The No. 16 Michigan hockey team (5-4 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) is getting thrown into the fire — facing one fierce opponent after the other — right at the beginning of conference play.
The Wolverines have fought for consistency on both ends of the ice so far this season. Between a series split Nov. 9-10 against No. 8 Notre Dame — last year’s national runner-up — and a trip this weekend to No. 5 Penn State (8-1), Michigan doesn’t have the luxury of easing its way into the meat of its schedule.
The Nittany Lions average an eye-popping 5.78 goals per game, which leads the country by more than a goal and a half per game.
“They’re an offensive team, so they have a lot of goals, so I think our defense needs to be our main priority,” said sophomore forward Dakota Raabe on Wednesday. “With good defense comes good offense, so I think if we just take care of our end first, we’ll get our chances. We have a lot of guys that can score, so we’ll be okay.”
One of the biggest questions so far this season for the Wolverines has been goaltending, with junior Hayden Lavigne and freshman Strauss Mann splitting starts in net for the first few weeks. Lavigne was the Friday night starter the first three weeks, but Mann earned the nod last Friday against the Fighting Irish.
Especially in this series, solid goaltending will be pivotal. Mann has a 3-1 record on the season with a 2.83-goals-against average and a .889 save percentage — including a 26-save, .963 save percentage performance against Notre Dame.
“(Mann has) earned a consideration for the start, for sure,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “I think he’s probably been the better of the two goalies in the last two to three weeks, so we’re leaning that way.”
Regardless of which goaltender earns the start, the Wolverines’ defense will also have to step up and find some of that sought-after consistency.
“We have to make sure that we force them to play without the puck,” Pearson said. “We have to possess the puck, play in their defensive zone or our offensive zone and force them to play without it. That’s gonna be the key to our game. If they have it, they’re good.”
It sounds simple but forcing a high-powered offense to play without the puck was one of Pearson’s keys to Michigan’s exhibition against the US National Team Development Program — a game the Wolverines lost, 6-3.
Two of Penn State’s forwards — Alex Limoges and Nikita Pavlychev — rank top-five in the NCAA in points per game with 1.78 each, making them major threats whenever they’re on the ice. The defense will have to be more successful in limiting the Nittany Lions if Michigan wants to pull off the upset.
Playing on the road — especially at a place like Penn State with a notably raucous crowd — is a challenge. It’ll be a test for the Wolverines, but they’re looking forward to jumping into the fire and using the crowd’s energy for their own good.
“Their student crowd is pretty wild,” Raabe said. “It’s fun, but nothing that we’re (not) used to. Yost is just as rowdy, so it’ll be good to build off that energy.”