Friday, February 10, 2017

BLOG: 2017 Big Ten Midseason Awards & Storylines To Follow

In a college hockey season with several opportunities to mark milestones we’ve reached another. This week marks the midway point of Big Ten conference race, which itself splits the season into two separate and distinct halves. Each team has played ten games. Ten games remain.

To kick off the stretch run, and because I am not in Columbus this weekend to cover the Gophers (please note there will be no pregame blogs or game recaps), here are some superlatives and awards. Let's be honest. If there is one thing people love, it’s lists and awards for a ten game stretch.

First Team
F- Tyler Sheehy, Minnesota
F- Mason Jobst, Ohio State
F- Luke Kunin, Wisconsin
D- Vince Pedrie, Penn State
D- Jake Bischoff, Minnesota
G- Christian Frey, Ohio State

Explanation: Tyler Sheehy leads all Big Ten players with 10 goals and 20 points in 10 conference games. Jobst, for the second consecutive year, continues to be scoring in droves after Thanksgiving. Since December 3rd he has 25 points and a 12 game point streak. Kunin’s 8 goals in conference play for Wisconsin are second. Pedrie leads all defensmen with 9 points and Bischoff (7 points) leads the Big Ten in blocked shots. Frey has the top save percentage (.924%).

Second Team
F- Nick Schilkey, Ohio State
F- Justin Kloos, Minnesota
F- Andrew Sturtz, Penn State
D- Jake Linhart, Wisconsin
D- Sam Piazza, Michigan
G - Eric Schierhorn, Minnesota

Explanation: If not for injury, Schilkey would be on the first team. He leads the nation in goals per game played with 20 in 22 games. Kloos captains Minnesota while being third in points and Sturtz quietly has been scoring in droves for Penn State. Linhart is part of Wisconsin’s turnaround, Piazza’s development has been a small bright spot in a tough season for Michigan and Schierhorn has a .932 save percentage since December 30th and played more than any other goalie.

All-Freshman Team
F- Trent Frederic, Wisconsin
F- Rem Pitlick, Minnesota
F- Denis Smirnov, Penn State
D- Ryan Lindgren, Minnesota
D- Luke Martin, Michigan
G- Jack Berry, Wisconsin

Explanation: The future is good in the Big Ten. After Frederic, the leader in the clubhouse for FOTY, there are five or six forwards contesting for the final two spots. Pitlick’s 4 goals and 9 points in Big Ten play is second among freshmen while Smirnov’s 29 points this season put them above OSU’s Tanner Laczynski, Michigan State’s Taro Hirose and Michigan’s Jake Slaker. Lindgren has been playing on the Big Ten’s top penalty kill. Martin is counted on for heavy minutes by a Michigan team that faces the most shots while Berry matches Jurusik’s play for a Wisconsin goalie platoon (in addition to being the only freshmen goalie).

Some midseason Wellsies 

Look, it's my made-up awards. I can name them whatever I want.

Biggest midseason storyline: Non-conference success and more than half the conference in NCAA contention. 

It's been a rough couple seasons for the Big Ten. The Power 5 conference has been a hockey power in name only, sending only a single team to the NCAA Tournament. That looks to end this year with four teams in the top 20 of the Pairwise playing one another during the stretch run. A lot of success goes back to each team doing its part in non-conference play - its .599 non-conference percentage is only bested by the NCHC - and all six defeating a team then ranked in the top six.

Biggest midseason disappointment: Michigan's struggles

A team can't reload every season losing the type of players like Dylan Larkin and Kyle Connor. Same goes with Zach Werenski, JT Compher and Tyler Motte (all of whom have eligibility). However, even with the losses it has been disappointing to see the Wolverines drop so far so fast. Upperclassmen like Dexter Dancs, Cooper Marody and Alex Kile who may have been expected to contribute in larger roles are struggling (or in Marody's case, missed half the season) and the team has won nine games to be fifth in the Big Ten. You can't help but end up feeling bad for Red Beresnson.

Biggest midseason surprise: Wisconsin

I asked Tony Granato before the season what his expectations were for this team in year 1 with a team that had won 12 games in 2 seasons.

"I think we took over a team that underachieved. We took over a team that has plenty of skill to compete. The biggest thing in our minds was to gain confidence," was how Granato started. 

The Badgers looked better towards the end of last season. There were signs things could turn around, especially on offense with Luke Kunin and Cameron Hughes. To go 8-2-0 in the first 10 games is a surprise nonetheless, and credit to Granato for calling his shot.

Rookie of the first 10 conference games (not as catchy a title): Trent Frederic, Wisconsin

Player of the first 10 conference games: Tyler Sheehy, Minnesota

You can be happy for them and question why they're #1: Penn State

It can be two things.

Graduated player in hindsight should get way more credit: Jake Hildebrand, Michigan State

Favorite new road restaurant visited so far: The Tipsy Cow, Madison

Still have State College and Ann Arbor to find somewhere new.

One storyline for each team to watch over the next 10 games:

Michigan: Can Michigan find secondary scoring? Freshman Jake Slaker leads the Wolverines with 18 points. At this point last year both Motte and Connor had more goals than Slaker's point total.

Michigan State: Besides the obvious Tom Anastos question, what bright spots remain? In the midst of another season where the Spartans, currently with 5 wins, have struggled on both offense and defense, there have been some positive signs among underclassmen Mason Appleton, Patrick Khodorenko and Taro Hirose. Even when the latter two have been split up, they have played a major role.

Minnesota: Did the Gophers learn from last season? Most of Minnesota's core return from a team whose lack of consistency ultimately cost it an NCAA Tournament berth. So far the Gophers appear to be more consistent, but does that continue towards the end of the year.

Ohio State: Do the Buckeyes of the first half return? OSU has battled injuries for much of the last month. With Nick Schilkey, Tanner Laczynski, Matthew Weis and Dakota Joshua missing time, a lot more pressure has been put on the Buckeyes defense. Now that the team is getting healthy, can OSU go on a run or be a spoiler?

Penn State: How do the Nittany Lions respond to an extended losing streak? (I discussed this earlier in the week.)

Wisconsin: Will the Badger defense match the offense and win a couple games? Of Wisconsin's final 10 games, eight are against top-ten offenses. The Badger blue line is tied for 41st with Michigan in total team defense, putting pressure on winning games by out-scoring the opposition.

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