Look around the Big Ten: Hockey’s starting

Betsy Helfand

As the Gophers prepare to begin their season, they’ll do so as the top team in the country.

Minnesota is the preseason coaches’ favorite to win the Big Ten and enters the season as the No. 1 team in both national polls.

The Gophers will host Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in an exhibition game this weekend before
beginning their season on Oct. 10.

MINNESOTA

2013-14 record: 28-7-6

Conference finish: 1st

After reaching the national championship last year, Minnesota returns a bulk of its offense, including top scorer Kyle Rau and top goal-scorer Justin Kloos.

Following the 2012-13 season, Minnesota saw many of its top players head to the NHL before their senior seasons. This offseason, nobody left early.

“I said when the year began a year ago that if we were going to have success, we were going to have to do it as a team,” head coach Don Lucia told reporters at Big Ten Media Day. “… You really didn’t know who was going to step up on a given night.”

But goaltender Adam Wilcox, now a junior, was a consistent presence all season, recording four shutouts and finishing second in the nation in save percentage.

The Gophers will rely heavily on Wilcox again as they try to make it to the national championship game for the second consecutive year.

 

WISCONSIN

2013-14 record: 24-11-2

Conference finish: 2nd

Wisconsin won the inaugural Big Ten tournament last season, but the 2014-15 version of the team is significantly different.

The Badgers enter the season ranked 10th in the USCHO.com poll after losing three of their top four scorers.

Wisconsin will enter the season as a young, inexperienced team with 11 true freshmen on its 26-man roster.

“As my wife says, ‘They may lack in experience, but what they lack in experience, they bring with enthusiasm’,” head coach Mike Eaves said at Big Ten Media Day. “She makes the analogy, ‘They’re like puppies in a box.  They’re going to be trying to get out of the box, and we’ve just got to put them back in, day after day, until they figure it out.’”

One area Wisconsin won’t be inexperienced in is the net.

Senior Joel Rumpel was a Hobey Baker Memorial Award top-10 finalist last season and, like Wilcox at Minnesota, should provide a consistent backbone for the Badgers.

 

MICHIGAN

2013-14 record: 18-13-4

Conference finish: 3rd

After a third-place conference finish last year, Michigan enters the season ranked No. 8 in the country.

The Wolverines will look to head back to the NCAA tournament after missing it the past two years.

If they do that, they’ll do it behind last year’s two top scorers, JT Compher and Andrew Copp.

Michigan will welcome highly touted freshman Dylan Larkin, who was the No. 15 pick in 2014 NHL Entry Draft.

Larkin, a forward, played in 60 games with the United States National Team Development Program last year and finished fourth in scoring on the team.

The Wolverines averaged 3.06 goals per game while giving up 2.54, and head coach Red Berenson told reporters at Big Ten Media Day that his team needs to be better on defense.

“If you looked at our season last year, we thought we were competitive offensively, but defensively we weren’t, and I think it starts there with our team,” Berenson said. “We have to be better defensively.”

 

OHIO STATE

2013-14 record: 18-14-5

conference finish: 4th

The Buckeyes turned in a fourth-place finish last year, and based on the Big Ten preseason coaches’ poll, the team could finish in the same place again.

Head coach Steve Rohlik told reporters at Big Ten Media Day that the team’s focus is on taking the next step.

“When you look at your group, you try to continue to get better, and hopefully you’re playing your best hockey at the end of the year,” Rohlik said, “and I thought we were doing that last year. Now it’s our job as a group to continue to build on that.”

The Buckeyes knocked Minnesota out of the Big Ten tournament en route to the championship game, which they eventually dropped to Wisconsin 5-4 in overtime.

Ohio State’s two top scorers last year, Ryan Dzingel and Max McCormick, both bolted for the NHL, opening the door for others to make an impact.

“That’s why all of us are here … to try to get those guys in the next level, and now it’s time for other guys to step up. I think that’s a positive,” Rohlik said.

 

MICHIGAN STATE

2013-14 record: 11-18-7

Conference finish: 5th

Unlike some of the other teams in the conference, the Spartans will enter the season relatively experienced.

Michigan State has a large junior class, with eight players in their third year of eligibility.

“The good news is we have a little bit of experience coming back,” head coach Tom Anastos told reporters at Big Ten Media Day. “Our sophomore and junior group were forced to play a lot the past two seasons.”

Anastos said juniors Michael Ferrantino and Jake Hildebrand would play a key leadership role on the team.

Hildebrand was 20th in the nation with a .923 save percentage last year, recording nearly 1,900 minutes in net.

The Spartans’ three top scorers last year graduated. Farrantino, now a junior, was fourth on the team last year with 20 points.

“I think there are a variety of our players that will have an opportunity to play and make an impact. We’re going to take a wait-and-see attitude to see how they emerge,” Anastos said.

 

PENN STATE

2013-14 record: 8-26-2

Conference finish: 6th

In their second season as a Division I program, the Nittany Lions struggled to gain traction and finished in the conference basement.

“We want to get better. We’re improving, but so is every other program. We all have the same goal — to get better,” head coach Guy Gadowsky said at Big Ten Media Day. “As we improve, so will other programs, but I hope it’s going to be a lot closer than it was last year.”

The Nittany Lions managed just three conference victories all of last season.

Though the team will return many of its top scorers, Penn State will likely struggle to push itself up in the standings.

“We have to improve everywhere. We’re in the Big Ten, so I don’t think we’re ever going to say, ‘Jeez, we’ve arrived, we’re here, we’re good to go.’ We have a lot of room to improve in a lot of different areas,” Gadowsky said.