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Michigan with ideal first-round competition in Penn State

Paul Sherman/Daily
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By Erin Lennon, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 18, 2014

In the postseason, a team with plenty of talent and heart, but one long prefaced by “conference bottom-feeder” is a quintessential Cinderella-story in the making.

Penn State is a second-year program with a sparkling new arena competing in a newly formed conference against some of the oldest, most storied programs in college hockey. The Nittany Lions won just four of 18 games and lost 16 of 20 Big Ten matchups in the regular season.

Still, eight of those losses were decided by one goal, often late in regulation or in overtime. Penn State has skated with No. 1 Minnesota and No. 5 Wisconsin, holding both teams to games decided by a single tally. So with everything to gain — an outright birth to the NCAA tournament — and nothing to lose, Penn State is not to be overlooked.

But if there is a team in this league that knows not to be caught off guard by the last-seeded team, it’s the No. 13 Michigan hockey team.

Though this is the inaugural year of Big Ten hockey, these two programs have history, if only in the recent past. Less than one month ago, the second-year program embarrassed Michigan. The Wolverines carried a 3-2 lead into the third period before a series of egregious defensive mistakes secured the Nittany Lions’ sixth win of the season.

And to make matters worse, the upset was Penn State’s second conference victory of the season and its second over Michigan in two weeks.

“That’s the thing, we’re not playing a last-place team, we’re playing a team that’s literally .500 with us,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “I think that’s motivation and it’s respect, and that’s the game that we’re pointing at.”

After a sweep over Michigan State, this was supposed to be the Wolverines’ triumphant ride into a second-place finish in the conference, but instead it was the start of another detrimental losing streak. Michigan followed a dominant but not surprising 7-3 thwart of the Nittany Lions in State College on Friday Feb. 7 with an abysmal 4-0 loss. In it, freshman goaltender Zach Nagelvoort lasted fewer than 15 minutes in net and surrendered a trio of goals.

Though it wasn’t only his performance that decided a loss to Penn State at home, Nagelvoort was the goaltender on record in the 4-3 overtime contest.

“It would probably be easy for any team on any given night to come in against Penn State and say ‘this is a game we should win,’ but they’ve proven that they’re not going to be overlooked,” Nagelvoort said.

Despite his gloomy personal history against the Nittany Lions, Nagelvoort is expected to get the starting nod in net, Berenson said Monday.

Nagelvoort impressed in his first appearance against No. 1 Minnesota last Friday, standing on his head long enough to force an eighth overtime contest at Yost Ice Arena. The next night, the netminder made mindboggling saves that prevented the Golden Gophers from erasing a four-goal deficit. With each catch of the puck, Nagelvoort flipped it just a little bit higher, a sign that he’d gotten his early season swagger back.

A player who thrives on the big stage, a player who knows what Penn State can do to an unsuspecting goaltender, Nagelvoort is the right goalie for the job.

What might be more promising, though, is this team’s ability as a whole to perform when the stakes are at their highest.

On Saturday, Senior Night at Yost, Michigan was forced to dig itself out of a hole it spent nearly three months digging.

Having fallen out of the top 16 in PairWise rankings to Minnesota the night before, the Wolverines needed a win to keep their postseason dreams from turning into last season’s nightmare, and they had to do it against the No. 1 team in the nation. So with all that pressure mounted in its home building, Michigan played its best game of the season, routing the Golden Gophers, 6-2.

Though they’ve made a habit of easing up after a win this season, the Wolverines — who have recorded just three series sweeps this season — are arguably at their best when their backs are against the boards.

“We’re confident with a sense of desperation,” said freshman forward JT Compher.

Added Nagelvoort: “From here on out, it’s playoff hockey and anyone can beat anyone. We’ve struggled against Penn State, and it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, you gotta pretend like it’s the best team in the country.”

The ticket to the NCAA Tournament isn’t punched. If Michigan doesn’t want history — one that left it out of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 22 years — to repeat itself, it will need at least one win in the Big Ten Tournament. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

So Penn State might be a Cinderella in the making, but the Wolverines knows what size skate it wears.