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Big Ten hockey off to hot start with heavy presence in national poll

Big Ten hockey has been a punching bag for fans since its first season in 2013-2014. The conference’s lack of success in nonconference action and limited presence in the NCAA tournament fueled the criticism.

This sentiment – or at least the results – could be changing.

The Big Ten entered conference play last weekend with four teams – the most since the conference started – ranked in the USCHO Top 20.  Three of the four are ranked in the Top 11 of the newest poll released Monday and would qualify for the NCAA tournament if it started this week.

Penn State leads the conference ranked No. 3 with the nation’s best record of 13-1-1. Ohio State is No. 10 and the Gophers are No. 11. Michigan lost its No. 20 ranking after being swept by Penn State over the weekend.

The Nittany Lions are No. 2 in the PairWise rankings – used to predict the 16-team NCAA tournament field – behind No. 1 Minnesota Duluth. Ohio State (9-2-4) is No. 6 and the Gophers (7-5-2) are No. 12.

Penn State started the season unranked, but climbed to the highest ranking in program history with quality nonconference wins against ranked opponents St. Lawrence and Notre Dame. The Nittany Lions’ lone loss and tie were also to St. Lawrence and Notre Dame, respectively.

Ohio State also began the season unranked and upset No. 3 Denver in the first game of the season. The Buckeyes only lost once in nonconference play to Robert Morris (8-4-2).

The Gophers have played one of the toughest nonconference schedules loaded with five ranked opponents. They have wins against ranked North Dakota, Minnesota State, Boston College and a tie with St. Lawrence.

Michigan beat ranked Boston University. Wisconsin has wins against Boston College and St. Lawrence. Michigan State beat and tied North Dakota.

The Big Ten’s top four teams faced off in the first week of conference play with Penn State sweeping Michigan to move up in the polls and push the Wolverines out of the Top 20. Ohio State and the Gophers split their series at Mariucci Arena and kept their No. 10 and 11 rankings from the previous week.

Wisconsin and Michigan received votes in the most recent poll.

The conference has an overall record of 46-27-10 with 10 wins and four ties against ranked opponents.

Penn State and Ohio State, the youngest programs in the Big Ten with the least history of success, will meet Friday and Saturday in a showdown of Top 10 teams. If these schools can maintain quality programs and the traditional powerhouses of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin continue to cycle through championship seasons, it might not be long until the Big Ten starts producing two or more NCAA tournament teams most seasons.

Don’t forget, next season the conference adds Notre Dame as a hockey member, and the Fighting Irish are currently ranked No. 14 in the USCHO poll.

As much as college hockey purists might not like it, the Big Ten appears to be trending up. 

Penn State points to victory over Gophers as season's turning point

The Gophers might have pondered Saturday after the Big Ten championship game “What could have been?”

Penn State rallied to upset Wisconsin and win the conference title and its ninth consecutive game. This winning streak began Oct. 1 against the Gophers in a game that was one minute away from becoming Penn State's third loss in five games. 

Instead, the comeback victory jump started a run that would lead the Nittany Lions to a Big Ten championship and Penn State coach James Franklin reminded Gophers fans of that Saturday night. 

"I would probably say Minnesota,” Franklin answered the Fox Sports crew’s question about a turning point in his team’s season. “They're good team and they were playing people tough all year long.”

Then there was the specific play that Franklin believes changed the course of his team’s season. 

"We were struggling, we couldn't get anything going. We threw a seem to Irvin Charles and he broke a tackle and went for like 70 yards, and that kind of got us going and from that point we never looked back.”

The play was play was actually 80 yards and cut the Gophers’ early second-half lead to 13-10. Penn State scored 17 straight point to built a 20-13 lead, but the Gophers would rally to take a 23-20 lead with 54 second left in the fourth quarter. 

The Gophers were in good position to improve to 4-0 with a signature win on the road at Penn State. Then came the drive/plays Gophers fans remember most. Quarterback Trace McSorely led the Nittany Lions on an eight-play, 53-yard drive that ended with a game-tying field goal with two seconds remaining.

A field goal briefly gave the Gophers an overtime lead, but Penn State won the game with a touchdown on the next possession, 29-26. 

The next week the Gophers lost by a touchdown to Iowa and could never get the signature they need the rest of the season. They lost three of their four games by a touchdown or less and finished the season 8-4 overall, 5-4 in the Big Ten. 

Penn State finished 11-2 overall, 8-1 in conference. The Nittany Lions were left out of the four-team College Football Playoff ranked No. 5, but will play in the Rose Bowl against USC on New Year's Day. The Gophers will will play in the Holiday Bowl Dec. 27 against Washington State.

Maybe Franklin’s words Saturday will be the encouragement Gophers fans need to believe Tracy Claeys can be the guy to help the program stop wondering "what could have been" and start celebrating championships.

Relive the Oct. 1 thriller:

TV Listings

Local Schedule

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  • NJIT at Gophers men's basketball

    7 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • San Antonio at Timberwolves

    7 pm on FSN, NBATV, 830-AM

  • Gophers women's basketball at New Mexico

    8 pm on 88.5-FM

  • Wild at Toronto

    6:30 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Timberwolves at Toronto

    6 pm on TNT, 830-AM

  • Army at Gophers women's basketball

    8 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Gophers men's hockey at Michigan State

    5:30 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Gophers women's hockey at Boston U.

    6 pm

  • Edmonton at Wild

    7 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Detroit at Timberwolves

    7 pm on FSN PLUS, 830-AM

  • Georgia Southern at Gophers men's basketball

    8 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Gophers women's hockey at Boston U.

    2 pm

  • Gophers men's hockey at Michigan State

    7 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Vikings at Jacksonville

    12 pm on Ch. 9, 100.3/1130

  • Gophers women's basketball at South Carolina

    2 pm on SECN, 88.5-FM

  • Northern Illinois at Gophers men's basketball

    4 pm on 1500-AM

  • St. Louis at Wild

    5 pm on FSN PLUS, 100.3-FM

  • Golden State at Timberwolves

    6 pm on FSN, 830-AM

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