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Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Solid Defensively in 2-0 Shutout at Wisconsin

Jan. 13, 2018

By Neil Koepke staff writer

MADISON, Wis. – Michigan State got its defensive game back in sync on Friday with one of its best efforts of the season.

After giving up 20 goals in four losses last week, the Spartans replied with efficient play in their own zone, strong penalty killing and solid goaltending.

Improvement in those areas, along with a timely power-play goal, led to a rewarding 2-0 victory over No. 18 Wisconsin in front of an announced crowd of 9,703 at the Kohl Center.

Goaltender John Lethemon received good protection from his defensemen and backchecking forwards, and he had his game at a high level in making 30 saves and recording his fourth shutout of the season.

“John was really good in net and defensively we were a lot better. We didn’t give up a lot of second chances,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “I didn’t see any panic in the third period (while nursing a one-goal lead).”

MSU (9-13-1 overall, 3-9-1-1 Big Ten) won the special teams battle, capitalizing on one of four power play chances and killing all four Wisconsin power plays, including three in the second period and one midway through the third period.

Standout freshman right wing Mitchell Lewandowski scored the only goal the Spartans needed on a power play with 11 seconds left in the second period. He pounced on Taro Hirose’s rebound and beat Badgers senior goalie Kyle Hayton from the slot for his team-leading 12th goal of the season.

Despite the Badgers push for the tie in the third period, Michigan State was up to the challenge to shut down the Wisconsin offense. But the Spartans couldn’t exhale until Cody Milan scored into an empty net with 1:06 left for a 2-0 lead.



Before the empty netter, Lethemon made a clutch save on Wisconsin’s Seamus Malone at the edge of the crease while MSU was on a power play with about seven minutes left.

“We played with a little more pace on their side of the red line and didn’t spend as much time in our own zone,’’ Cole said. “We did a lot better job just on our recoveries, closeouts, boxing out guys and not giving them many chances around the net.

“Even when shots got through, I thought our guys did a good job of doing that. We had good intensity and John Lethemon as very good. He did a nice job, he looked calm and looked like he was back to where he was before Christmas.’’

While Lethemon played well, Wisconsin goalie Hayton kept his team in the game with several key saves among his 19 stops.

The Spartans will go for the series sweep when they face the Badgers at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kohl Center. If they win, they’ll tie Wisconsin with 14 points, and could be deadlocked with Minnesota if the Gophers lose again to Michigan on Saturday.

In Michigan State’s last victory, Lethemon shut out Michigan, 5-0, on Dec. 8. The last time the Spartans faced the Badgers, Lethemon made 38 saves in blanking Wisconsin, 2-0, at Munn Arena on Nov. 11.

Lethemon, a 6-foot-2, 173-pound sophomore from Northville, downplayed any mystique he has over the Badgers.

“No, the team played well in front of me and when they’re doing that, you feel that much more comfortable,’’ he said. “When you see them sacrificing their bodies to make big plays and they’re working hard in the offensive zone, as a goaltender you really want to make that big stop, and tonight I was able to do that.’’

Lethemon wasn’t overwhelmed with quality scoring chances by the Badgers, but he did have to repel a few point-blank opportunities, and he was good at controlling rebounds and smothering pucks around the net.

“I think when I’m at my best, I’m calm and relaxed and kind of flow with the game and I felt that I did that tonight,’’ he said. “I wasn’t putting too much pressure on myself.

“Everybody played the right way, they played hard in front of me, boxed guys out, cleared pucks and collapsed to the net and blocked shots. That’s a great recipe for success.’’

After killing three penalties in the second period – the last starting at 17:21 – MSU went on the power play just as its penalty expired at 19:21. It took 28 seconds for the Spartans to convert and take a 1-0 lead.

Patrick Khodorenko, Carson Gatt, Taro Hirose all touched the puck before Lewandowski found the back of the net.

“Patty won the draw back to Taro, then it went to Carson, back to Taro and I was lucky enough to find it in front of the net after Taro shot,’’ Lewandowski said. “We had some good chances (before the goal) and we knew we just had to keep going.

“Our line needs to generate chances like that. You can’t let up. We kept pushing until we found one to go in.’’

The road win was only MSU’s second of the season, the first coming at Ferris State, 3-2, on Nov. 18.

And Friday’s victory was the Spartans first to start a two-game series or back-to-back games since the Ferris State series, Nov. 17, when they won 3-2 in overtime at Munn Arena.

Since then, MSU has started with losses at Penn State, home vs. Notre Dame, at Michigan and in the GLI against Michigan Tech and last weekend at home vs. Ohio State.

“We knew we had to come out strong tonight because road games haven’t tough for us for us,’’ Lewandowski said. “It was nice to walk out with a win, knowing we played a good game and that’s a good team we played, too.

“Friday games haven’t gone well for us. We haven’t put ourselves in a good spot the first night to have a chance to sweep a series on Saturday. And we’ve kind of been bad and holding leads. Tonight, we just played five minutes as a time, but getting that empty-net goal was kind of a relief but the buzzer at the end really did it for us.’’

MSU held Wisconsin standout center Trent Frederic and forwards Ryan Wagner, Cameron Hughes and Sean Dhooghe to two shots on goal apiece. Forward Seamus Malone and defensemen Jake Linhart and Wyatt Kalynuk each had four shots on net. The Badgers’ defense accounted for 11 of their 30 shots on goal

“That’s a good team over there. They’ve got good forwards, goalies and all the way through,’’ Lewandowski said. “This is the second time we shut them down. It’s weird how things work out.

“A Friday win on the road against a team like that is really good for us, good for our confidence.’’

A Saturday win would give Michigan State its first sweep since the Ferris State series and its first in the Big Ten this season.

“The approach we’re taking is the same as when we’ve been on the other side of it,’’ Cole said. “We want to get better every day and we’ll try to come out and play a heckuva game (Saturday) and sit back and not say, ‘we got a win and let’s see what happens.’ Let’s just play better again on Saturday.’’

DÉJÀ VU, SORT OF: When Michigan State topped Wisconsin, 2-0, on Nov. 11 to earn a series split, Friday’s goal-scorers – Mitchell Lewandowski and Cody Milan – also scored in that game. Except the sequences were reversed – Milan scored on a power play in the first period and Lewandowski connected midway through the third period.

Instead of the 30 saves he had Friday, Lethemon stopped 38 shots vs. the Badgers in November. Taro Hirose and Patrick Khodorenko assisted on both MSU goals in that game.

With one point apiece on Friday, Lewandowski and Hirose continue to share the team scoring lead with 25 points apiece. Lewandowski has 12 goals and 13 assists, while Hirose had seven goals and 18 assists.

APAP RETURNS, DELIVERS: In his first game back after suffering a lower-body injury in early December, center Tommy Apap made a big impact killing penalties and played solid defense. Apap, who missed six games, went 8-4 on faceoffs.

“He’s a big body, he’s good on draws and kills penalties really well,’’ Coach Danton Cole said of the 6-foot-2, 202-pound center from Bloomfield Hills. “It kind of levels our lineup because we’re short on centermen. We have wings playing center. Cody Milan had to jump in and play center and he did a good job. With Tommy, it’s evened things out a little.

“Tommy and Sam Saliba did a great job penalty killing tonight.’’

Apap’s presence was appreciated by goalie John Lethemon.

“He’s huge on the penalty kill, huge on draws, he’s a good presence, he’s physical in the corners and he’s a tough guy to get the puck off his stick,’’ Lethemon said. “Getting him back in the lineup was huge. He gave us that little extra jump.’’

SHUTOUTS COMMON: Michigan State has shut out Wisconsin five times over the last four seasons and the Badgers own one blanking of the Spartans during this stretch.

The shutout run started when MSU and Jake Hildebrand posted three straight 3-0 victories over the Badgers on Feb. 21, 2015, and March 6-7, 2015. Goalie John Lethemon has now posted back-to-back 2-0 shutouts over Wisconsin this season – Nov. 11, 2017, and Friday. Meanwhile, the Badgers’ Matt Jurusik blanked MSU, 3-0, on Dec. 12, 2015.

That’s six shutouts over the last 14 meetings between these teams.

IN THE BIG TEN: No. 13 Penn State climbed ahead of No. 6 Ohio State and took over second place with a 5-2 home victory over the Buckeyes. The Nittany Lions (13-7-3, 6-4-3-2) have 23 points, one more than OSU (14-5-4, 7-5-1).

Michigan went on the road and defeated Minnesota, 5-3, and moved into fourth place with 15 points, one more than the No. 9 Gophers and Wisconsin. The Wolverines (9-10-2, 4-7-2-1), who never trailed, built leads of 3-1 in the first period and led 4-2 after two. But they had to hold on at the end, after the Gophers (13-11-1, 4-8-1-1) cut their deficit to 4-3 with 3:38 left.

Minnesota went on the power play with 42 seconds left and pulled its goalie, but U-M sealed it on Brendan Warren’s shorthanded, empty-netter with 29 seconds left. Warren had two goals. Penn State and Ohio State and Michigan and Minnesota close out their series on Saturday night. First-place Notre Dame, which has won 14 games in a row, has the weekend off. SCORE OF THE NIGHT: If you like offensive hockey with lots of goals, how’s this: Omaha outlasted Miami, 11-7, on Friday in National Collegiate Hockey Conference game in Omaha.

The Mavericks took a 4-1 lead in the first period, But Redhawks cut the deficit to 6-4 late in the second period before Omaha scored a power-play goal with 25 seconds left to go up 7-4.

Omaha outscored the visitors 4-3 in the third period for a four-goal victory. Miami did make it 7-5 with an early goal but the Mavericks could not be stopped offensively.

Omaha goalie Evan Weninger, who allowed seven goals, even got into the act by scoring an empty-net goal with 2:39 left to close out the scoring. Actually, Weninger didn’t shoot the puck into the net. He got credit for the goal as the last UNO player to touch the puck before it caromed off the boards and slid into the net.

It was the first time a Mavericks goaltender was credited with a goal, and the first by a goaltender since 2013.

Ten players scored for UNO. Jake Randolph had two goals and two assists while senior forward David Pope had a goal and four assists.

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