Wolverines prepare to open Big Ten play against high-octane Nittany Lions

Thursday, October 26, 2017 - 6:55pm

After an impressive home sweep of Vermont last week, it’s hard to call Mel Pearson’s first four games as coach of the Michigan hockey team anything but a success.

With that being said, however, the Wolverines’ trip to No. 15 Penn State to begin their Big Ten slate represents the most important challenge of their season so far.

All the usual factors one might expect — a rowdy atmosphere and a physical conference battle against a strong opponent — will be in play this weekend. But it’s not just these factors that make the Nittany Lions (1-1 Big Ten, 3-3 overall) a huge opportunity for Michigan (0-0, 3-1) to prove itself.

Last season’s Big Ten Tournament champion, Penn State possessed the nation’s best offense, averaging 4.1 goals per game. The Wolverines, on the other hand, were just 42nd in that category, scoring 3.2 goals per game.

But if the first month of this season is any indication, Pegula Ice Arena could see offensive fireworks from both sides this weekend. The Nittany Lions and Wolverines have displayed fast-paced attacks this season, both taking well over 30 shots per game and ranking in the top 10 in the country in Corsi percentage, which measures shot differential.

“They like to take a lot of shots, that’s been documented,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “Last year, they were better than any team as far as getting shots to the net. They like to get people and pucks to the net, and they do it better than anybody.”

The Wolverines’ turnaround on offense has been an all-around effort, spearheaded especially by their depth and youth. Michigan’s 10 goals so far have been scored by eight different players, and its top four point-scorers — forwards Josh Norris, Jake Slaker and Will Lockwood along with defenseman Quinn Hughes — are all underclassmen.

“We’re young and skilled,” said senior forward Tony Calderone. “Our guys are real fast, and their skill comes into play when we’re working hard. So if we play our game, we should have a chance.”

But while Michigan certainly has talent, Penn State has more than enough to answer. Forward Denis Smirnov, who was the highest-scoring freshman in the nation last season, leads the Nittany Lions with four goals and six assists, but four other players — defensemen Erik Autio, Cole Holts, Trevor Hamilton and forward Andrew Sturtz — have five points as well.

So if the Wolverines are able to keep pace with Penn State in a high-scoring affair, that will no doubt be an encouraging sign for the up-tempo team that Pearson hopes to build.

“One way you can offset what they want to do is by possessing the puck and forcing them to play without it,” Pearson said. “That’s going to be one of the keys. It’s not rocket science, but we have to do that.”

There might also be at least a hint of revenge on Michigan’s mind. Last season, the Nittany Lions blew out the Wolverines by a combined score of 11-2 in State College and ended Michigan's season in the Big Ten Tournament with a 4-1 victory.

“(It will) definitely be a physical game,” Calderone said. Penn State’s always physical, there’s a lot of tension between us from previous years, they’ve knocked us out of tournaments, stuff like that, but it will be a good one tomorrow.”

Michigan has readied itself for a weekend of hard-fought hockey. And the Wolverines understand it will take that mental toughness — along with a strong offensive showing — for them to come out of the weekend with a positive result and begin Big Ten play on a solid note.

“Just how mentally tough we are,” Pearson said. “You’re going to have to be mentally strong because there’s gonna be a lot of swings in this game — they’re at home, they’ve got a crazy crowd. They’re gonna come after us, and they’re gonna come after us hard. We got to make sure we can mentally handle that, to stay with the game.”