When Terry and Kim Pegula made their $88 million dollar gift to Penn State in 2010 to fund a new ice arena and to establish a NCAA Division I hockey program at the university, Big Ten hockey was born as well, beginning with the 2013-14 season.
Year 1 of the Big Ten saw Minnesota fall in the national championship to Union College (New York), but four of the conference’s six teams finished the year ranked in the top 20 of the United States College Hockey Online poll.
This led to the hype of last season, which fell far short of expectations, as an underachieving Minnesota team was the lone representative in the NCAA tournament. The Gophers were promptly dominated in the opening round, losing to in-state rival Minnesota-Duluth 4-1.
This season, it hasn’t been pretty.
So far the six Big Ten teams have a combined record of 15-19-6. The wins haven’t been all that impressive and some losses have come as head-scratching.
Let’s run it down from top to bottom:
- Michigan (4-1-1) – The only ranked team according to the USCHO poll and by far the most hyped team in the conference. The No. 13 Wolverines have two tight wins against a much less talented Mercyhurst team, a win against Rensselaer, a tie with Union, a close win and a stunning loss at home against Robert Morris. A team expected to be the face of the conference has been unimpressive thus far. It still has a ton of talent, so we’ll see how they develop before conference play begins.
- Penn State (4-2-1) – A lot of offense has been shown so far in the Nittany Lions’ early-season success. Their 4.57 goals per game is third best in the nation and their win against No. 18 Notre Dame on Oct. 17 is the nicest looking nonconference win out of any team in the Big Ten. Upcoming games against Niagara and Sacred Heart should allow the Nittany Lions to keep the goals flowing. But conference play will be a big indicator of how good this team actually is.
- Michigan State (2-3-1) – Not a whole lot was expected out of the Spartans this season, as their only wins have come against a bad Lake Superior State team that is currently 2-6. Offense has been the big issue here, as Michigan State is averaging just over two goals per game. It’s scored more than two goals in just two of their six games.
- Minnesota (2-3) – The majority of the questions between the pipes heading into the season were about the goaltending, but not when it came to lighting the lamp. However, Minnesota has scored just one goal in its first three contests, losing to Vermont and being swept by No. 6-ranked Minnesota-Duluth. The Golden Gophers two wins have come against a bad Northeastern team two weeks ago by scores of 4-0 and 4-3. Out of the 60 Division I hockey programs, the Golden Gophers are tied for 55th in total offense and are dead last in the Big Ten, averaging measly 1.8 goals per game. Freshman netminder Eric Schierhorn already has a lot on his plate trying to replace Adam Wilcox. There is not much you can blame him for at this point.
- Wisconsin (2-3-3) – This program is a mess. This is expected to be coach Mike Eaves’ last season in Madison after finishing with a jaw-dropping 4-27-5 record last year. “Hey, they’ve already won two games this year right?” Well, those two wins came against first-year Division I program Arizona State at home last weekend. The Badgers played to a draw against Northern Michigan and Ferris State, but there’s no reason to believe that success is in the near future.
- Ohio State (1-7) – This team is the victim of a bad year to have the nonconference schedule that it has. In their first three weekends, the Buckeyes were challenged with top-20 opponents in Bowling Green, Miami and Providence. Coach Steve Rohlik doesn’t make excuses that he has 10 freshmen on his roster this season, but the lack of offense has been frustrating to this point, culminating in the Buckeyes’ 2-1 loss against Mercyhurst on Oct. 30. That was a game that saw OSU outshoot the Lakers 40-16. The chances have been there, they just haven’t gone in. We’ll see how the Buckeyes follow up their first win of the season, putting up a season-high five goals against Mercyhurst on Halloween.
The Big Ten had great expectations when it was formed, due in part to the history and tradition of programs like Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. It might not be this season but I still think it’s a matter of time before the conference will thrive, especially if established “Big Ten” club hockey programs like Illinois or Rutgers receive the proper funding to add teams into the mix.
A few years ago, the idea of Big Ten hockey looked as good as sending out Matt Harvey in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the World Series. Now there’s a plethora of questions that have to be answered.
Too soon, Mets fans?