Neil's Notebook: Spartans Turn Focus to Rival Wolverines
Neil Koepke previews this weekend's series vs. Michigan.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
ANN ARBOR – An intense, testy, emotion-filled series against your No. 1 rival couldn’t come at a better time for a pair of struggling Big Ten teams – Michigan State and Michigan.
This weekend, the Spartans and Wolverines can forget about disappointing records and the frustration building up over not scoring goals, allowing too many goals and not winning games.
The focus is on the rivalry – beating the team you enjoy defeating the most and claiming bragging rights – and hope it leads to confidence and perhaps a winning streak or something close to it.
“Anytime you play your rival, that’s obviously important. Both teams aren’t where they want to be, which in some respects doesn’t matter because all that matters is playing each other,’’ Spartans coach Tom Anastos said.
“You know that emotion won’t be a problem regardless of what our records are or where we are in the standings.’’
Michigan State, coming off two losses at Penn State, and Michigan, swept by Minnesota last weekend, meet in a two-game Big Ten series at 6:30 p.m. on Friday in Ann Arbor and at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Munn Arena. Both games will be televised by the Big Ten Network.
The Spartans, who have lost nine straight over the last month-and-a-half, are 4-15-1 overall and 0-6 in the Big Ten.
The Wolverines, who are 2-6 in their last eight games, are 8-11-1 overall and 1-5 in conference play.
MSU and U-M have already played once this season, but it was the third-place game in the Great Lakes Invitational at Joe Louis Arena three weeks ago, a contest both teams were disappointed to be playing in.
The Wolverines built a 4-1 lead after two periods, but the Spartans rallied for three goals in the third period to send the game into overtime. After MSU failed to convert on three good scoring chances early in OT, Michigan made a good play to come out from behind the net and tapped in a loose puck for a 5-4 victory.
Now, the teams have had a full week to focus on their arch-rival and the stakes are higher since it’s a Big Ten series.
“Every year these games are huge, no matter how good or bad each team is doing,’’ said MSU junior goaltender Ed Minney, who will be starting against Michigan for the first time in his career.
“They always seem to be close, there’s a lot of built-up aggression, it’s always chippy, with a lot of people running their mouths. Throughout the whole game, it’s pretty much everyone beaking at each other.
“Our season hasn’t been going very well but this could be one of those weekends where it turns around for us. I think a win could turn around our whole season.’’
Last season, Michigan held a 3-1 edge over Michigan State, winning two games at Munn Arena and one at home. The Spartans’ victory came at Joe Louis Arena, 3-2 in overtime on Matt DeBlouw’s power-play goal in front of a sellout crowd of 20,027.
“In front of your fan base, it’s kind of hard to take but we always seem to trade blows with them,’’ MSU senior right wing and captain Joe Cox said of the two home losses to U-M.
“They’ve won here, we’ve won there, they swept us here and we win the Iron D (Trophy) in Detroit. It goes back and forth. That’s what makes the rivalry great.’’
“I really haven’t thought about that yet. It’s kind of sad but it’s also a cap on a good career at Michigan State,’’ Cox said. “Hopefully, we can win that game so I can say the last time we played them here, we got a win.’’
FIRST-TIMERS AT YOST: Goalie Ed Minney is a junior but he has something in common with the Spartans’ 11 freshmen. They’ve never played a college game at Yost Arena in Ann Arbor.
For Minney and probably seven or eight rookies, they’ll be making their debut at Yost Arena on Friday.
In fact, Minney will be making his first game against the Wolverines after watching the 10 of the last 11 vs. U-M from the bench while backing up Jake Hildebrand. Minney faced the Wolverines in a relief role last season on Jan. 8, playing 28 minutes and 15 seconds, giving up two goal and making 13 saves.
In the GLI, freshman John Lethemon got the start in the third-place game, with Minney watching from his usual spot on the bench.
“I knew a little about the Michigan State rivalry (before coming to MSU) but never know how series it was until I lived in Ann Arbor (while playing for the National Team Development Program) for two years and saw how everyone hated Michigan State.
“Now, it’s on the flip side, living here.’’
Spartan freshmen who’ve never played at Yost Arena at the college level include forwards Patrick Khodorenko, Taro Hirose, Sam Saliba and Logan Lambdin, defensemen Jerad Rosburg, Mitch Eliot, Butrus Ghafari, Damian Chrcek and Anthony Scarsella, and goalies John Lethemon and Spencer Wright.
Eight rookies played against Michigan at the GLI – Khodorenko, Hirose, Saliba, Lambdin, Rosburg, Eliot, Chrcek and Lethemon. Lambdin had MSU’s first goal, cutting U-M’s lead to 2-1 midway through the first period.
What will captain Joe Cox pass along to the freshmen about the rivalry?
“That these are going to be the biggest games that you’ll play in. It doesn’t matter if it’s the conference final, these are the games that mean the most,’’ he said. “They’re be the most interesting and the most fun and it’s a lot of fun when you come out on the winning side.’’
Cox and his seniors still remember what it took to defeat the Wolverines 2-1 in Ann Arbor two years ago on the final night of the regular season, earning MSU second place in the Big Ten.
“It takes just about everything you have to win there. It’s a pretty hostile environment and they feed off that environment,’’ he said. “You can’t go in there and have an off-night and expect to win. They’re going to put shots on goal, create good scoring chances, and the way our defense handles it and the way our goalie handles it is crucial.’’
In the Spartans win at Yost Arena in 2015, goalie Jake Hildebrand made 37 saves and was particularly outstanding in the third period.
DEFENSE NEEDS TO IMPROVE: If Michigan State is going to turn its season around, play more consistently and boost its victory total, it’ll have to be much better on defense.
The Spartans have allowed five goals in each of the last five games – one loss to Michigan, two at Wisconsin and two last weekend at Penn State.
“We have to reduce our goals against. How do you do that? You have to be better in the defensive zone, you have to do a better job of shot-blocking and I think the biggest part is managing the puck better,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “The change in the game last Saturday was (because of) a turnover and that gives them life and they convert on a 3-on-1.
“I don’t think we’ve done a good job of blocking shots this season. You have to sacrifice yourself and be committed to feeling the pain that goes with that.
“We’ve played a lot of good hockey, a lot of good minutes and yet not enough with consistency in all phases of the game. That’s our biggest challenge – finding the level of consistency in every phase of our game, whether it’s team defense, generating offense, special teams on both sides – the power play and penalty killing – and goaltending.’’
The Spartans have allowed 82 goals (4 empty-netters) in 20 games for a 4.05 team goals-against average. Goaltenders Minney and Lethemon have a combined .872 saves percentage.
“It’s not just about defense. It’s how you defense in your own zone, how you transition from offense to defense, how you backcheck and pick up the right people, how you change lines and how you manage the puck,’’ Anastos said.
“Our goals against has consistently been too high. That has to improve. Part of that has been inconsistency on our penalty kill and inconsistency in the net and in other areas. It’s frustrating but we have to find solutions to get the results that we want.’’
POWER PLAY IMPROVING: In recent weeks, Michigan State is moving the puck around better on the power play, creating quality scoring chances and putting the puck in the net more frequently than it did early in the season.
The Spartans have scored one power-play goal in six of their last seven games. After three straight games without a power-play goal in late November and early December, MSU went 1-for-6 against Northeastern, 1-for-9 vs. Western Michigan, 1-for-5 against Michigan, 0-4 and 1-for-3 at Wisconsin and 1-for-3 and 1-for-5 at Penn State. Zach Osburn scored a power-play goal to give MSU 1-0 lead in last Friday’s 5-2 loss at Penn State, and Mason Appleton scored on a deflection of Taro Hirose’s shot from the point for a power-play goal that gave his team a 2-1 lead in the second period of a 5-3 loss against the Nittany Lions.
“Special teams are critical to winning and ours’ have not been where we want them to be,’’ Anastos said. “But our power play has been progressing pretty well. Our possession time has been pretty good and our looks for scoring opportunities continue to get better. We’re scoring with more regularity, even though we could use more scoring.’’
Michigan State’s power play has converted on 15 of 102 chances for a 14.7 percent success rate, ranking 46th in the nation.
Hirose, a freshman, has played a key role on the power play in bringing the puck up the ice and setting up plays from his spot at the left point. He’s making crisp passes and getting pucks through to the net and is dangerous in moving into the slot for shots.
“Hirose is a key guy out there. He has terrific vision, really good hands and helps plays develop plays when he has the puck and when he doesn’t,’’ Anastos said. “He’s the kind of player we’ve been trying to get here for a while. He’s a really good power-play type of player.
“I think we have the pieces there. We have two sophomores and three freshmen on the No. 1 unit and as those guys continue to get game experience, the power play is going to get better and better.’’
The last time Michigan State and Michigan entered a conference series with both teams’ records below .500 was on Feb. 1, 2013, the last season of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. The Spartans were 7-16-3 overall, while Michigan was 8-16-2.
REUNION TIME: Freshman center Patrick Khodorenko is playing in his first two-game series against Michigan and that means he’ll be going up against five former teammates from the U.S. National Team Development Program.
Khodorenko, 18, a 6-foot, 207-pounder from Walnut Creek, Calif., played two seasons – with the U-17s and U-18s – with Michigan freshmen forwards Nick Pastujov, Will Lockwood and James Sanchez and rookie defensemen Luke Martin and Griffin Luce. Khodorenko is best friends with Pastujov, with whom he played midget hockey with Detroit Honeybaked before joining the NTDP in Ann Arbor.
“Having all those buddies on that team makes me want to win even more,’’ Khodorenko said. “You always want to beat your friends.’’
Khodorenko said he keeps in touch with his former teammates with occasional tweets, but probably not so much this week.
He said Friday’s and Saturday’s games will mean a lot more than the third-place game at the GLI three weeks ago. There was no build-up to that game, and even though it was still an intense rivalry game, it was at a neutral site and a game both teams were frustrated about being part of.
“It definitely means more this weekend. That was a consolation game but every game against Michigan is important,’’ Khodorenko said. “We need points in the Big Ten so this series will be huge.’’
Khodorenko has played one game at Yost Arena against Michigan as a member of the U.S. U-18 team last season. The Wolverines won 5-2, breaking a 1-1 tie with four goals in the third period.
“It was fun but now that I’m at Michigan State, this will be a lot different,’’ he said. “It’ll be like a lot of college rivalry games. It’s what college hockey is about.
“I think for us (to win), special teams have to be a big factor. We have to score more on the power play and be better on penalty kill. At the GLI, we didn’t have a good first two periods. If we play like we did in the third period, we can pull this off.’’
SCOUTING THE WOLVERINES: After losing its five best players to early departures to the NHL, including the highest-scoring forward line in the nation last season in Kyle Connor, JT Compher and Tyler Mott and standout defenseman Zach Werenski, Michigan is in major rebuilding mode.
The Wolverines have struggled to create offense and score goals. Instead of being one of the top scoring teams in the nation, U-M is 38th, averaging 2.60 goals per game.
Special teams have been respectable, both ranking 17th in the nation. The power play is converting on 19.8 percent and penalty killing is at 85.6 percent.
Freshmen Will Lockwood and Jake Slaker share the team scoring lead with 13 points. Lockwood, who missed last week’s series at Minnesota with an upper body injury but is expected to play this weekend, has seven goals and six assists. Slaker has four goals and nine assists.
Tony Calderone, a junior, is U-M’s top goal scorer with 10. He has one assist for 11 points. Calderone scored two goals, including the winner in overtime, in Michigan’s 5-4 victory over Michigan State in the GLI’s third-place game on Dec. 30.
Other top forwards include sophomore Cooper Marody (0-3-3 in four games), senior Alex Kile (5-4-9), junior Dexter Dancs (1-8-9), senior Max Shuart (1-7-8), freshman James Sanchez (3-4-7) and sophomore Brendan Warren (2-5-7).
Marody, who had 10 goals and 24 points as a freshman, missed the first half of the season due to eligibility issues. He had three assists against MSU in the GLI and should give U-M’s a boost with his return.
Defensively, the Wolverines are giving up 3.0 goals per game, which ranks 36th in the nation.
Michigan is one of the few teams in the country with a three-goalie system. Senior Zach Nagelvoort and freshmen Hayden Lavigne and Jack LaFontaine have had good moments but haven’t played well enough to earn the No. 1 starter’s role.
Nagelvoort, in seven games, has a 3-3 record with a 3.15 goals-against average and a .916 saves percentage. Lavigne has played in eight games, is 4-4 with a 2.36 GAA and a .932 saves percentage. In seven games, LaFontaine is 1-4 with a 3.13 GAA and a .919 saves percentage.
The defensive corps is fairly experienced but not necessary dynamic with junior Sam Piazza (5-5-10, fourth in team scoring), senior Nolan DeJong (2-4-6), sophomores Joe Cecconi (0-2-2) and Nick Boka (1-1-2) and freshmen Luke Martin (1-4-5) and Griffin Luce (0-0-0).
Since Thanksgiving, the Wolverines are 2-6. They got swept at Penn State, 6-1, 5-1 in early December, split at home with Wisconsin, losing 7-4 and winning 4-1, lost to Michigan Tech 2-0 and edged MSU, 4-3 in overtime in the GLI, and lost twice last weekend at Minnesota, 5-2, 4-2.
Early in the season, Michigan split with Union, won at Ferris State in a single game, won and tied at home against Michigan Tech, lost at Vermont and Dartmouth, won a single game at Arizona State, split a home series with Boston University and split at home against Lake Superior State on Thanksgiving weekend.
Next weekend, the Wolverines play host to Ohio State.
THE RIVALRY: Michigan holds a 160-131-19 edge in a series that started with a 5-1 Wolverine victory on Jan. 11, 1922. The teams met 16 times from 1922 to 1930, with U-M holding a 14-2 edge, before the series resumed in February, 1950.
Last season, Michigan won three of the four meetings, winning 6-3 at home and both games at Munn Arena, 9-2 and 4-1. The Spartans won at Joe Louis Arena, 3-2 in overtime.
MSU and U-M meet again on Feb. 10 in Detroit and Feb. 11 in Ann Arbor.
IN THE BIG TEN: Finally, all six conference teams are playing league games on the same weekend. In addition to the Michigan State-Michigan series, there’s another rivalry series going on as Minnesota visits Wisconsin on Friday and Saturday.
In addition, Ohio State is at Penn State, the newest No. 1 team in the nation and the first time the Nittany Lions have been ranked No. 1 (in the USCHO Top 20 poll).
The No. 7 Gophers (13-5-2, 5-1 Big Ten) have won seven straight and are coming off a 4-2, 5-2 sweep of Michigan at home last weekend. Wisconsin (10-7-1, 3-1) was idle last weekend.
Penn State’s sweep of the Spartans lifted it into the No. 1 ranking by USCHO after being ranked No. 4 a week ago. The Nittany Lions climbed past Minnesota-Duluth, Denver and Harvard and into the top spot.
In the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine rankings, Denver remained No. 1 with Penn State moving up to No. 2.
The Nittany Lions (16-2-1, 5-1) and the No. 11 Buckeyes (11-4-5, 2-2) are meeting for the third and four times in the last three weekends. They split a series in Columbus, Jan. 6-7, OSU winning 3-0 in the first game and Penn State earning a split with a 4-2 win in the series finale.
Last weekend, Ohio State won and tied in a non-conference home series against independent Arizona State. The Buckeyes routed the Sun Devils, 6-1, in the first game but ASU scored with 26 seconds left in the third period to earn a 2-2 tie.
Five of the six Big Ten teams have played six league games and have 14 games remaining. Ohio State, however, has played only four and has 16 games left.
Minnesota (5-1) and Penn State are tied for first place with 15 points, with Wisconsin in second with nine. Ohio State (2-2) is fourth with six points, followed by Michigan (1-5, 3 points) and MSU (0-6, 0 points).
Penn State’s Denis Smirnov, held to one point last weekend against the Spartans, continues to lead the Big Ten in overall scoring with 11 goals and 18 assists for 29 points in 19 games. Tyler Sheehy of Minnesota is a point back with 14 goals and 14 assists for 28 points.
The Spartans’ Mason Appleton is in a four-way tie for 10th place with nine goals and 10 assists for 19 points in 20 games.