Nightingale, No. 17 Michigan State looking to ‘earn a lot of respect back’ at No. 6 Penn State


Sarah Smith

MSU hockey bench celebrating/Credit Sarah Smith/WDBM

Jacob Stinson, Hockey Beat Reporter

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Before each season begins, the Big Ten conducts a coaches’ poll. In addition to picking the preseason All-Big Ten teams, each team’s coach predicts how the conference will play out. At the bottom of the list this season: Penn State and Michigan State.

Fast forward to now, and those two teams will play each other this weekend for the top spot in the Big Ten. 

While the poll looks bad now, the rankings made sense at the time.

Penn State was one of the worst defensive teams in the country last year. Despite that, the Nittany Lions didn’t make any significant defensive upgrades in the transfer portal. The team was trusting junior Liam Souliere, who posted a .904 save percentage the year before, as the lead goalie. 

For as bad as Penn State’s defense was, Michigan State’s offense might have been worse. The Spartans lost 15 of 16 to end last season, due in large part to a lack of offense and being unable to maintain possession of the puck.

Both teams have turned those narratives on their heads. Penn State is out to a 10-2-0 start behind coach Guy Gadowsky’s fast-paced, aggressive offense. His team paces the NCAA in shot attempts with 890, despite every other team in the top four playing more games.

“They’re a shot-volume, put-you-on-your-heels team,” Michigan State coach Adam Nightingale said. “It can create a lot of chaos when you throw it in their home rink. That’ll be really huge for us is how we manage those moments, because they will push, and they’re good in transition.”

While the Nittany Lions’ early schedule wasn’t much of a test — their first four opponents have a combined record of  11-35-1 — they’ve started to prove themselves in November. Splits against Michigan and Minnesota, both ranked No. 1 at the time, have vaulted Penn State into sixth place in the latest USCHO poll.

“Obviously they’re a confident team now,” Nightingale said. “They’ve knocked off a couple of really good teams. I’m super excited because I think this is when you find out what your group’s about.”

Michigan State has been playing like an entirely different team from a year ago. Nightingale’s system has given the Spartan offense a new life. Michigan State has scored 18 goals over its past four games, including eight in a sweep of No. 10 Ohio State.

Those four wins have led to an 8-3-1 record and a No. 17 ranking. That marks the first time Michigan State has been ranked since early February 2020, not that Nightingale is concerned.

“It’s nice to be ranked, but it doesn’t really mean anything,” he said. “I want our team’s focus always to be ‘just get better today.’ We’ve got to earn a lot of respect back in college hockey, and I think our guys have started to do that. We still have a ways to go, but we don’t look too much into the polls.”

Players to watch

Nicolas Müller, F, Michigan State: There’s been a few Spartans returning from last year who have had breakout seasons under Nightingale. Müller is certainly one of them. His two-goal, two-assist series against Ohio State earned him Big Ten First Star of the Week honors. His career-best 10 points are tied for the second most on the team this season. Normally a playmaker, Müller has shown he has the ability to score when called upon. Look for him to build on that this weekend.

Liam Souliere, G, Penn State: If there was a “Most Improved” award in college hockey, Souliere would have to be near the top of the list. His improvement year after year has been remarkable. After a lackluster 2021-22, he’s anchored Penn State to one of the best starts in the country. Souliere’s performance will be key to Penn State’s success this weekend. We’ve already seen how Gadowsky’s system works when the goaltending isn’t playing well, and the results aren’t good.

Liam Souliere’s stat lines in each of his three seasons at Penn State./ Credit: Jacob Stinson

Connor McMenamin, F, Penn State: When McMenamin is scoring, Penn State is rolling. He’s had multiple three-point games, including three assists in his team’s upset win over Minnesota. He has seven points in the last five games. His line with fellow seniors Connor MacEachern and Ashton Calder has accounted for 14 goals and 28 points as the top line this year. Penn State will need a similar effort from McMenamin and company this weekend.

Impact staff predictions

Stinson: Both teams split. Both Michigan State and Penn State have been outplaying expectations all season, which is what makes this matchup so intriguing. Penn State has split with every Big Ten team not named Wisconsin, and I think the same holds true this weekend. The key for Michigan State is slowing the game down and not letting Penn State control the pace of play. I feel like the Spartans will be successful doing so one night, but not both.

Jacob Phillips, Hockey Beat Reporter: Both teams split. I think MSU takes game two. Penn State has been doing really well this year and has a significant home-ice advantage. MSU had trouble on the road against Notre Dame, but the Spartans have held themselves well against other conference opponents. Expect at least one close-scoring game where MSU can come out on top by a goal.

Ryan Radosevich, Hockey Beat Reporter: Both teams split. These two teams’ play styles are very similar to each other, and both have produced early-season success, so it’s hard to think one will have the edge over the other. This series falls on goaltending for me; whoever has the more solid goaltender over the weekend might be able to take two games. It should be a great series to watch.

The Spartans’ first contest against Penn State will come Friday at Pegula Ice Arena at 7 p.m. EST. The puck will drop for game two the following night at 7:30 p.m. EST.