Earlier this week, Mel Pearson answered a phone call.
The caller talked about how the Michigan hockey team (5-9-2 overall, 1-6-1 Big Ten) has looked good at times this year, and that it would be nice if it can get a split this weekend in the home series against No. 6 Penn State (11-4-0, 6-2-0), the leader of the conference.
Such a statement did not sit well with Pearson, who expects more from the Wolverines.
“And I said, ‘What?’ ” Pearson said. “ ‘What? Excuse me?’ We just play one at a time. We’ll show up Friday, and hey, they’re the favorites. Nobody expects us to beat them. We’ll see what happens Friday.”
There’s validity to the caller’s comments. The Nittany Lions are an imposing group. They returned their top five scorers from last season and have scored 4.6 goals a game, which ranks second in the nation. Last year’s team had similar offensive success but was tarnished by one of the nation’s worst defenses.
A lot has changed since then, though. Penn State is ranked 19th in goals against, allowing 2.4 a night — a substantial difference from 3.56 last season. And with that improvement, Michigan is slated for a challenging weekend.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, their defensive unit has been one of the lone bright spots throughout this season. They’ll need to build off that to make the most out of the series.
“This year overall we’ve been doing a really good job limiting teams to chances and goals against,” said senior defenseman Griffin Luce. “So I think just continuing to do what we’ve been doing all year. But making sure, especially getting pucks out, making sure that they definitely get deep in their zone so that we don’t have those transitions on the turnovers. We just got to make sure that we don’t give them any free opportunities to use the offensive instincts that they have.”
Most of those instincts stem from Penn State forwards Nate Sucese and Evan Barratt — the team’s top-two point scorers. They are joined by many other proven players, such as forwards Liam Folkes and Sam Sternschein, who leads the team in goals.
“They have an abundance of guys who can burn you,” Pearson said. “So you just have to be really aware of that. But then you just got to go play, too. You gotta respect them, but you can’t fear them.”
Pearson hopes that his team can possess the puck consistently this weekend and force the Nittany Lions to play without it. He mentioned that they are able to get a lot of pucks on net while sending bodies, too, who take advantage of bounces when they come. Thus, it’s quite important for Michigan to limit the turnovers — which have been a problem of late.
Playing with the lead has been a challenge for the Wolverines a few times this season. Michigan has lost after reaching a two-goal lead in three games so far. If the team can get ahead early against Penn State, it’ll have to put extra focus on maintaining the margin.
“I don’t think any lead is safe,” Pearson said. “I think that’s a good way to put it, against a team like them, because they can score in bunches. You have to be aware of that.”
The Wolverines split both series last season. The Nittany Lions showcased their offense, scoring 17 goals throughout the four games. In one of Michigan’s victories, though, it held Penn State to just one goal. That contest was the only one at Yost, and the Wolverines are quick to say the home crowd helped.
Michigan has been historically good at home against the Nittany Lions. The overall rivalry is close, with the Wolverines leading 15-12, but Michigan has won nine of 11 at Yost.
If the Wolverines can stay strong defensively this weekend and value the puck on the attack, perhaps Pearson could show that caller what he sees in his group.
“I think we have a pretty good record against Penn State at Yost, which is good,” said senior forward Will Lockwood. “So I think we have a lot of confidence going into this weekend, even knowing that they’re a top-10 team in the country. We have a lot of confidence, and I think those two wins would be absolutely huge for us.”