The Michigan hockey team faced the first real undertaking of its 2017-18 campaign on its third weekend. The Wolverines walked away from that weekend in State College, Pa. establishing themselves as a conference contender by splitting their series with Penn State — and were just an overtime away from sweeping the weekend.
As the 12th-ranked Nittany Lions (6-5-3 Big Ten, 13-8-3 overall) visit Yost Ice Arena on Friday and Saturday night, almost three months will have passed since that last meeting. For Michigan, though, it seems more like an eternity.
Stemming from their first series against Penn State — which also opened up Big Ten play — the Wolverines (5-7-2, 10-10-2) gave up an average of 3.83 goals during a 12-game stretch, struggling to solve defensive lapses.
But with its performance since the calendar flipped over, Michigan seems to be taking the mantra “new year, new me” to heart.
The Wolverines — now ranked No. 20 — faced an uphill battle after winter break with consecutive series against Notre Dame and Minnesota. They were largely able to rise to the occasion, in more ways than one.
Though depth has been a systemic problem for Michigan this season, particularly in relation to its defensive unit, the blueliners turned a noticeable corner against the Fighting Irish that was then again showcased when facing the Golden Gophers.
Part of this can be attributed to minimizing unforced errors in the defensive zone, but also to senior defenseman Cutler Martin’s return to health, as his reappearance sparked competitiveness for starting spots in the lineup. Martin played in the Notre Dame series, sending sophomore defenseman Griffin Luce to the bench, and then the following weekend saw the reverse.
“Sometimes, when you’re in all the time, you can get complacent and you can get comfortable, it’s just human nature,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “And I think with (Griffin), he just needed a little bit of a wake-up call. And with Cutler (Martin) back, we have some flexibility and we can do that.”
This competitive atmosphere gives Michigan’s blueline more options, which will be more important than ever when squaring off with the Nittany Lions — a team possessing the most productive attack unit in the nation.
In sweeping then-No. 9 Minnesota in Minneapolis for the first time in 41 years last weekend, the Wolverines saw contributions from all lines, an adjustment from this season’s storyline of the top line of seniors Tony Calderone and Dexter Dancs and junior Cooper Marody bailing out the team. Last weekend marked the first time the same lines were started in consecutive games, and Pearson noted that these lines will be sticking against Penn State.
Michigan’s offense demonstrated not only depth but also timeliness, jumping to early leads within the first minute and a half both nights against the Gophers. The Wolverines never relinquished their edge, a tactic that will be advantageous in facing the Nittany Lions. As a team, Penn State leads the nation in shots taken per game with 40.1 and hasn’t had trouble finding the net this season.
“You can’t come back when you’re down every game,” Dancs said. “And I think getting a lead against (Penn State) is crucial because they are a team that gets a lot of shots, they are a physical team and they wear you down, so getting a hot start will be key for us this weekend.”
Regardless of Michigan’s substantial weekend in Minnesota, Pearson emphasized the importance of hard work this week, and how letting up on focus could be detrimental as the team prepares to play the Nittany Lions.
“We’re not good enough that we can take days off, regardless of the good weekend we had,” Pearson said. “We need everybody and we’ve got to work extremely hard for everything that we get. We can’t just rely on our skill and show up and play.”
Michigan — even before these changes — gave Penn State a run for its money in October. But the Nittany Lions have gone through a metamorphosis of their own.
Penn State was riding a more considerable wave of momentum than the Wolverines, having claimed an 11-game undefeated streak until last Saturday night when Ohio State put a stop to the trend.
The offensive powerhouse knocks in an average of four goals per game and executes its power play more effectively than any other Big Ten contender. One of their most vital players, junior forward Andrew Sturtz, leads the Nittany Lions’ offensive efforts with 30 points, just a point shy of Marody’s contributions this season. That’s not to say that Penn State’s attack isn’t balanced, though — seven separate Nittany Lions have notched at least 15 points on the season.
Yet, though both teams have gone through major transformations since their last series, it is more than likely that this weekend will present a fiercely competitive atmosphere similar to the meeting at Pegula Ice Arena in October.
Given this, Pearson emphasized the importance of Michigan focusing on its own development and performance more so than that of the Nittany Lions.
“We caught them at a time when they were struggling with their goals against, so they’ve improved,” Pearson said. “But I think it’s more about us and how we’re playing now. And if we can do A, B, C and D, then we’ll have a good chance to win. It’s a coaches’ cliché but it’s so true, we’ve got to really worry about ourselves and our game and what we do well, and if we do, we’ll have a chance.”