals, and freshmen Hudson Fasching (8 goals, 14 pts) and Justin Kloos (5 goals, 14 pts) lead the younger guys in scoring. Overall Minnesota is very balanced on offense as 17 players have at least one goal, 15 have at least two,  and 11 have at least three goals.

In goal sophomore Adam Wilcox has been steady between the pipes posting a 10-2-1 record, 2.21 GAA, and .923 save percentage.

In case you are curious, 13 Spartans have at least one goal this season, seven of which have at least two,  and four have more than three.  Senior Greg Wolfe leads the way with 7 goals and 10 points. Michigan State's freshmen have been solid starting the year off as well - MacKenzie MacEachern has 5 goals (8 points) and Joe Cox has 4 goals (6 points).

Big Ten Standings


GPWLTSOWPointsTotal Points Possible
Minnesota22000660
Michigan22000660
Michigan State00000060
Penn State00000060
Ohio State20200054
Wisconsin20200054

EXPECTATIONS

Look, expecting a sweep this weekend would be - well - a very tall task. I really don't think it's unreasonable to expect some points though. Michigan State has been better at home, and Boston University was ranked when they came into East Lansing. At this point though  - stepping in the right direction and competing will be just as important as trying to pull out a victory or two. Minnesota is good. Michigan State is trying to learn how to be good night in and night out. Nothing wrong with that - as long as you are consistently making those positive gains - playing hard, finishing checks, winning face-offs, improving the power play, improving the offense, and improving the defense.

Right now I'm not sure anything will shock me with this team - and while the wins are important, how they play is going to be examined throughout the remainder of this season. They did well last weekend, but now it's a bigger test, against a bigger named opponent, and the first game of a new era.

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