[media-credit name="Andy Fate" align="alignright" width="336"][/media-credit]With the holiday season in full swing, families are gathering to spend some quality time together, but there’s one extended family that’s getting to know each other for the first time this winter: the Big Ten hockey family. After battling Minnesota two weekends ago in its first-ever Big Ten hockey series and hosting Penn State this past weekend in the Kohl Center’s Big Ten debut, Wisconsin has now seen the two completely different sides of new conference realignment.
The juxtaposition of the Minnesota and Penn State series in a way symbolizes how the new era for Wisconsin hockey, and college hockey as a whole, will hold. There’s the old, bitter rival Minnesota, and then there’s the new, unfamiliar Penn State. In between, there’s Michigan and Michigan State that were once regulars on the Badgers’ schedule but haven’t been seen in several years. Finally, there’s Ohio State, which has been almost nonexistent in the scope of Badgers’ hockey history, even though the Buckeyes and Badgers played quite frequently in the late 60s.
However, whether old or new, familiar or unfamiliar, the six teams in the Big Ten are all opening a new chapter of college hockey and new relationships with one another. Although Wisconsin has seen two teams from the Big Ten already, it’s time to take a deeper look at what to expect from these teams over the coming months and years as the new relationships are forged.
One of the most important ties, at least for Wisconsin, is to Minnesota, one resembling that of a divorced couple. Not only are the two constantly fighting over something — presumably recruiting ground in the two states — but they’re just a little too familiar for either to get comfortable. Then again, saying Minnesota and Wisconsin are familiar would be an understatement, as the two squads have met 268 times dating all the way back to the first game in 1922 — the first season hockey was recognized as a varsity sport at both schools. The two played every year until 1935, but then didn’t meet again until the 1964-1965 season, a year after the modern era of Wisconsin hockey began. In the pre-modern and modern eras alike, Minnesota has all but dominated the series, holding a commanding 159-88-21 series lead over Wisconsin all-time, although 37 of those wins did come before the modern era.
Now, after four mediocre seasons from 2007-2011, Minnesota has returned to its place near the top of college hockey over the last two seasons under head coach Don Lucia, who is in his 15th year at the helm. This year looks to be even brighter for the Golden Gophers, currently ranked second in the nation with an 11-2-2 overall record and 3-0-1 Big Ten record. Lucia won back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003. A third into this season, his team certainly looks like a championship contender both nationally and in the Big Ten, despite the fact the Gophers were picked to finish second in the conference, behind Wisconsin.
The Gophers are led by solid goaltending from sophomore Adam Wilcox, who set the school record with a 1.88 goals-against-average last season after starting 38 games. This year, Wilcox is 10-2-2 with a 2.18 goals against average (GAA) and a .924 save percentage. On the offensive end, the Gophers are no slouch either, with eight players having scored 10 points or more only 15 games into the season, including leading scorer Sam Warning, who has 20 points on five goals and 15 assists.
While the relationship with Minnesota is like that of a feuding couple, the one with with Michigan more closely resembles a sibling rivalry. Michigan has played the role of big brother, and dominated college hockey with six national titles in the late 40s and early 50s. When Wisconsin rejoined college hockey, the two began duking it out for bragging rights, and although the Badgers trail the all-time series 64-52-8, they won the only national championship matchup in 1977.
The Badgers and Wolverines haven’t faced off against each other since the last year of the College Hockey Showcase in 2010, but have otherwise been frequent competitors in a series that also dates back to 1922. Michigan was actually a member of the WCHA from 1959-1981 and played Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan State within the WCHA during those years to determine a Big Ten champion (Wisconsin won five “Big Ten” championships). But after the 1981 season, Michigan made the move to the now defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association where it won 11 conference titles and nine conference tournaments. Yearly meetings between the two schools resumed with the start of the College Hockey Showcase in 1993, in which Wisconsin and Minnesota played one game each against Michigan and Michigan State in a weekend.
Holistically speaking, Michigan is a program that is one of college hockey’s staples, and is led by one of the coaching staples of the game, Red Berenson. In his 30th season as head coach, Berenson has been the force behind Michigan’s success, taking over for a struggling program, turning the Wolverines into a national power and claiming two national titles in the process. Berenson also led his teams to 22 straight NCAA appearances from 1990-2012, the longest streak in college hockey history. After the streak was broken last year, Michigan looks like a typical Berenson team this year and is ranked 3rd in the nation (10-2-1, 2-0).
Like the Gophers, the Wolverines have been led by their goaltender, freshman Zach Nagelvoort, who currently has a 1.65 GAA and a .945 save percentage. Offensively, the Wolverines have five players with five or more goals and another five players with 11 points or more. Michigan’s leading scorer JT Compher is also a freshman and has five goals and nine assists on the young season.
While Michigan State may be Michigan’s sister school, the Spartans are more like cousins to Wisconsin. Similar to Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, Michigan State hockey had its beginnings in 1922. But like Wisconsin, hockey was suspended for a time in East Lansing in 1932 and started back up in 1949. The Spartans then joined the WCHA in 1959 and played Wisconsin frequently after the Badgers joined the conference for the 1964-1965 season. Just like its sister school, though, Michigan State made the leap to the CCHA for the 1981-1982 season and didn’t see the Badgers regularly again until the College Hockey Showcase. Of the 90 all-time games between the programs, the series is the closest of any Wisconsin has with the other Big Ten schools, yet Wisconsin still trails 42-45-3.
Interestingly enough, the former commissioner of the CCHA Tom Anastos became the head coach of the Spartans for the 2011-2012 season and is now in his third year. After a 19-16-4 season his first year, Michigan State struggled last year on the way to a 14-26-3 final mark as Anastos tries to right the program and bring it back to national prominence — Michigan State has three national titles all-time, the last coming in 2007. This year’s Spartans (5-8-1, 0-1-1) are a young bunch with 18 players out of 28 total either freshmen or sophomores. In the 14 games so far, the Spartans have struggled defensively yielding 37 goals, while only scoring 35. Jake Hildebrand has seen the majority of the time in the net and in nine games has a 2.54 GAA and a .916 save percentage. Greg Wolfe is the only skater with 10 points or more. He has 7 goals and 5 assists on the year.
Whereas the first three teams are the immediate family to Wisconsin, Ohio State is where the memory starts to get hazy, probably because the Buckeyes are like the Badgers’ third cousin twice-removed only seen at weddings and large family gatherings. Although the Badgers and Buckeyes have only met 11 times total dating back to 1965 — Wisconsin leads the series 10-1 — the two programs have some interesting connections. Former Wisconsin assistant Mark Osiecki became the head coach of the Buckeyes when he left Wisconsin after the 2009-2010 season, although he was fired this past spring. But the connections actually run deeper, as Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves’ father Cecil is actually credited with starting the Buckeye program that began in 1963-1964.
After three average seasons under Osiecki, former Wisconsin player Steve Rohlik, who played at Wisconsin at the same time Badger assistant coach Gary Shuchuk did in the late 80s, took over for the departed Osiecki this season. Ohio State is off to an 8-6 start, despite being swept by Michigan Nov. 29 and Dec. 2 in a home-and-home series to open conference play. The Buckeyes are a very balanced team in terms of eligibility, with 12 underclassmen and 15 upperclassmen. Statistically speaking, Ohio State is just as balanced as 15 different players have scored a goal and four different players have at least 10 points. The goaltender situation continues the balanced mantra with three different netminders having seen time this year. Freshman Matt Tomkins has led the way with eight starts, a 5-3 record and .910 save percentage. Logan Davis has started five games in between the posts and leads all the goaltenders with a 2.21 GAA.
Last but certainly not least is Penn State, the newbie to the college hockey scene and baby brother of Wisconsin and the rest of the Big Ten in only their second year of competition at the Division I level after spending last year as an independent. Despite having to transition from club hockey last season to DI, the Nittany Lions made the move quite well, finishing with a 13-14-0 record, including a win over Wisconsin in overtime in their last game of the season.
However, Penn State is still in the process of phasing out the club players, and with that, the Nittany Lions bring a great deal of youth to the table this season, including 18 players who are sophomores or freshmen. The second year of being a Division I program has proved more difficult this season, and the Nittany Lions head into this weekend with a 3-7-1 record. One of the few ties Penn State has to Wisconsin is their junior Max Gardiner, whose brother, Jake, was a former Badger defenseman currently a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.