Against a team of unknowns, Michigan can overpower on both sides of puck

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By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 6, 2014

The Michigan hockey team has never faced off against Penn State. In fact, most of the Wolverines have never even been to State College.

Some are unaware of its location on a map of Pennsylvania and others aren’t sure what rink they’ll be playing at.

There’s also no general consensus as to what the Nittany Lions do well and where they can be exploited on the ice. After all, Michigan just watched film of the Nittany Lions for the first time Wednesday afternoon.

“I think (State College) is in the middle of the state,” said senior forward Luke Moffatt.

Added Michigan coach Red Berenson: “They're the new kid on the block. Their rink is new. Their players are new. We've never seen their uniforms. I've never been to Penn State.”

“I’ve seen a lot of pictures of this rink,” said freshman goaltender Zach Nagelvoort. “I don’t even know how to pronounce it.”

There are a lot of unknowns for the 10th-ranked Wolverines as they travel to Penn State this weekend: how the ice feels beneath their skates, what the locker room will look like or how noticeable the crowd will be. But if there’s one thing Michigan does know, it’s that the Nittany Lions (0-8-0-0 Big Ten, 4-17-1 overall) are without a win in the Big Ten Conference this year and they’re more desperate than ever to change that.

“I think for sure, they’re desperate,” said junior forward Zach Hyman. “Any team that plays Michigan wants to win. They’re going to put their best foot forward and we can't take anything for granted.

“We’re just taking it one game at a time, focusing on what we need to do and not so much what they’re going to do.”

The weekend looks like a lopsided affair on paper. The Wolverines enter with a long and successful history, including nine national titles, 11 conference Championships, and two Hobey Baker Award winners. Penn State has none of that. It has just two players selected in the National Hockey League Draft compared to the 12 that Michigan boasts.

The Wolverines (5-2-1-1, 13-6-3) are also the winner of four straight games and sit alone at second place in the Big Ten standings.

And Michigan’s lines have clicked as of late, averaging just over three goals a game during its four-game win streak. The Nittany Lions, on the other hand, have averaged just over one goal in its last four conference games.

To be specific, Penn State is scoring 2.18 goals per game this season while the Wolverines are allowing 2.23 goals per game. Considering that the Nittany Lions allow 3.91 goals per game, the weekend could be remembered more for the Subway and Auntie Anne’s pretzels served in the concession stands than the game itself.

But what the stats don’t show is how close Penn State’s recent games have been. The Nittany Lions played top-5 teams Minnesota and Boston College close enough to lose by only one goal.

“I think they’re going to be the real deal,” Berenson said. “They really work hard. We know we’re going to get everything they’ve got. I told our team we’ve got to be better this weekend than we were last weekend.”

What’s more, Penn State will have to figure out how to beat a goaltender that held one of the nation’s top-10 offenses in Wisconsin to just three goals last weekend, making three big saves in a shootout on Saturday.

The momentum has never been hotter for Nagelvoort, despite not being named the starter by Berenson. That decision will be made Thursday evening.

But there’s one thing the Nittany Lions can boast that Michigan cannot: Pegula Ice Arena. Thanks to an $88 million donation, Penn State’s newly-coined “Hockey Valley” has attracted crowds of more than 6,000 on average in its first year as a varsity program.

In contrast, the Michigan hockey team played in front of close to a hundred fans in its first years before moving to Yost Field House — which cost just $563,168 to build. Nearly 20 years ago, Berenson had to give away tickets to students on Friday evenings in the Diag to get them to come to games.

But Penn State is the reason the Big Ten, and this weekend’s matchup, even exists. When it became the sixth Big Ten school with a hockey program, it gave the conference enough members to start the sport.

“We don’t want to be that team,” said senior defenseman Mac Bennett. “But at the same time, that doesn’t mean we aren’t taking it seriously. This is a big weekend for us — there’s six points available. When we leave there, we want to make sure we have all of them.”