Preview: Penn State Heads to Ann Arbor, Madison Square Garden for Series Against Michigan

By Sam Watson on January 24, 2019 at 11:50 am
Penn State Goalie Chris Funkey

RLR Staff

Michigan Wolverines
8-9-6 (4-5-4 Big Ten)
7:30 p.m. ET – THURSDAY, JAN. 24
7 p.m. ET – SATURDAY, JAN. 26
Read: Ohio State sweeps Penn State

The No. 15 Nittany Lions (13-9-2, 5-8-1) need a rebound weekend, and they need it bad. Michigan is unranked and not currently in a qualifying spot for the NCAA tournament, so they are desperate to start putting wins together. Mix in one game in Yost Ice Arena and one game in the center of the sporting universe (Madison Square Garden), and you've got the recipe for an exciting series. 

Wolverines Scouting Report

It's no secret that Michigan has struggled this season, and they're similar to Penn State in more ways than one. Both teams have solid offenses, but struggle to keep the puck out of their own net due to the mix of poor defensively play and goaltending that could be better. (Peyton Jones has been better of late.) Since splitting a series with Penn State back in October, Michigan has been a .500 team, and those loses against teams like Michigan State and Michigan Tech that probably should have been wins are why the Wolverines find themselves 27th in Pairwise. 

Forwards Outlook

Michigan is still struggling to replace last year's top line of Dexter Dancs, Cooper Marody, and Tony Calderone (122 points, including 53 goals, in 2017-18). Josh Norris and Will Lockwood have been leading the way for the offense. Norris is a first-round draft pick and was expected to put up big numbers for the offense. At 19 points (10 goals, 9 assists), Norris is producing as well as could be expected. Lockwood is only a point behind Norris and has eight goals and 10 assists. Nick Pastujov and Jake Slaker are also having solid seasons thus far with 17 and 15 points respectively. One problem, much like the rest of the team, that the forwards group has had this season is their overall defensive efforts. Only Lockwood and Grant Van Wyhe have played in all of Michigan's games this season and have had a positive plus/minus. 

Defensemen Outlook

The strength of Michigan's defense has been its scoring ability. At 3.02 goals against per game, the combination of defense and goaltending could be better, and that isn't exactly surprising when your leading scorer is a defenseman. 

Quinn Hughes is having himself an incredible season. Although he is not the best player in his family, he's definitely the best player on this years Michigan team. Hughes has 22 points from three goals and 19 assists. 19 assists is good for second among defenseman nationally. Although Hughes' plus/minus has not been great at -5, its clear that he is the heart and soul of his team, and even though his aggressive play can sometimes leave him out of position defensively, he creates all kind of chances for Michigan's forwards. Joseph Cecconi is also having a great season. With two goals and 15 assists, he is closely mimicking his fellow defenseman Hughes. Also like Hughes, Cecconi has been on the ice for more goals allowed than goals scored. 

We wrote back in October that although it's hard to talk about defensive performance using only plus/minus, it isn't a good sign to have only one defenseman with a positive plus/minus. Nick Blankenburg was that one player back in October, and now, towards the end of January, Blankenburg is still the only Wolverine defenseman with a positive plus/minus. 

Goalie Outlook

Strauss Mann and Hayden Lavinge have each played in 12 games this season, and neither have posted numbers to be especially proud of. Lavinge has the slight edge with a .892 save percentage and 2.78 GAA compared to Mann's .890 and 3.05. Lavinge finished last season on an absolute tear, and was a huge reason why Michigan made it all the way to the Frozen Four. If Lavinge had been able to carry that momentum into this season and continue to improve, the state of this Michigan team would be very different. Instead, Lavinge has regressed to the mean, and Mann has exhibited the typical performances of a freshman goaltender in the offensively heavy Big Ten. The more experienced Lavinge will probably get both the starts this weekend, and Michigan will need him to find the elite level he found at the end of the season last year if it hopes to right the ship. 

Michigan NHL Draft Picks
Quinn Hughes (D)
Vancouver (1st, #7)
Josh Norris (F)
Ottawa (1st, #19)
Luke Martin (D)
Carolina (2nd, #52)
Will Lockwood (F)
Vancouver (3rd, #64)
Joseph Cecconi (D)
Dallas (5th, #133)
Nicholas Boka (D)
Minnesota (6th, #171)
Nick Pastujov (F)
Islanders (7th, #193)
Jack Becker
Boston (7th, #195)

Keys To A Penn State Win

Last weekend did not go according to plan for Penn State, and the issues of consistency from game to game are still rearing their ugly heads. Ohio State is great team too, and was able to take full advantage of the mistakes Penn State made. Although Michigan is objectively not as good as Ohio State, nothing is given to the away teams at Yost Ice Arena and the bright lights of New York City have not been kind to Penn State. The ride-or-die mentality that we all had coming into the season was fun then, but now Penn State's sheer lack of defense have put the nation's best offense in the bottom half of the Big Ten and on the outside looking in for the NCAA tournament.  

The combination of Alex Limoges, Liam Folkes, an Evan Barratt will need to continue to be dominant, and Penn State will need to get more scoring from the likes of Chase Berger, Nate Sucese, and Denis Smirnov (who hasn't scored in five games). There will be ample opportunity to put pucks in the net this weekend. Since gaining the starting role at the start of the season, Peyton Jones has been good. There have been a few goals he would have liked to have back but by and large, he has gotten very little help in front of him. If Jones can continue to make the saves he should make and occasionally bail out the defense, good things should come this weekend. That brings us to the defense, which is coming into the weekend 56th in goals allowed per game. Either by mental lapses or by just not making good plays, the Nittany Lion defense simply hasn't been good enough. Turnovers near the net doomed the team before the third period even began last Friday, and those poor plays need to end if Penn State hopes to right the ship before time runs out in March. It seems simple: if Penn State can limit defensive zone turnovers and make solid break out passes, they should be able to have success this weekend. 


Kaitlyn: I feel like this series, especially with the neutral site element, could be predicted with a couple coin tosses. Penn State has collapsed in its own zone and doesn’t look to be interested in playing defense at all anymore, and Michigan hasn’t won more than twice since visiting Hockey Valley more than two months ago. Barratt got a shorty last series, and I think his line will stay hot. But without Talvitie, Berger’s line has suffered. The Wolverines defense is as vanilla as it gets, and their offense is scoring fewer than three times a night. I want a sweep, and I believe in a sweep, but the Lions’ defense won’t let me do it. State wins Game 1 5-3 and loses Game 2 5-4 because of travel and getting walked in front of Jones.

Sam: I've completely lost faith in Penn State's defense, and right now the only thing I think will improve that group is the offseason. I'd love to be wrong, but the issues with the defense are worse than I thought they would be. Penn State's offense is good enough to get a win out of the weekend, but the defense is bad enough to get swept again. Evan Barratt is going to be on a tear again, and I think he gets the help he needs from the rest of the forwards. But again the defense is going to be a problem. Unlike Kaitlyn, I don't see the defense playing well enough to get the win in Yost, but I do see them being able to pull it together in MSG. Penn State loses Game 1 6-3 and wins Game 2 5-4.