Neil’s Notebook: Young Spartans in Search of Consistency in Second Half of B1G Play
Neil Koepke previews this weekend's series at Wisconsin and highlights Logan Lambdin.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
MADISON, Wis. – Resiliency has been a strength for Michigan State in the first half of the Big Ten season.
But consistency has not.
As the Spartans embark on the second half of conference play – the final 12 games of the regular season – the emphasis is building on the positives, staying with the process and finding consistency in each game that will lead to victories.
“Once we finally learn to play consistently and get a little momentum going as a team, I think we’ll be successful,’’ junior defenseman Zach Osburn said. “The times we’ve gotten away from our game, we’ve not played our high-energy, physical game, like in the GLI and in a couple of other games. We’ve ended up on the wrong side of things.
“When we’re playing our game, we’re tough to play against. Once we get more consistent and we’re doing that every game for a full 60 minutes, we’ll be really effective.’’
The Spartans (8-13-1 overall, 2-9-1-1 Big Ten) are on the road this weekend against No. 18 Wisconsin (10-10-4, 4-6-2), another team that’s having consistency issues.
The two teams meet at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at the Kohl Center. MSU has lost four straight and five of its last six games, while the Badgers are 1-4-1 in their last six games.
“One of the things we talked about with the guys is to stay on the positive side of things and take a bigger view of where we’re at,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “Why we didn’t get the results (we wanted) is important because we’re in the business of winning, but the process still has to be our main focus.’’
Michigan State is coming off two home losses against now-No. 6 Ohio State, 4-1, 5-3. Wisconsin last weekend lost 5-1 and tied 3-3 at Penn State, now ranked No. 13.
“We’re learning how to have success and how to win hockey games,’’ Cole said. “It’s always easier to imprint the good things that happen when you have positive feedback. It’s a little like driving somewhere with your kids in the back seat and they’re screaming, ‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet?’ No, we’re not there yet. We’ll get there when we get there.
“We’re trying to get them to focus more on the process. The results will take care of themselves.’’
As the Spartans focus on steady improvement, playing with a fast pace and consistency, the coaching staff is staying patient and not dwelling on losses.
“You have to approach it in that manner because that’s how you want the team to do it,’’ Cole said. “If (the coaches) are losing patience or a belief in what we’re trying to do as leaders, then so are they.
“You don’t ever want to accept losing but the bigger issue would be accepting not playing the right way. Just make sure they stay on that and keep learning how to have success.’’
Despite their losing streak, the Spartans did see some positives with their offense in the Great Lakes Invitational – 5-2 and 6-4 losses to Michigan Tech and Michigan, respectively – and in last Saturday’s 5-3 loss to Ohio State.
MSU did have stretches of good offensive zone time, resulting in quality scoring chances.
“We actually scored a few goals in those games and after the GLI, in talking to the guys, I said ‘Hey we scored six goals in two games.’ When we get to where we want to be defensively, not only will that be good enough to win games and the GLI, we’ll end up scoring more goals.
“And playing defense is not just what happens in the defensive zone. It starts as soon as you lose the puck, you’re playing defense. It’s about how you’re pursuing on the forecheck, transitioning once you get it. There are a lot of aspects of the game where we can get better.’’
THE RIVALRY: Michigan State holds a 54-52 edge in the series with Wisconsin, which started with a 9-2 Spartan win on Dec. 11, 1964. This season, on Nov. 10-11, the two teams split a series at Munn Arena, the Badgers dominating in a 6-3 victory in the opener and MSU salvaging a split the next night, winning 2-0.
Over the last three seasons in the series against the Badgers, MSU was 0-4 in 2016-17; 3-1 in 2015-16 and 3-1 in 2014-15. Wisconsin holds an 8-13 edge over the last 10 seasons.
After MSU left the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for the Central Collegiate Hockey Association starting with the 1981-82 season, the Spartans and Badgers played only one time – in the GLI in 1987 - until Nov., 1993, when the College Hockey Showcase started. The CHS, featuring MSU, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, lasted 18 seasons.
The Spartans and Badgers didn’t play each other for two years after the CHS ended – 2011-12 and 2012-13 – before the rivalry resumed with the formation of the Big Ten hockey conference.
SCOUTING THE BADGERS: Since leaving East Lansing after splitting a series Nov. 10-11, Wisconsin has won just three of its last 10 games. The Badgers are 3-5-2 with wins over Michigan, Mercyhurst and Minnesota.
Wisconsin is tied with Minnesota for fourth place in the Big Ten with 14 points, six behind Penn State, eight in back of Ohio State and 22 points behind first-place Notre Dame.
The Badgers have played one more game than MSU overall but has outscored the Spartans, 74-53. Wisconsin is averaging 3.22 goals per game, which ranks No. 5 nationally. Defensively, the Badgers rank No. 33 with a 3.00 goals-against average.
Top forwards include senior Ryan Wagner (8-12-20), sophomore Trent Frederic (8-8-12), senior captain Cameron Hughes (7-9-16), freshman Tarek Baker (9-6-15), freshman Linus Weissbach (6-9-15), juniors Will Johnson (5-10-15) and Seamus Malone (7-7-14) and freshman Sean Dhooghe (4-8-12).
Frederic just returned from a three-week stay with the U.S. Junior National Team that won a bronze medal in Buffalo. He scored four goals against the Czech team in the third-place game last Friday.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder from St. Louis was drafted by the Boston Bruins in the first round (29th overall) of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Frederic played for MSU coach Danton Cole for two seasons with the U.S. Under-17 and 18 teams.
“First of all, he’s a fantastic young man, great to be around, he works hard, he’s a great teammate and very affable,’’ Cole said. “Skill-wise, he’s big, he’s all of 6-2 or 6-3, he skates well, has good hands, an NHL shot, and when he’s playing big and physical and shooting pucks, he’s a load to handle.
“He’s an interesting matchup for us. We don’t have that animal of a big center that matches up well against him. Not yet.’’
The Badgers have good depth up front, on the blue line and in goal with graduate transfer senior Kyle Hayton (7-7-3, 2.90 goals-against average, .894 saves percentage) and sophomore Jack Berry (3-3, 2.75 GAA, .897 saves percentage). Hayton was a NCAA East All-American as a junior at St. Lawrence.
The defense is anchored by seniors Jake Linhart and Peter Tischke but three freshmen have played key roles – Wyatt Kalynuk, who is the Badgers’ second-leading scorer with one goal and 16 assists for 17 points, and Josh Ess and Tyler Inamoto, who played for the U.S. U-18 team last season.
“What works against Wisconsin, well you better be dedicated and committed,’’ Cole said. “They get up and own the ice, have guys that can skate and guys that can put the puck in the net. A lot of their defense rushes the puck quite a bit.
“We’re going to have to do a good job not just from our blue line back but from their blue line in. We have to make sure that when their defensemen move the puck, we bump them. We don’t have to kill them, but we need to bump them so they come from a standstill. And we have to try to disrupt their rush a little bit, and play in their zone against their defense rather than our D playing in our zone against them.’’
BIG ICE A BENEFIT: MSU junior defenseman Zach Osburn believes playing on the big ice surface at the Kohl Center at Wisconsin this weekend will help the Spartans because of their size and speed.
The Kohl Center is the normal 200 feet in length but it’s 97 feet wide, three feet shy of an Olympic-size surface and 12 feet wider than normal-size rinks, like Munn Arena.
“I think our team is going to thrive off the big ice. We have a lot of guys with speed, and we like to play with speed and energy,’’ Osburn said. “And with how small and fast we are, I think we’re going to benefit from the bigger ice.
“It’s easier to create time for ourselves and it’ll be easier for forwards like Taro (Hirose), Patty (Khodorenko), (Mitchell) Lewandowski and (Logan) Lambdin to be able to buy time for themselves and make more efficient plays.’’
For various reasons, Osburn loves playing at the Kohl Center.
“This is my favorite place to play in college hockey, besides here at Munn,’’ he said. “It’s just because of the bigger ice, the atmosphere there and the facilities
“The bigger ice will help my playing style and give me more time to make that first pass and more room to make the first move to be able to open up that lane to the forwards.’’
No matter the size of the ice – in East Lansing or Madison – Osburn expects it’ll take a very strong and consistent game by the Spartans to beat the Badgers.
“They have a lot of high-end talent, high-end young talent and their older forwards are deep and so are their defensemen,’’ Osburn said. “They’re a good team and no matter where they’re playing – Olympic ice or our ice – they’re a tough opponent to play against.’’
BIGGER CONTRIBUTION: Logan Lambdin isn’t very big at 5-foot-8, 174- pounds, but he does have excellent speed and quickness. And on a team that is eager for secondary scoring to lessen the pressure on the top line of Taro Hirose, Patrick Khodorenko and Mitchell Lewandowski, Lambdin is eager to boost his offensive production and overall contributions.
Lambdin, 22, from Newport, Mich., had six goals and six assists for 12 points in 34 games as a freshman, and has three goals and four assists for seven points in 21 games this season.
Lambdin has been working with the coaching staff to elevate his game while playing with and without the puck in offensive and defensive situations.
“The main thing is to try to stay consistent throughout the whole game with everything the coaches want me to do,’’ Lambdin said. “It’s shooting the puck more, not passing up chances and finishing hits and basically playing hard in the right way for a full game.
“I feel like the break was pretty good for me. After the first half, I had some time to reflect on and visualize what I’ve done so far – obviously my offensive game hasn’t been that great in the first half.
“I kind of worked on that over break, focusing on what I needed to do better. I feel like it’s been a decent start. I haven’t got those results but I feel like it’s a good start.’’
Lambdin put together a few solid stretches against Michigan in the GLI third-place game and in last weekend’s series against Ohio State in which he won battles for the puck, controlled it and made plays – setting up teammates or taking shots. On a power play against OSU on Saturday, he fired a shot toward the net from the right circle that center Sam Saliba tipped in to tie the game 2-2 early in the second period.
“It’s about playing a more all-around game. If you have a shot, you have to take it or if there’s a guy that’s open, you have to make that play,’’ Lambdin said. “The main thing is making those little plays, executing those plays down low.’’
Coach Danton Cole said Lambdin needs to figure out the style of play he needs to play to be productive.
“Logan brings a lot of energy. He’s learning to manage his game a little bit,’’ Cole said. “Sometimes through the neutral zone he takes away from his strength and tries to skate it too much and gets in traffic and things he can’t get out of.
“When he puts the puck on the other side and plays a forechecking game and plays downhill (he’s efficient). By the time he’s done here he’s going to score some goals.
“He’s really determined, has a good shot and is hard around pucks in front of the net.’’
What’s the main challenge for Lambdin as he works to make more of an impact?
“It’s making sure I’m playing the way that’s going to make me the best player possible,’’ he said. “It’s not passing up shooting opportunities from grade A areas, also controlling the puck instead of just throwing it away to the middle of the ice, making ‘hope’ plays.’’
IN GOAL: Coach Danton Cole has said all season that the goaltender who starts each game will be the one who the coaching staff believes gives MSU the best chance to win. And despite senior Ed Minney playing almost five of the six periods last weekend against Ohio State, the philosophy hasn’t changed.
John Lethemon has started 19 games and Minney has three, including last Saturday’s 5-3 loss against the Buckeyes. Lethemon has played at a high level most of the first half of the season and has been replaced three times. Minney, who didn’t get off to a good start, has been pulled in two games.
“They’re probably in the same state as the rest of the team is. I think it’s trying to get them back on the right mental mindset, understanding that they’ve done some good things and get away from the results part of it,’’ Cole said.
“Hey, stop the puck, stop the next shot. If something goes wrong, forget about it quickly and move on. That’s a lot of the advice we’ll talk to (all) the guys about this week.’’
Lethemon, who was lifted for Minney in the first minute of the second period last Friday, after giving up four goals, is 8-11-1, with a 2.75 goals-against average and a .905 saves percentage. Minney is 0-2 with a 4.64 GAA and a .853 saves percentage.
“John did a great job for us. He didn’t forget how to play goalie. He’ll be back,” Cole said. “And Ed had a good stretch. He had a shutout (against the U.S. U-18 team in an exhibition game in mid-December) and then played 39 minutes on Friday. He almost went 100 minutes without getting scored on.
“They’ve got to battle and push each other. And coach (Joe) Exter and coach (Chris) Luongo and I will talk at the end of the week and figure out who the right guy is for Friday night.’’
SPARTAN BRIEFS: Junior left wing Brennan Sanford will miss this weekend’s series at Wisconsin with an injury, but it’s hoped he can return for next weekend’s games with Minnesota at Munn Arena on Jan. 18 and at Madison Square Garden in New York on Jan 20. Sanford was injured last Friday against Ohio State after he scored the Spartans’ only goal midway through the third period.
Meanwhile, freshman center Tommy Apap has returned to the lineup after suffering a lower body injury against Notre Dame on Dec. 2. He’s missed MSU’s last six games. Apap is the Spartans’ best faceoff man, winning 136, losing 95, for a 58.9 percent success rate.
IN THE BIG TEN: Notre Dame, now No. 1 in both college hockey polls, has the weekend off. The Irish (18-3-1, 12-0) have won 14 games in a row, including 12 straight in Big Ten play.
In addition to the MSU-Wisconsin series, No. 9 Minnesota (13-10-1, 4-7-1-1) plays host to Michigan (8-10-2, 3-7-2) on Friday and Saturday, and No. 6 Ohio State (14-4-4, 7-4-1) plays at No. 13 Penn State (12-7-3, 5-4-3-2). The second-place Buckeyes hold a two-point lead over the third-place Nittany Lions.
Ohio State forward Tanner Laczynski and Michigan forward Cooper Marody share the conference overall scoring lead with 29 points apiece. Laczynski has 10 goals and 19 assists, while Marody has seven goals and 22 assists. The Spartans’ Taro Hirose (7-17-24) and Mitchell Lewandowski (7-17-24) are in a three-way tie for fifth.
Hirose leads the Big Ten in power-points with 13 with one goal and 12 assists. Lewandowski is tied for second with 10 points (5-5). Lewandowski continues to be the top freshman scorer in the nation and the leading goal scorer. Minnesota State’s Jake Jaremko is second with 23 points with seven goals and 16 assists.