At the beginning of the season, Michigan was ranked fourth in the country and Penn State was ranked fifth. Now, the Nittany Lions are last in the Big Ten, with the Wolverines only one point ahead of them.
Out of all the teams in the tight Big Ten this year, there might not be two with more similar season-long trajectories meeting than when the Wolverines and the Nittany Lions face off at Yost Ice Arena Thursday and on the national stage at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
When the two teams split November's series at State College, Michigan found itself in a sizeable hole in each matchup through the first two periods. But in the blink of an eye, the Wolverines racked up a four-goal third period to win the first game, and another one to send it to overtime in the second, only to watch Penn State’s Nikita Pavlychev score six ticks into the extra period.
At that point, the Nittany Lions seemed set. With college hockey’s most dominant offense and All-American candidates like Evan Barratt and Alex Limoges, Penn State seemed destined to establish itself as one of the best teams in the Big Ten.
But since that roller-coaster of a series, Penn State and Michigan are 4-7-2 and 2-4-6, respectively. After lurking around the top 10 of the Pairwise, the Nittany Lions find themselves at 18th. Like the Wolverines at the beginning of the season, Frozen Four hopes were not an unrealistic ideal. But also like Michigan, it’s on the outside looking in.
“They’re a good team,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “They can score a lot, they’ve scored 40 more goals than us on the year. I was looking at it — they’re dangerous. Just because they have an off-week or month doesn’t mean they’re not still dangerous. … It’s been a shot here and a bounce there, we’ve actually played pretty good. You can look at the record and say that’s not true, but a few breaks and bounces here and everything is different.”
The parallels don’t end just quite there. To Michigan’s loss of sophomore forward Josh Norris to an undisclosed tear suffered at World Juniors, Penn State can raise its own World Juniors-induced loss of freshman forward Aarne Talvitie and his 16 points.
The difference? The Wolverines have been here before — and it shows. When they lost then-sophomore forward Will Lockwood for the season last year, they still rebounded and found a way to get hot. Since losing Norris, Michigan has started a similar momentum with top-10 wins over Ohio State and Notre Dame.
“(Penn State’s) going through what we’ve had the last couple of years,” Pearson said. “Now they haven’t had that before, I don’t know how they’re going to handle it, but it’s a similar situation.”
To vault back up into the top of the Pairwise, both teams need this series to be more than a mirror of their inconsistent last one-and-a-half months. Michigan had a chance to sweep Ohio State, but let it slip through. But for all of the Wolverines’ blunders and inconsistencies, they still have a chance to be where they want to be.
“Even if they’re 8-4-4, if we play our game, we’re going to be fine,” Pearson said. “And that’s what we need to make sure we’re doing, all the little things we need to do to have success. … We’ve been in every game since November 9th.”
Getting back to the promised land, though, will mean more than just being on track.