Before the Big Ten’s “Super Saturday” in New York City, the No. 6 Michigan hockey team will travel to State College to take on No. 15 Penn State in a big matchup of two teams vying for the Big Ten regular-season title.
But at the Pegula Ice Arena, a hockey rink known for its raucous crowd, the Wolverines will have their hands full.
The arena, capable of fitting 5,782 fans, was built three years ago, aligning with the Nittany Lions’ inaugural season in Division I. The rink’s construction was made possible by Terry and Kim Pegula, who also own the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League and the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League.
Led by the Roar Zone, which is Penn State’s hockey student section, the loud fans give the Nittany Lions an advantage at every home game, especially this season. Penn State is 11-3-1 on home ice in its 2015-16 campaign so far.
“It’s a loud rink,” said senior forward Justin Selman. “Definitely a rink we want to keep quiet. We need to get a good start and keep them down. They’re pretty loud when they score goals there, just like the student section at Yost, so they’re going to look to use that to their advantage.”
FIRST LINE SUCCESS: Since the first line of junior forwards Tyler Motte and JT Compher and freshman forward Kyle Connor was formed after Thanksgiving break, the trio has been on a tear. The line has combined for 64 points in 10 games, and both Connor and Motte are tied for second nationally in goals with 18.
One reason Michigan coach Red Berenson thinks the line has played so well is that Connor switched from his spot on the right wing on the second line to his natural position of left wing.
Connor has been the perfect fit on a line in which everyone brings something different to the table.
But no one has been able to pinpoint one reason why the line has played so well.
“I don’t know if there’s one thing,” Motte said. “We all bring something different to the line. I think that’s really what it is. We don’t overthink things. We just go out and play hockey.
“It’s worked well with Connor’s skill, his ability to make plays and finish opportunities. JT’s grinding ability, he’s a good two-way center man, helps a lot in the D-zone and on faceoffs. (Compher’s) ability to make plays is unbelievable, and I just try to give those guys the puck, and try to put away my opportunities when I get them.”
SHORING UP THE DEFENSE: With the offense playing as well as it has been, the Wolverines have been able to skate by with a set of blueliners that ranks No. 44 in the nation defensively.
But blame can be spread out across all players.
For offensive players especially, the Wolverines have been working on clearing rebounds.
“We gotta get rid of second-chance opportunities,” Motte said. “We need to really bear down, box guys out in front of the net. When our goalies are making tough saves and that rebound’s laying there, we gotta be able to clear it out, get it into the corner.”
Another area Berenson noticed the Wolverines could improve after their series against Ohio State was the penalty kill. Michigan killed off only one of four power plays against the Buckeyes.
“I thought our penalty killing (was) not as good as it needed to be,” Berenson said. “I thought our goals against — there was one or two that we could’ve got back. There were too many goals against on the weekend.”
INJURY UPDATES: During Michigan’s exhibition game against the United States National Team Development Program on Thursday, Berenson sat sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski with a bruising injury and freshman forward Cooper Marody, who was sick.
Marody is still out with sickness, but Werenski practiced Monday and will be in the lineup this weekend.
In addition, Connor slammed hard into the boards during the exhibition and didn’t play for the remainder of the game.
However, Connor will practice Tuesday and will be ready to play against the Nittany Lions.
Senior defenseman Kevin Lohan was also practicing with the team Monday, and Berenson said he has a good chance to play this weekend. If Lohan does return, he will help a defense that will be missing sophomore defenseman Cutler Martin, who is suspended for the weekend following his involvement in the brawl after Michigan’s second game against Ohio State. Sophomore forward Dexter Dancs is suspended for just Thursday’s game for his part in the brawl.