Know Your Enemy: No. 12 Penn State Hockey vs. No. 20 Michigan
No. 12 Penn State men’s hockey will wrap up its regular seasons series with No. 20 Michigan this weekend at Ann Arbor’s Yost Ice Arena.
The Nittany Lions had a season-long 11 game unbeaten streak until it was snapped at the hands of No. 6 Ohio State. They still have plenty of positives to take away from their series against the Buckeyes, though. The Wolverines swept No. 13 Minnesota last weekend, becoming the first Big Ten team to sweep the Golden Gophers at Mariucci since the conference formed in 2013. Can Mel Pearson’s squad keep the good times rolling or will Guy Gadowsky’s Nittany Lions ruin this weekend for the Wolverines?
Michigan (10-10-2, 5-7-2 Big Ten) currently sits on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament discussion. The Wolverines are currently in, but only just, as they occupy the final playoff spot in the Pairwise rankings. Although the team’s current record and Pairwise status may indicate an average team, don’t overlook this squad; it is extremely solid and capable of winning plenty of hockey games.
Offensively, Michigan’s top line of Dexter Dancs, Cooper Marody, and Tony Calderone has been together for most of the 2017-18 season. The trio lit up Pegula Ice Arena and tallied 15 points during the two teams’ last meetings in late October while scoring six of the team’s nine goals that weekend. Shutting down this dynamic line is key for Guy Gadowsky’s squad, but is much easier said than done. Marody and Calderone are Michigan’s semifinalists for the Hobey Baker Award and have combined for 58 points in 22 games.
Although the top line burned the Nittany Lions during these teams’ last meeting, the defense cannot focus all of its attention on that single unit. The Wolverines’ group of forwards is stacked with NHL prospects and high-level talents, including freshman Josh Norris. Norris was selected No. 19 overall by the San Jose Sharks in the 2017 NHL Draft and represented the United States at the 2018 World Junior Championships in Buffalo. He tallied three assists during the tournament as he helped his team win a bronze medal.
The player to watch on Michigan’s back end is freshman Quinn Hughes. Hughes is eligible for the 2018 NHL Draft and projected to be selected with one of the top ten picks in the draft. The freshman has scored once and added 11 assists in 19 collegiate games while skating on the Wolverines’ top defensive pair alongside alternate captain Joseph Cecconi. Hughes played with Penn State center Evan Barratt on the United States’ National Development Team last season, scoring 53 points in 65 games.
Hughes was the only freshman defenseman in the lineup last weekend at Minnesota; the rest of the top-six defensemen are a solid, veteran group with plenty of collegiate experience. Alternate captain Sam Piazza is one of the most solid defensemen in the Big Ten, racking up a team-leading 38 shot blocks in 20 games played.
In goal, Hayden Lavigne has seen the majority of action through 22 games, but Coach Pearson is also not afraid to use Jack LaFontaine if he needs to. Lavigne boasts a 6-6-2 record, a .902 save percentage, and a 2.79 goals-against average in 13 starts throughout the season. LaFontaine is not far behind in each of those categories, posting a 4-4-0 record, .881 save percentage, and a 3.76 goals-against average in his nine starts. It’s entirely possible that we see both goalies this weekend if one struggles on Friday night.
Michigan clearly boasts plenty of talent up front and on the back end, but the team has struggled to keep the puck out of its net throughout the year. The Wolverines have allowed 3.2 goals per game this year — a statistic that certainly works in the Nittany Lions’ high-flying offense’s favor.
A major key will be stopping the top line of Dexter Dancs, Cooper Marody, and Tony Calderone throughout the weekend, but the re-introduction of Kevin Kerr into the lineup will help Penn State keep Michigan’s potent offense at bay. Kerr broke his wrist during a 4-0 victory over Ohio State and will likely play this weekend after missing six games due to the injury.
We all know that generating tons of shots on goal is at the foundation of Penn State hockey; this philosophy should translate into plenty of goals this weekend due to the Wolverines’ below-average defensive and goaltending units. However, Penn State has had its own defensive problems throughout the year, so expect to see two track meets this weekend.
The last meeting between these two teams came at Pegula Ice Arena in late October. The two teams split the weekend series; Penn State won game one after an overtime goal by Blake Gober, but Michigan bounced back with a 5-2 victory one night later.
There will be plenty of goals, and I think that Peyton Jones holds a slight edge over Hayden Lavigne and Jack LaFontaine in goal. Because of that, Penn State will score most of those goals and pick up a series victory in the process.