What Penn State Hockey Needs to Do Against No. 4 Michigan

By Jacob Cheris on January 13, 2022 at 8:00 am
Penn State Men's hockey gathers around the net to take on Michigan on November 11th, 2021 at Pegula Ice Arena
Penn State Athletics

The Nittany Lions have a very tough task ahead of them this weekend. They face the powerhouse that is the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines. Penn State was swept at home the last time it faced off against the Mel Pearsons' talented group. Now, the Nittany Lions are going to play in front of one of the toughest atmospheres in college hockey. Here are five things they need to do in order to have success.

1. stay out of the penalty box

In Saturday's defeat against Notre Dame, Penn State did not take a penalty for the first time all season. It paid off big time despite the overtime loss. Penn State's penalty kill has struggled mightily this season, sitting at 51st in the nation (74.7%). 

Michigan's power play is seventh in the nation and first in the Big Ten by a wide margin (25%). Guy Gadowsky knows that it is a problem. However, with the right mentality, Gadowsky knows that staying out of the box for a full 60 minutes is something that can be done. 

"It is all mindset and attention. What you focus your attention on usually improves," Gadowsky said. "You're a lot more detailed and that's exactly what happened. Penalties have been a big issue we keep harping on. I think finally the team decided that color high water they were gonna figure it out."

2. Play with speed through the neutral zone

One thing that was a little different in the Notre Dame series was that the Nittany Lions were carrying the puck up the ice with speed. This made offensive zone entries cleaner and created more shots on goal. 

Penn State normally likes to play what I like to call "the stretch pass game", where they throw the puck up the ice for a long, home run pass. This is sometimes effective when a team does not play aggressively and gives a lot of open ice, but Michigan will not allow those passes to go through. 

The Penn State forwards have to skate quickly through the neutral zone and make quick, short passes to create odd-man rushes. 

3. isolate on the star players

Michigan has 13 NHL prospects, four of which were top five picks in the 2021 NHL draft. There are too many to list here, so I'll just mention the ones that Penn State should pay extra close attention to - Owen Power (Round 1, Pick 1 to Buffalo Sabres), Matty Beniers (Round 1, Pick 2 to Seattle Kraken), Luke Hughes (Round 1, Pick 4 to New Jersey Devils), Kent Johnson (Round 1, Pick 5 to Columbus Blue Jackets). 

They also have to look out for the Big Ten's leading scorer Brendan Brisson, who has 14 goals, and Thomas Bordeleau, last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year. 

All those players won't be on the ice during the same shift, but a man-on-man coverage in the defensive zone can neutralize those players and make it more difficult for them to make plays. 

4. have a next-man up mentality

Gadowsky said on Monday that Connor MacEachern will be unavailable this weekend. MacEachern is having a career season with 20 points (11 goals, 9 assists). Not having his elite shot in the lineup will be felt immediately. The junior went down with an injury, late in the third period against Notre Dame, and did not return the rest of the game. 

That leaves a big hole at the center position. With Ryan Kirwan likely slotting back at left wing, the centers will be Chase McLane, Ben Schoen, Ben Copeland, and Carson Dyck. 

My best guess is that McLane is going to take on a bigger role in this series. McLane has been excellent on faceoffs this year. He is 51.1% (188-180) on the draw and plays a big role in winning important defensive zone draws. 

5. Defend hard first, offense will follow

Penn State loves to get lots of contributions from its blue line. The defense has totaled for 46 points thus far. While that is very impressive, the Nittany Lions need to put much more emphasis on the defensive side of the puck. 

"You look at some of the guys they have like Beniers, Brisson, Mackie Samoskevich," Jimmy Dowd Jr. said. "I think that if we're good on the defensive side of the puck, the offense will come and we just have to play hard defensively."

Dowd Jr. leads the Nittany Lion defense with 14 points (3 goals, 11 assists), including two goals against Notre Dame. 

The Chicago Steel alum is exactly right. This team has to play with a defense first mentality in this very important series.

The Nittany Lions have confidence that they can keep up with this team. This team is still going through lots of learning curves, and it will eventually pay off down the stretch. 

"We gave that team way too much respect the first time we played them. And just like any other team, we have to take it like any game," Dowd Jr. said. 

The action kicks off this Friday at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor.