One At A Time: Previewing The B1G Hockey Tournament
Two weeks ago, Penn State was cautiously optimistic about its shot at an NCAA Tournament berth. It split a series with Wisconsin a week later while Michigan, the team Penn State was chasing in the standings, was swept by Ohio State. This past weekend, Guy Gadowsky’s team knew what it had to do to earn a Big Ten Tournament bye and increase its odds of reaching the national competition: earn five out of six points in the regular season-ending series with Michigan.
It didn’t go as planned. Michigan swept and with Penn State out of contention for an at-large bid, it’ll have to win three games in three days to make it to the NCAA Tournament. The Nittany Lions open the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday at 5 p.m. against Wisconsin, trying to mount a run at a conference title and automatic bid.
The run comes with unique obstacles, as Penn State won’t even field a complete team. In the last game of the regular season, the team sat five players with injuries and played with two holes in the lineup. At his weekly press conference, Gadowsky noted that Dylan Richard, Vince Pedrie, and James Robinson are out once again while Luke Juha is day-to-day and Alec Marsh is probable. He also said that Eamon McAdam will remain as his team’s starting goaltender for the second straight postseason (his only previous experience was a 26-save effort in last year’s 3-1 loss to Ohio State in the opening round).
For a shorthanded but capable team, here’s what needs to happen to turn NCAA dreams into reality.
Quarterfinals: Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin won the first-ever Big Ten Tournament two years ago and knocked Penn State out in the process, but a lot has changed since then. Last season, the Nittany Lions won all four games against the Badgers and outscored them 18-7. Penn State won the teams’ first three matchups this season too — the first series ending 4-3 in overtime then 4-1 the next night, then the second series started with a 2-1 win. The seven-game win streak was snapped in the teams’ last meeting two weeks ago when Penn State outshot Wisconsin 49-26 but lost 4-3.
While Penn State has every reason to be favored in this game, the unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on who you root for) truth is that one goalie can steal a one-game series. The Badgers went 8-18-8 overall and 3-13-4 in the Big Ten and are deserving of the No. 6 seed, but they can’t be overlooked. Two defensemen were the only seniors that skated for Wisconsin in its win over Penn State, while 14 of the remaining 17 players were underclassmen. Because of that, they started the season slowly but picked things up towards the end.
This game will come down to seeing if Badger goaltender Matt Jurusik stands on his head again. He has the worst stats of all qualifying Big Ten goalies, yet the freshman showed that he can win games by himself. Penn State scores just over a full goal more per game than Wisconsin (3.69 to 2.68) and has much more talented forwards (though Badger top-liners Luke Kunin and Grant Besse should be watched with a careful eye). Penn State also has the better of two shaky defensive groups, allowing 3.14 goals against per game in the regular season compared to Wisconsin’s 3.59.
Overall, Penn State is the much better team. Our prediction is, for the fourth time this season, these teams will play a game decided by one goal. The shorthanded Nittany Lions will still heavily outshoot the Badgers but Jurusik will step up and keep the game close until a 4-3 or 3-2 final.
Semifinals: No. 7 Michigan Wolverines
Simply put, this is trouble. Michigan owned Penn State this year, winning all four games by a combined score of 26-9 (the closest games were 7-4 and 6-3). Four of six players on the All-Big Ten First Team are Wolverines, and rightfully so. They have the best offense in the nation and their top line features the nation’s Nos. 1, 2, and 5 scorers. That doesn’t even account for the loaded blue line that includes first-round NHL draft pick Zach Werenski.
Five of Michigan’s seven losses this season came when the Wolverines scored two or fewer goals (they average a nation-leading 4.82 goals per game). Penn State would have the firepower to compete in a shootout most nights, but it might be tough playing a well-rested team after battling Wisconsin the night before, especially with the potential of not having enough players.
The best-case scenario is that Juha and Marsh are completely healthy and their team can have a full lineup. McAdam stands on his head and prevents Michigan from ever taking a lead while the rest of the team goes full “Penn State hockey” — blocking every shot it can, winning battles in the corners, and scoring ugly goals en route to a victory in a low-scoring game.
The worst-case scenario is Penn State doesn’t have enough skaters on Thursday or Friday, so it starts the first period slow and it gets worse from there. McAdam looks bad behind an exposed defense and the three forward lines can’t garner enough momentum to solve Steve Racine in net.
Our prediction falls in the middle; a tired team ends its season with pride, hanging with Michigan until tired legs are too much in the late third period. A regulation loss in the 4-2 or 5-3 range sounds right, but hey, anything’s possible. I wonder if Penn State and Zach Saar are going to re-watch their double-overtime upset in 2014.
Minnesota owns the first-round bye on the other side of the bracket. Fourth and fifth-seeded Ohio State and Michigan State will battle for the right to play the Golden Gophers in the semifinals. Minnesota swept Ohio State and won three of four against Michigan State this season and it’ll have an extra day of rest, so let’s assume the Gophers will make their second Big Ten final in a row.
A lot needs to go right for Penn State to make it this far, but if it does…can you ask for a better group of captains than David Glen, David Thompson, and Luke Juha? Can you ask for better complements to the locker room than Tommy Olczyk, Eric Scheid, David Goodwin, and so many others?
Other than in Big Ten play, Minnesota had an objectively worse regular season than Penn State. They split their season series but Minnesota ended up at a middling 19-16-0. The Gophers have a slightly worse offense and a slightly better defense than the Nittany Lions.
The worst-case scenario here is Minnesota, on what is essentially home ice, enters the game after a stress-free win in the semifinals and Big Ten Goalie of the Year Eric Schierhorn steals a game in which his team is outshot, and the Gophers win back-to-back conference titles with a 2-1 or 3-2 win.
The best case scenario is an amped-up Penn State team with a full roster flexes its offensive muscles. The hostile crowd provides further motivation and the team piles up close to 50 shots, including a decent number that sneak past Schierhorn. With the NCAA Tournament finally within reach, the team does everything it can to come away with a 5-4 win.
We’ll let you decide which you want to believe in.