Outside No. 2 Notre Dame, which is still undefeated in Big Ten play through 10 games, the rest of the conference has been unpredictable, with each team having major fluctuations in their play. At points, many of the other Big Ten teams have looked like championship contenders, and at other times like fringe tournament teams with obvious gaps in their play.
This inconsistency and erratic play has plagued both No. 15 Wisconsin (4-5-1 Big Ten, 10-9-2 overall) and No. 14 Penn State (4-4-2, 11-7-2), who will face each other in State College, Pa., this weekend for their first meeting of the 2017-’18 season.
Wisconsin started the year ranked No. 12 in the nation but quickly rose to No. 5 after a seemingly impressive road win over Boston College. Since then, the Badgers have lost to three-win St. Lawrence and have posted a below-.500 record in Big Ten play, dropping them to No. 15 in the rankings, with the possibility of dropping out of the top-16 NCAA Tournament pool for the first time this season.
Penn State has had even more of a roller coaster season themselves. The Nittany Lions started the year ranked No. 10, but dropped or stayed the same in the rankings each of the following eight weeks. Then in week nine, after three weeks entirely unranked, Penn State jumped back into the top 20 and has now risen above UW in the rankings for the first time since the preseason.
Since Penn State entered back into the rankings, they have been one of the hottest teams in the country. Over the last eight games, the Nittany Lions are 6-0-2, including a win and tie against a similarly hot Ohio State team. Over that stretch, Penn State has scored seven goals three times, and four goals seven times — a ridiculous offensive outburst.
The last eight games for Penn State have highlighted how dangerous the Nittany Lions are offensively. PSU is the best offensive team in the nation at 4.10 goals per game, and although St. Cloud State is close at 4.06, third-place Minnesota State is well behind with 3.85 goals per game.
Still, the strength of the opponent’s offenses is not a necessary predictor of how the Badgers will fair defensively. Wisconsin has not faced many prolific offenses this season, but against Michigan and Notre Dame, who are ranked No. 7 and 13 offensively, UW, in at least one of the games of the weekend, has held both teams under their season scoring average. Many of the Badgers’ defensive struggles this year have come against poor offenses. In the second game against St. Lawrence, one of the nation’s worst offensive units, UW conceded six goals. Wisconsin’s defense also gave up five tallies against Northern Michigan, a bottom-half offense nationally.
While both PSU and UW are currently fringe playoff teams, they have each at times performed like championship contenders, and at other times looked thoroughly mediocre. Both teams have the potential to dominate the other, and getting swept will severely handicap either team’s chances at an NCAA Tournament berth.
Puck drop for the opening game of the series is Friday at 6 p.m., with the following contest at 6 p.m. a day later.