Know Your Enemy: No. 7 Penn State vs. No. 20 Michigan
We’re finally approaching the most wonderful time of the hockey year: conference play. Set your phone background, whip out your best White Out gear and ugly Christmas sweater, and get ready for Bucci. No. 7 Penn State starts its series with No. 20 Michigan tomorrow. I’m confident the Nittany Lions will get back on top of this rivalry to remind us just how much Michigan still sucks. It won’t be easy with Michigan’s defense, but here’s everything you need to know headed into this weekend in Hockey Valley:
“They are Michigan — but they’re different,” he said. “Last year their offense was just unbelievably explosive. They’re still Michigan so it can still be that way but if you look at the success they’ve had this season…they’re doing it with defense.”
Once an offensive powerhouse, Michigan lost its terrifying top line to the NHL. At this week’s media availability, Gadowsky said its newfound defensive strength will be the biggest challenge for Penn State. I agree, but I’ll get into that later.
Michigan hasn’t been absolutely dominating this season, but you shouldn’t sleep on it either. Last season at this point it was 8-2-2, but its 6-5-1 record isn’t horrible and it’s still a nationally ranked team putting up some top notch defense. The Wolverines are tied for 7 in the nation with just 2.17 goals allowed per game on average. They’re the only team ahead of Penn State on the penalty kill, with 59-of-64 killed on the season for a 92.2 percentage. Goalie Hayden Lavigne’s posted two shutouts, and goalie Jack LaFontaine is tied for 11 in the nation with a .924 save percentage.
The Wolverines’ six wins so far come from Union, Ferris State, Michigan Tech, Arizona, Boston University (!), and Lake Superior. The 4-0 win over No. 6 BU is the most alarming for Penn State. Four-of-six Michigan seniors were suspended that game for violating team policy, but its defense stood tall behind a 30-save Lavigne shutout. The Wolverines have been outshot quite often this season, but in the first period of that game it had a fierce shot advantage over the Terriers that resulted in two quick goals. If Michigan gets up early and has urgent offense like it did in this win, Penn State could run into some trouble.
Michigan has fallen to Union, Vermont, Dartmouth, BU, and Lake Superior this season. To be blunt, none of those teams are awful. The Wolverines might’ve had a slight edge on the Lions in pre-conference play strength of schedule. They skate into this series with considerably more Ls against a few tougher teams than Penn State played, but Penn State’s consistency can’t be understated. Conference play rocks because we finally get to see how Big Ten teams stack up against each other without comparing apples to oranges, and everyone should be excited.
You’ll want to keep an eye on Michigan’s defense. Freshmen Lavigne and LaFontaine and senior Zach (La?)Nagelvoort have been splitting time in the net reminiscent of old school Nittany Lion goaltending. No one Wolverine defenseman especially sticks out, but their collective d-core and No. 1 pk unit in the nation will challenge Penn State’s offense. Sam Piazza leads defenders in scoring with three goals and four assists if you’re into stats, but with this group you should focus on overall defense instead.
Enjoy some highlights of the Penn State-Michigan rivalry before last season, when Penn State had a 6-3 all-time lead despite the odds. This isn’t the case anymore.
In the 2015-16 season, the Wolverines swept the Nittany Lions in all five games (in a pretty brutal fashion). A 7-4 loss, a 6-3 loss, a 7-1 loss, a 6-1 loss, and a 7-2 loss actually highlight something huge for Penn State this time around, though. The 33-11 goal deficit could seem discouraging headed into tomorrow’s Big Ten opener, but 25 of those 33 goals were scored by Michigan players who either graduated or took their talents to the NHL this season.
The last time Penn State and Michigan faced off in the regular season, it was March, 12, 2016. Michigan was No. 9 in the nation and Penn State was on the road. Eric Scheid’s lone goal made it a 1-1 tie until halfway through the first period, but Michigan got rolling after that and wouldn’t allow any more goals as it scored five more unanswered. It outshot (something its been struggling with this season) Penn State 57-31, and now-professional players Boo Nieves and Kyle Connor both scored twice.
Nieves said something after the game that might spark a little rivalry fuel:
“Penn State is a team that we’ve struggled with over the years and this year we’ve absolutely dominated them, which is a good feeling,” he said. “To finish it off at the end of the regular season is definitely a huge confidence booster. Everybody played well, everybody pitched in, so everybody should be feeling pretty good.”
Penn State will win at least one of the games, and I don’t know what will happen in the other game.