It is fitting that the Michigan hockey team will end the regular season against No. 11 Penn State. Nearly three years after a bitter loss that continues to linger in the minds of six seniors, the roles are reversed in this weekend’s two-game series against the Nittany Lions in Ann Arbor.
One storied program has endured a recent but significant decline — a downward trajectory that began with an opposing program seeking to make a name for itself in the wake of its birth. In the aftermath, a rivalry has blossomed between two schools that share just four years of history between them.
Senior weekend at Yost Ice Arena is upon Michigan, and with the finality there is inherently introspectiveness — especially for the home team, as it concludes a long season that has not gone the way anyone had hoped. The Wolverines will look across the rink and find an offensive juggernaut clawing its way to an NCAA Tournament bid — a team that resembles Michigan teams of years past. Penn State will take the ice against a team that, in some ways, resembles early iterations of the Nittany Lions: hungry and desperate, with nothing to lose.
Just how did these two teams end up in this position, mirroring each other’s pasts?
The rivalry began four years ago during the 2013-14 season — the second year of Penn State’s existence as a Division I program and its first in the newly formed Big Ten. The Nittany Lions were upstarts looking up at teams like Michigan, a program that already had decades to establish its place within the hierarchy of college hockey. The Wolverines were the class of the conference, coming off a 22-year NCAA Tournament streak that had ended the year before. Their success as a program was what Penn State would hope to emulate.
The Nittany Lions spent much of that year punching up at other teams, hoping to knock down a few of them. It just so happened that they first experienced success against Michigan — and in doing so, derailed the Wolverines’ season.
Michigan’s 4-0 loss in State College on Feb. 8 that year was Penn State’s first Big Ten win in program history. The Wolverines’ 5-4 overtime loss on Feb. 21 was the Nittany Lions’ first road Big Ten victory. And then, the final blow came at the inaugural Big Ten Tournament, where Penn State beat Michigan in the first round. The Wolverines’ unexpected loss, coupled with the previous two losses to Penn State that had hurt their PairWise Ranking, ended their season and attempt to return to the postseason. And a rivalry — however improbable its existence may have seemed before the season — was forged.
“It kinda came out of nowhere … especially in hockey, they’re a new team,” said senior forward Alex Kile. “You just didn’t really expect it. That first year, they basically ruined our season. They ended our season in the Big Ten Tournament, but throughout the year they just beat us, and the same with sophomore year — they beat us. We kinda felt like we always had the better team, but they found a way to beat us.”
Added senior goaltender Zach Nagelvoort: “Our freshman year, they were the team that, on paper, shouldn’t have beat anybody, and they beat us. They are not a team that anyone ever should have taken for granted, and that’s amplified now.”
The Nittany Lions got the better of Michigan the following year as well, splitting a series in Ann Arbor before sweeping the Wolverines at home. Through two years, Michigan had just a 3-6 record against Penn State, with each of those losses playing a crucial role in keeping the Wolverines from the NCAA Tournament.
It has been a back-and-forth affair more recently. In five meetings between the two teams last year, Michigan earned some semblance of revenge by sweeping the Nittany Lions. The Wolverines’ 7-2 win in the Big Ten Tournament closed the book on Penn State’s season, while Michigan returned to the postseason. This year, though, the Nittany Lions have owned Michigan, winning the first two meetings by a combined score of 11-2.
“I think they were respectful of Michigan and … they couldn’t wait to play Michigan,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “They found that they had more success against us than they did against anybody. I think it’s evened out now. Last year was our year, this year they’re having a good year. We played there in December and we weren’t good enough — they were better. I think we’re better now, but so are they. We haven’t seen them in a long time. They had a bit of a slump, and then they got back on track.”
Nagelvoort attributes Michigan’s difficulty against Penn State to the Nittany Lions’ “run-and-gun” style — a high-octane offense that peppers opposing goaltenders with shots. The past few years have also seen the Wolverines struggle tremendously on defense, often giving up many more shots than they generate. That slide, coupled with Penn State’s offensive strategy, is one of the reasons why the Nittany Lions had so much early success.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s just an ugly style,” Nagelvoort said. “But it’s the idea — if you throw 50 pucks on net, chances are you’re going to score more than if you throw 18 on net. So that’s kinda their game, not that they don’t have some skilled players. They have a few really skilled players. But for the majority of their team, that’s what they do. No matter where they are, they immediately turn and throw it on net, and it works for them.”
Added Kile: “They play a style where if you’re not locked-in defensively, they’re going to expose you. And the past three years, we haven’t been the defensive team — even this year, we’re not the best defensive team. They definitely play a style where they get behind you. Their defense (is) active, and they’re kinda in your face. If you’re not defensively sound, they’re going to expose you. So that’s why they’ve had success. They just play a certain style that’s pretty unique.”
It’s not inconceivable that those earlier Michigan teams made the mistake of overlooking Penn State, all while the Nittany Lions regarded those games as benchmarks for the young program’s progression — the type of games to circle on the calendar. It is true that Berenson has instilled his team with a mentality to take games one at a time. But the regular season is long, and players are acutely aware of how talented their opponents are. And in those early years, the Wolverines had the definite on-paper advantage over the Nittany Lions — perhaps leading to some glancing past them.
“They surprised some teams,” Nagelvoort said. “We were one of those teams. … I think they had performances that were above their paygrade at the time — which, give them credit for. They beat us and they beat some other teams that they quote-unquote shouldn’t have beat.”
At this point, though, there appears to be little possibility that Michigan overlooks Penn State, which is 21-9-2 and in position for its first NCAA Tournament berth, or is surprised by its offensive scheme going forward. The Wolverines have played enough games and watched enough video to understand the effectiveness of the Nittany Lions’ attack and what it may take to stop it.
They have finally accepted their new role — however unfamiliar or unexpected it may be — as the scrappy underdog. It is a different type of reality: Michigan can no longer move up in the Big Ten standings. An NCAA Tournament berth won’t be on the line for them this weekend. But the motivation is easy to find — for the six seniors whose careers will be celebrated after Saturday’s game, the weekend provides one last chance for retribution against Penn State. They have an opportunity to end their careers differently than how they began them, as the spoiler instead of the spoiled.
“Last year, we got our way with them, and this year, as seniors, we remember the feeling (from) our freshman year of them knocking us out of the tournament,” Kile said. “We have an opportunity where if we sweep them, we can make it really hard on them to make the tournament, so that’s our goal. … We want to sweep them this weekend and screw up their season.”
Added Nagelvoort. “… We had that chip on our shoulder where the next year, we owed that team. That was kind of our mantra. And I would say personally, still to this day, I owe this team and the guys in our locker room, we owe this team. We owe them a better performance than when we went out to Hockey Valley, and I think that we’re going to give it to them this Friday and Saturday.”