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Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Look to Rematch With No. 8 Buckeyes on Saturday

Jan. 6, 2018

By Neil Koepke staff writer

EAST LANSING – If there is one thing that Michigan State has a fair amount of experience with this season, it’s rebounding from a frustrating defeat in the first game of a series and playing much better the next night and coming away with a victory or avoiding a loss.

They Spartans did it against Bowling Green in October, Wisconsin and Penn State in November and Michigan a month ago. Once again, MSU faces another challenge in lifting its game to a much higher level after a loss and salvaging a two-game series with a much-needed victory and series split.

On Friday, the Spartans had a miserable start to the first period against Ohio State, giving up two goals in the first six minutes, then watched the Buckeyes score twice in the first 32 seconds of the middle period and cruise to a 4-1 victory in front of a solid crowd of 5,744 at Munn Arena.

Michigan State (8-12-1 overall, 2-8-1-1 Big Ten) played much better in the last 30 minutes, with more energy, a higher compete level and fewer defensive mistakes, but by then the damage was done.

Now the question is whether the Spartans can duplicate their past successes and find a way to defeat the No. 8-ranked Buckeyes (13-4-4, 6-4-1) when the teams close out the Big Ten series at 7 p.m. Saturday at Munn Arena.

“Hopefully, we can learn from that and figure out how hard you have to play against a team that’s as good as that, and find some legs and find some battle,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “The lessons keep coming and we’ll keep trying to figure things out.

“Sometimes it’s getting caught in between thinking through things and trying to be perfect, and being in the right spot instead of just going ahead and playing. And when we did that, I think our guys got more done.’’



The Buckeyes, 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, struck quickly against MSU, finding the back of the net 33 seconds after the opening faceoff. Defenseman Sasha Larocque’s shot from the left point went through a screen and past Spartans goalie John Lethemon. It was Larocque’s first goal of the season.

With OSU on a power play, Kevin Miller found himself open in the slot, took a pass from John Wiitala and fired the puck past Minney for a 2-0 lead at 5:58. The goal was Miller’s second of the year.

The first minute of the second period doomed the Spartans, who gave up a power-play goal to Ronnie Hein, his first of the season, at the 15-second mark and an even-strength goal to Tanner Laczynski at 0:32 for a 4-0 Buckeyes lead. For Laczynski, who also had two assists, the goal was his team-leading 10th of the season.

That triggered a goaltending change for MSU with senior Ed Minney taking over for Lethemon for the final 39 minutes. Minney played well and didn’t give up a goal the rest of the way.’’

“I told our guys afterward, in probably the quickest post-game meeting I’ve ever had, that if you don’t skate you’re not going to get anything done, especially against as good of a team as Ohio State,’’ Cole said.

For sure, the Spartans played better in the 30 minutes or so and there were some positives to take away from a disappointing night.

One positive is there’s another game to play in the series, a chance to make amends and feel a little better about the weekend.

“I know it was 4-0 and (Ohio State) isn’t as intense as maybe they were before, but we got a lot more accomplished when we were skating and moving the puck,’’ Cole said.

“We’ve got to be better. In our defensive zone, they were moving it quickly and we we’re closing and recovering real well. We got on the wrong side. In the second half of the game, we did a much better job. We just have to play faster.’’

The Spartans finally solved OSU goalie Sean Romeo (21 saves) at 10:10 of the third period, spoiling his shutout bid, as junior left wing Brennan Sanford took a pass from sophomore center Sam Saliba in the right circle, found some space and fired the puck into the top left corner, cutting the deficit to 4-1. It was Sanford’s fourt goal of the season.

“We’ve had a lot of second-night wins after some Friday losses and we have to find a way to get a split,’’ said Saliba, one of the Spartans’ assistant captains. “It’s playing with all-around consistency from everyone. Playing a complete game, doing what we do best. It’s getting pucks behind them and defending well. And special teams as well. We’ve gotta be good on special teams.’’ The Spartans certainly weren’t at their best early against Ohio State, one of the best teams in the Big Ten and in the nation. And they paid the price.

“It wasn’t good enough from everybody, especially special teams,’’ Saliba said. “Us as penalty killers have be better. (It’s tough), them scoring two power-play goals and us getting behind the 8-ball like that with them scoring on the first shift.’’

In facing Ohio State for the first time this season, MSU players came away impressed with the Buckeyes’ balance of a good offense and solid defense.

“I think they defend a lot better than they did last year. They were more offensive – a run-and-gun type team,’’ Saliba said. “I think they slowed that down a little. They defend well and have guys that can score. We have to match that (on Saturday) and come out with intensity.’’

SOME POSITVES, HERE AND THERE: Coach Danton Cole says he’s a “proponent of little victories,” positive aspects in a game that don’t get much attention because of things that went wrong.

“You have to take every one you get, especially when we’re in our situation where we’re at,’’ he said “We have to bump that and understand that some things went right.

“We killed the last couple penalties so good, let’s recognize that and build on that.’’

While Michigan State didn’t create a lot of offensive chances, Cole did like the way the all-freshman line of Gino Esteves centering left wing Jake Smith and right wing Brody Stevens competed. Each had one shot on goal, and Esteves had a good scoring chance in the first period, driving down the right wing, cutting to the net and forcing OSU goaltender Sean Romeo to make a good save.

“Gino’s line with Smith and Stevens did a great job,’’ he said. “They even had some matchups against (OSU’s) top line, and they skated and worked and (kept it) pretty simple. It wasn’t perfect but they got things done. You want to get over the hump and have guys play that way.’’

Another positive was the play by senior goalie Ed Minney, who took over for starter John Lethemon 32 seconds into the second period, after Ohio State scored the second of two quick goals to boost its lead to 4-0.

Minney looked sharp and played well for the next 39 minutes, making 12 saves and not allowing a goal.

“I thought Ed did a great job. I’m proud of him,’’ Cole said. “He’s in a tough spot. He had a good first month of the season, found himself and got the first start (in the season opener at Bowling Green), but things didn’t go the way he wanted and John (Lethemon) jumped in and played well.

“(Minney’s performance) kind of reminds me of the game John had at Bowling Green. He came in and held the fort and did a great job.’’

In MSU’s first game, the Falcons scored three goals on Minney in 1 minute and 41 seconds midway through the first period to go up 3-0. Lethemon took over and played very well the rest of the game, giving up one goal, and basically took over as the starter.

“I’m proud about the way Ed played today, but also how he’s kept himself (involved),’’ the Spartan coach said. “I’ve talked our seniors a lot - Pav (Dylan Pavelek), who has not been in (the lineup) a lot either, and (Carson) Gatt, who plays a lot. But what those guys do off the ice is really important.

“They’ve handled themselves extremely well. Ed has kept himself ready, and I’m glad he came in and played well tonight, and that reflects on him as a young man and athlete.’’

Lethemon’s last appearance in a regular-season game was in relief of Lethemon in a 7-2 loss on Nov. 24 at Penn State. He played 51:26, made 25 saves and gave up four goals. He also played in MSU’s exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 team on Dec. 16, posting a 3-0 shutout with 20 saves. Minney admitted he didn’t expect to play Friday, considering how well Lethemon has been playing. But he works hard to stay ready and he delivered a solid game in a difficult role against the Buckeyes.

“I thought I played pretty well. It’s obviously tough coming into a 4-0 game like that, especially when the last game I’ve played in – other than the U.S. U-18 game – was a couple months ago. It’s been quite a while,’’ Minney said. “It was a couple of unfortunate bounces for (Lethemon) and a couple letdowns from a defense that let him out to dry.

“I went in and didn’t get a shot for a while. They had a lot of pressure in our zone but I didn’t get a shot on goal, and that made it tough to get into it. Once I saw a couple of shots, I started seeing the puck really well.

“I was getting on top of pucks and our defense and forecheckers stepped up and played the way we need to for 60 minutes. If we can play like that (Saturday), I think we can get a win.’’

Minney has played in five games, started two, has a 0-1 record, a 4.50 goals-against average and a .859 saves percentage. He also saw relief duty on Nov. 4 in Minnesota and allowed one goal, and he started on Nov. 10 against Wisconsin, giving up three goals in the first period before being replaced by Lethemon, as the Badgers went on to a 6-3 victory.

“I’m not sure what’s going to happen down the line,’’ he said. “I’m going to go day-by-day and when my name is called, I’ll play. But from a confidence standpoint, it’s been building over the season. Every chance I’ve gotten the last few times, my confidence has increased more and more.

“Leading up to the U.S. game, I felt really good and coming into the game tonight, I was seeing the puck well and reading a lot of the plays, with a lot of help from our d-men and backcheckers. It made my game pretty simple.’’

Like his teammates, Minney also was impressed by Ohio State.

“I think they have a better team this year than they did last year,’’ he said. “They really brought it, especially for the first 30 minutes. They looked really good. Their defense seems more experienced with moving the puck and defending better and they helped out their goalie a lot.

“We didn’t play our game for a while but when we did play our game, we were right there with them.’’

ANOTHER SOLID CROWD: Despite the students still being on winter break, a good crowd of 5,744 fans braved the near-zero temperatures to watch the Spartans’ first home game of 2018.

It was the fourth consecutive crowd of more than 5,000 and fifth of the season. Attendance for the previous three games: 6,392 vs. Notre Dame, Dec. 1; 5,698, Notre Dame, Dec. 2, and 6,007 vs. Michigan, Dec. 8; In addition, a crowd of 5,158 watched MSU play Wisconsin, Nov. 11.

“We want to win for each other, for the university and for our fans. That crowd was great, especially (with students) being on break,’’ Coach Danton Cole said. “They’ve been tremendously supportive and we appreciate it.’’

IN THE BIG TEN: Notre Dame, No. 2 in the USCHO poll and No. 1 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine, stayed unbeaten in conference play and with a 2-1 victory over Michigan Friday night in Ann Arbor. The Irish (17-3-1, 11-0-0) have won 11 straight Big Ten games and 14 in row overall.

All three goals were scored in the first period. Notre Dame got goals on two power-play goals from Matt Hellickson at 4:44 and Andrew Oglevie at 9:55 to take a 2-0 lead. Tony Calderone scored with 4:08 left in the period for Michigan, which outshot the Irish, 36-27.

U-M (8-9-2, 6-6-2-1) and Notre Dame meet in the series finale at 3 p.m. on Sunday in South Bend.

Penn State’s 5-1 victory at home over Wisconsin kind of mirrored OSU’s win against MSU. The No. 14 Nittany Lions (12-7-2, 5-4-2-1, like the Buckeyes, scored two goals in the first period and two in the second, including their third goal in the first minute and built a 4-0 lead after 40 minutes.

Just like the Spartans, the No. 15 Badgers (10-10-2, 4-6-0-0) scored their first and only goal midway through the second period to make it 4-1. But unlike MSU, Wisconsin gave up another goal to lose by four. Penn State’s Nate Sucese scored his third goal of the game into an empty net with 57 seconds left. Sucese now has 10 goals this season.

PSU and Wisconsin meet again on Saturday night in University Park, Pa.

Meanwhile, No. 10 Minnesota (12-9-1, 4-7-1-1) and No. 1 St. Cloud State (12-2-3, 7-2-1 NCHC) open a home-and-home, non-conference series on Saturday in St. Cloud. The teams play again on Sunday in Minneapolis.

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