Pick Six: Six ways of looking at Big Ten Hockey on January 20, 2014

Minnesota saluted the 45,021 fans at TCF Bank Stadium after winning the 2014 Hockey City Classic 1-0 - Matt Christians - SB Nation College Hockey

The inaugural edition of the column touches upon outdoor hockey and all six Big Ten teams.

Author's note: Welcome to the inaugural edition of "Pick Six," a weekly look at the week that was Big Ten hockey. Why the name? Well, there are many thoughts to comb through yet only six conference teams. So my goal with this is to pick and choose six subjects that encompass the Big Ten and still touch upon each team.

Not all will be equal. Sometimes multiple subjects will discuss the same team, sometimes there will be cheats. Sometimes a thought will be a general discussion on a topic that touches upon the conference on a broader level. Even with teams being off and odd weekends like when only two teams play, I still plan on touching on all six teams one way or another.

Either way, I hope you enjoy.

This weekend we saw a pair of home sweeps in the Big Ten with Minnesota getting six points in outdoor and indoor wins against Ohio State, and Michigan State winning a pair of games at home against Penn State. Wisconsin and Michigan both were idle after playing one another, but return to Big Ten action this week against Ohio State and Penn State, respectively.

1. Outdoor hockey is a sight to see, but not for scoring

For the second time in 11 months, Minnesota (17-2-3, 5-0-1-0 Big Ten) braved the elements to play a conference game outdoors. This time it was at home in front of an announced crowd of 45,021 at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers had much better ice this time around - Chicago, site of the 2013 Hockey City Classic featured temperatures in the mid-30s and slushy ice - and success on the scoreboard, winning 1-0.

Still, it wasn't much of a contest. Both teams played passively on the outdoor ice surface. Scoring chances were at premium and the one goal was knocked in by Ohio State (11-8-1, 1-4-1-0 Big Ten) goaltender Matt Tomkins. Whether it was the elements, the ice (albeit no one said anything negative about the rink and conditions) or an issue mentally, a Gopher team that excels at playmaking did little with puck movement against the Buckeyes.

The same thing happened last year in a 3-2 loss to Wisconsin. Despite out-shooting and out-chancing the Badgers early on, a pair of bouncing pucks beat Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning pick) and turned the tide around.

Wilcox did learn some things from last year in terms of watching the puck and positioning his defense. Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, meanwhile, said after the game that he expected the game to be low scoring.

"No question. Going through it last year, that sometimes you try to make too many passes it might bounce over a stick and away the other team is going to go," he said Friday. "We did want to play a cautious game and I thought the goaltenders made a couple good saves too during the course of the game."

The outdoors can be a fun experience. Both teams had great looking throwback sweaters and cold aside, it's hard to beat the conditions in Minneapolis given what we've seen in Boston earlier and last year in Omaha.

It doesn't mean that the outdoor games are the most interesting on the ice, though.

1a. Steve Rohlik mentioned after Friday's game that he would like to see the Buckeyes host an outdoor game in Columbus. Outdoor game overkill aside, I'd like to see Ohio State do that if the ice conditions can stick closer to Minnesota than Chicago. With the right opponent, the Horseshoe would be rocking. (Rohlik kind of stepped over the question of if he'd reciprocate and invite Minnesota - that's fine because the Gophers aren't the draw in Columbus that Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State are.)

Hopefully the added attention and interest from casual fans would transfer over to the other 33 games of the year.

1b. With only 20 games being played in the Big Ten conference schedule, can we stop playing these outdoor games for points?

1c. Lucia said Friday that it was time for the Gophers to take a couple years off of outdoor games and that the Minnesota Wild deserve the next one in the Twin Cities.

They do. At the very least, however, it's good that someone bit the bullet in terms of outdoor games in the Twin Cities. With several other hockey-mad areas approaching a half-dozen or more outdoor games, it's sad that the "State of Hockey" and outdoor culture in Minnesota had to wait this long to host just one.

1d, Although single digit temperatures and wanting to tailgate make good excuses, it was disappointing to see the size of the crowd for the Gopher women's game against Minnesota State. I would have liked to see more people.

1e. I hope to have more on outdoor games later in the week.

2. Ohio State has an explosive offense yet Minnesota's comes with a Warning label

Saturday, meanwhile, featured the offense from Ohio State that we were waiting to see the previous night. The Buckeyes entered the weekend third in the country in goals per game and junior Ryan Dzingel (Ottawa Senators) was on a tear, having scored a hat trick the previous weekend, and second in the conference with 13 goals.

Still, it's hard for teams to go up against Minnesota's offense and match the Gophers for 60 minutes. Especially on the Olympic sheet (OSU entered Saturday having played more games outside than on a 200x100 sheet) Ohio State wasn't able to control the puck for large stretches. A delayed penalty on a PK saw the Gophers hold the puck for nearly 30 seconds before getting a shot on goal.

Despite leaving the first period down 2-1, the shot chances were 29-8 Minnesota.

That isn't to say the Buckeyes can't take advantage of its situation or have a bad offense. Both goals - a tipped shot by Nick Oddo and power play blast by Drew Brevig which ended a six-game perfect PK streak by the Gophers - showed why OSU can be dangerous. At the same time, Minnesota's comeback, which featured a natural hat trick by Sam Warning showed why the Gophers are hard to count out despite trailing 2-0.

"That's the key right there, how close it really is," Rohlik said Saturday. "I just told our guys it comes down to the little things and we got to get a little better. Every game in the Big Ten has been one-goal games basically with us, and we've come up short."

Minnesota has not relied on a single scorer this season and instead different lines have shined at different times. Warning, who has 5 goals in a 6 day span, has woken up after being shifted onto a line with Nate Condon (Colorado Avalanche) and Justin Kloos. His first goal in the 4-2 win came 24 seconds after Brevig scored and off a pass where he was in the right place at the right time.

It has been a case of confidence breeding confidence.

"I think you saw what happened with him by scoring two goals in the last game. He's got 5 in over the last couple weekends," Lucia said Saturday about Warning, who is tied for the team lead with 10 goals. "Sam can be somewhat of a streaky player from an offensive standpoint, but he scored some goals from around the blue paint, which is something we've talked about."

3. Goaltending from the Buckeyes is not a one-man job even with options

Matt Tomkins (Chicago Blackhawks) continues to play well and stay healthy in his return from a lower body injury that cost the freshman nearly two months. Still, he sat Saturday in favor of Christian Frey. The freshman came in over the holiday break after Collin Olson (Carolina Hurricanestransferred earlier in the year and it appears that he's not just a warm body. Frey made 28 saves Saturday, including a couple in the opening ten minutes that kept the Buckeyes in the game.

I asked Rohlik his thought process behind the move, which came despite Tomkins making 26 saves Friday.

"(Frey's) played two games for us. I thought he deserved a chance to get in there tonight. Matty's played three really good games in a row for us, but again he came out and played well for us. Christian was a difference maker for us."

Ohio State has had four goalies start a game this season. Even with health, it looks like the Buckeyes are okay with spreading the wealth.

4. Michigan State got a much needed six points

The power of shootouts to mislead is outstanding. Michigan State (8-10-3, 2-2-0-2 Big Ten) entered last weekend with a pair of shootout wins, which made conference play feel like it was going better in spite of the fact that the Spartans had yet to win a game in regulation. Strange.

However things changed this weekend with a pair of regulation wins over Penn State. Lee Reimer recorded a goal both nights and sophomore Jake Hildebrand earned his fourth career shutout with 48 saves Friday in a 3-0 win. For Spartans head coach Tom Anastos, the weekend helps MSU keep pace and sit ahead of the team that beat and tied them last weekend.

"We've seen Minnesota, we've seen Michigan once, we know Wisconsin's got a good team. ... We want to stay in the mix," Anastos told the Lansing State Journal. "These are important points to leave the weekend with and get us in the middle of that Big Ten race."

Now the points more closely match Michigan State's appearance.

5. Close but no cigar for Penn State

On the flip side, the Nittany Lions (4-14-1, 0-6-0 Big Ten) are still searching for its first Big Ten victory. Every weekend seems to be a challenge for Guy Gadowsky's team yet unlike last season, Penn State hasn't been able to get that last bounce. Each of the three Big Ten series has seen at least one close game with the opposition finding a way to score a go-ahead goal in the third period. This time it was Reimer who had the winner against PSU in Saturday's 3-2 loss at Munn Arena.

5a. Besides getting a lot of shots on net - Penn State has 30+ shots on goal in its last 7 games - one positive has been play in net. Freshman Eamon McAdam has started 3 of the last 4 games after sparingly getting time behind Matthew Skoff and is showing why he is the most talented recruit in PSU's short history.

It's no consolation for Gadowsky given the play is not translating to wins (things also don't get easier - the Nittany Lions face a Boston College team this weekend that won 8-2 against PSU last month), but knowing this year would be tough, there are indicators that the first win will come sooner rather than later.

5b. If Penn State really wanted to make new rivals it could follow the example of Minnesota State and Ferris State.

5c. Okay I just wanted an excuse to post that video in here. Don't do it Nittany Lions.

6. The idle files: Wisconsin and Michigan

Both teams were off this week, but with Wisconsin (13-6-1, 4-2-0-0 Big Ten) and Michigan (10-6-2, 2-2-0-0 Big Ten) passing each other like ships in the night, the extra time off is more meaningful for the Wolverines. The Badgers are 9-1-0 in its current Kohl Center homestand, which includes a sweep of the Wolverines, while Michigan has won as many games in 2014 as I have.

That is to say, zero.

It also makes this weekend's rivalry series with Michigan State that much more important.  With Minnesota playing its last non-conference games next weekend with the inaugural North Star College Cup, both Michigan and Wisconsin have a chance to gain ground on the Gophers, whose ten-game unbeaten streak has given it a leg up in the points race. The Wolverines have only six points in four Big Ten games, which is four less than Minnesota has played (leading the B1G with 22 points), and even with those cannot fall further behind.

Whether it is Red Berenson getting more out of the defense that has allowed 2 or fewer goals only once in its last 7 games or the offense finding a way to beat Spartans goalie Jake Hildebrand, who had a shutout when the two teams played in a non-conference game last month, the message is clear.  There are only 20 conference games. Michigan needs to right the ship, and soon.

Wisconsin, concluding the Kohl Center residency with a series against the Buckeyes and another week without Nic Kerdiles (Anaheim Ducks), trails the Gophers by 10 points with 2 games in hand, by the way.

--

Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter --

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