How difficult is it to play in Pegula Ice Arena? On a scale of one to 10, probably a 10. If you’re a goaltender, make that 20.
The No. 20 Michigan hockey team learned that first hand this weekend, when a destructive performance from the seventh-ranked Nittany Lions featured a whopping 106 shots over two games, both of which were blowout wins for Penn State.
This offense propelled Penn State to 6-1 and 5-1 wins on Thursday and Friday, respectively. The Nittany Lions proved they could outshoot, outscore and outplay the Wolverines in almost every aspect of the game.
And Michigan’s netminders still had to stand on their heads to keep it that close. Goaltending wasn’t the problem.
Senior Zach Nagelvoort and freshman Jack LaFontaine basically went into the weekend’s games with targets attached to them. Between Penn State’s offense — which offered no mercy in the Big Ten season opener — and little defense in front of them, both goaltenders had to make an excessive amount of saves.
LaFontaine not only played at the end of the game on Friday, but also the entire game Saturday. He faced a combined 77 shots on the weekend, allowing seven goals.
“He’s tough,” said senior forward Alex Kile. “He’s a freshman, it’s not easy during this game. We didn’t really give him a great effort tonight defensively. We gave up 50-plus shots, so anytime you’re a goalie and you see 50 shots, it’s tough to win games and stop all the pucks.
“I’m not going to sit here and blame it on him because it wasn’t his fault, it was completely a team effort tonight, and we weren’t good defensively and you guys saw that.”
But almost more aggressive than the Nittany Lions was their student section. At Pegula, the visiting team is positioned to start and end on the same end of the ice that holds home to the sprawling Penn State student section, the “Roar Zone.”
It’s a section that students wait hours outside to get front-row seats for. It sold out season tickets in less than five minutes. And it has absolutely no love for visiting goaltenders.
“We’re definitely trying to get inside their heads, especially the goalie, we’re really trying to get inside his head a lot,” said Mike Good, a senior at Penn State. “We have a really good student section here, and I think it’s a really good advantage we have when an opposing team comes here.”
The student section has cheers and chants specifically tailored to the opposing team’s goaltender, as do many throughout college hockey. But with such a large number of students and fans who participate — directly behind the person they’re chanting at — it’s undoubtedly difficult for a goaltender to save 53 of 58 shots, as LaFontaine did on Saturday.
Someone who knows this well is the Nittany Lions’ freshman goaltender Peyton Jones, who doesn’t let his student section’s devotion go unnoticed.
“As a goalie, it’s pretty tough when you’re getting heckled all the game,” said Jones. “They’re screaming, yelling, banging on the boards, telling you, ‘You suck’ and all that stuff. Like it’s just tough, it really is. They don’t realize how big they are for us when they do that, because it really does get in a goalie’s head.”
A 6-1 or 5-1 loss is never going to be encouraged or supported. The losses Michigan faced on the road this weekend were high-scoring and brutal, and there’s no denying that the Wolverines faced an uphill battle.
But LaFontaine and Nagelvoort did something this weekend that Michigan coach Red Berenson says often of his goaltenders — “They gave us a chance” — and really, what else can you ask from them?