STATE COLLEGE — Last year, the Michigan hockey team was ranked No. 1 in the nation twice throughout the regular season. Both times, the Wolverines lost the next game they played and amassed a 1-3 record with the distinction. As such, that ranking never lasted for more than a week.
On Friday night, No. 1 Michigan (7-2 overall, 0-1 Big Ten) came into State College for a contest with undefeated No. 13 Penn. State (9-0, 1-0) looking to buck that trend with a massive target on its back. Instead, the trend persisted.
The Wolverines were defeated 3-0 in a contest that saw their defense simply overwhelmed by the Nittany Lions at the netfront and their offense unable to build any semblance of a rhythm as a result.
“They won every single race and battle,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said, repeating the phrase eight times postgame.
Michigan started play with one very noticeable absence, as junior goaltender Erik Portillo didn’t make the trip due to illness and was replaced by junior Noah West, who made his first start as a Wolverine. West was Michigan’s bright spot and gave his squad a chance to win, turning away 46 of 48 faced shots.
“(West) was outstanding,” Naurato said. “He deserves more from the rest of the guys.”
Aside from West, the Wolverines turned in a dreary performance in all three periods.
Both squads started play at a meandering pace, with neither generating any offensive footing throughout the first period. Michigan — usually lightning quick — looked just the opposite, and its play just seemed one step off. Passes skittered over sticks, the forecheck failed to win puck battles and the breakout gave Penn State plenty of time to work in the offensive zone.
Penn State used that time and built an offense off of a sheer volume of shots as opposed to genuine chances. And by that metric it succeeded, but it couldn’t quite crack the Wolverines defensively. After a scoreless period, with the Nittany Lions dominating the shot differential 16 shots to the four, both squads had clear inadequacies.
But the difference was that Penn State contended with its issues, and Michigan was never to.
“We didn’t play the right identity, the full 60 minutes,” West said. “We had lapses where we played alright, but tonight wasn’t good enough.”The Wolverines simply never woke up, offensively and defensively, and the one fed into the other.
After the first period, the Nittany Lions figured out how to wheedle their way into the center, and that was all their offense needed. They won races to the puck, had a man at the netfront to put extra pressure on West and capitalized because of it.
Midway through the second, Penn State forward Connor McMenamin received a misplayed breakout from behind Michigan’s net, and fired. A diving West stopped the puck and seemingly bailed the Wolverines out, but once again Michigan couldn’t break out. The Nittany Lions came right back in and passed another puck into the slot. This time, forward Ture Linden didn’t miss. And just five minutes later, Penn State’s sustained pressure paid off again as a beautiful series of tic-tac-toe passing left forward Ashton Calder for a one timer that he banged home.
Even beyond scoring, the Nittany Lions befuddled the Wolverines’ defense, and it tamed them on offense. Michigan was a step too slow on the forecheck and couldn’t run on offense with its rush stymied in transition.
“We lost a lot of races off of loose pucks in our D zone which hemmed us in our own zone,” West said. “It wears down on you through a 60 minute game when you do that all game. We’ve just got to clean up our own zone, and once we do that, it’ll transition our offense.”
The Nittany Lions didn’t score again until Xander Lampa tapped an empty netter, but even on that play, the Wolverines had at one point had the puck in their zone before getting beat to a loose puck.
Michigan had a chance to make a statement wearing the No. 1 ranking for this season. But everything that had brought it to its current ranking was absent. No matter where they were on the ice, the Wolverines couldn’t win battles.
“By them winning every race and battle, it doesn’t matter what your system or structure is,” Naurato said. “ … We’re an offensive team, number one offense in the country, and they gave us nothing because they won every battle. And that’s the game of hockey.
“We gotta win more races and battles, what do you guys think the headline’s gonna be?”
And Friday night, the headline was that Michigan got outmuscled, outskated and outplayed in every battle. It was drubbed because of it.