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Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Use Balanced Attack to Top No. 5 OSU

Feb. 4, 2018

By Neil Koepke staff writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio – On Friday night, Michigan State showed it could compete with the No. 5-ranked team in the nation.

On Saturday, the Spartans went a step further. They proved they could beat the No. 5 team in the country - arguably the second-best team in the Big Ten.

An excellent team effort, highlighted by a balanced scoring attack and a definite physical presence, carried MSU to a 6-3 victory over Ohio State on Saturday, one night after the Spartans played well against the Buckeyes in a 4-2 loss.

“We dug deep, played well and it was a gutsy effort,” MSU coach Danton Cole said. “There was a lot of energy and great emotion. We executed, moved pucks and played fast.’’

For most of the season, the Spartans (10-17-1 overall, 4-14-1-1 Big Ten) have been looking for secondary scoring and some rewards for their generally solid work ethic.

They found both on Saturday, in front of 8,062 fans at Value City Arena.

How’s this for a list of MSU goal-scorers:

Sophomore defenseman Butrus Ghafari, freshman right wing Austin Kamer, freshman right wing David Keefer, senior defenseman Carson Gatt, sophomore left wing Logan Lambdin and sophomore center Patrick Khodorenko.

In addition, the Spartans got six assists from defensemen – two from freshman Tommy Miller, two from sophomore Mitch Eliot and one each from junior Zach Osburn and Gatt.



Forward collecting assists included freshmen Jake Smith and Tommy Apap, juniors Brennan Sanford and Cody Milan and sophomore Taro Hirose, MSU’s leading scorer (9-22-31 points) who was credited with four blocked shots but it seemed like more.

“Taro may have led the team in blocked shots and he’s probably a little sore,’’ Cole said. “When your leading scoring is blocking shots and your fourth line (Gino Esteves centering Kamer and Smith) gets a couple of goals, that’s what it takes. Spreading things out his huge.’’

Officially, Miller led MSU with five blocked shots but Hirose also sacrificing his body was quite noticeable.

“Taro was saying that he probably had more blocks in this game than he’s had all season,’’ Gatt said. “When you see a guy like that and doing the gritty stuff, it really energizes the rest of the team.’’

The victory ended MSU’s four-game losing streak and stopped OSU’s run of four victories in a row.

The Spartans shocked the Buckeyes (18-6-4, 11-6-1-0) by taking a 3-0 lead in the first period on goals by Ghafari at 3:23, Kamer at 9:56 and Khodorenko (shorthanded) at 19:32.

Ghafari’s wrist shot from the blue line in the middle of the ice rocketed past goalie Sean Romeo. Less than seven minutes later, Eliot’s shot from the point caromed off the end boards right to Kamer in the right circle. He let go with a wrist shot that eluded Romeo for his first collegiate goal and second point.

While killing a penalty, an OSU defenseman lost the puck behind the net in the Buckeye zone. Hirose got possession and fed Khodorenko, who was lurking in front of the net. He took the pass and beat Romeo for his 10th goal of the season with 29 second left in the period.

However, with the power play continuing, Ohio State scored 16 seconds later – at 19:47 - with Dakota Joshua scoring from in front after MSU lost the puck behind the net. Joshua had two goals in Friday’s OSU victory.

In the second period, MSU stunned the Buckeyes by taking a 5-1 lead on goals by Keefer, on a great individual play at 11:20, and by Gatt, with a slap shot from the left point at 14:20.

But Ohio State answered quickly with Matthew Weiss finishing off a nice passing play with Mason Jobst to score at 14:59 to make it 5-2 at the second intermission.

“I thought we did a real good job, especially in the first two periods, of getting pucks in the offensive zone and playing in offensive zone,’’ Cole said. “Tommy Apap’s line (with Sanford and Keefer) is big and strong and they ragged it, kept (the puck) in there for a while and got some screens for a couple of goals.’’

The Buckeyes made things tighter early in the third period and put some pressure on the Spartans when they climbed within two goals of MSU at 5-3 on Ronnie Hein’s power-power play goal at 6:02.

But Michigan State didn’t panic and played smart and solid defensively, avoided a few close calls around the net, and goalie John Lethemon (27 saves, 8 in third period) was solid.

With goalie Tommy Nappier, who replaced Romeo at 14:20 of the second period, after Gatt’s goal, pulled for a sixth attacker, Lambdin sealed the victory with an empty-net goal from behind the red line – from about 95 feet - with 1:37 left.

Cole liked the way his team reacted to protecting a third period lead, especially against a highly skilled, high-scoring team like Ohio State.

“We haven’t been through it a lot. We talked about it last night. You want that killer instinct when it’s 3-2 or 2-1 or when you get up a goal. I thought we answered back well tonight,’’ he said.

“If you’re a top five team, you’re as good as anybody in the country. And they’re a good hockey team. Ohio State is deep and they defend well. I thought our guys played hard for six periods.

“The way things are laid out, there’s a good chance we’ll see these guys again in the playoffs.’’

With three weeks left in the regular season, the Buckeyes are in second place, six points ahead of Wisconsin, and appear to be a good bet to finish runner-up to Notre Dame. That would match OSU with the seventh-place finisher – likely MSU – in a home best-of-three series in the first round of the Big Ten playoffs, March 2-3.

“It’s pretty likely we’ll be playing them, so to come into their building and get a win where we know we might be playing in the beginning of March is huge,’’ Gatt said.

Of course, just winning a game, after coming close in the last few weeks, was especially uplifting for the Spartans.

“It’s been frustrating when we’ve played well, been in these types of games and were so close,’’ Gatt said. “But coach keeps us on course and lets us know what we need to do to win games. And we all embrace that.’’

GOALS, GOALS, GOALS: Michigan State scored five goals with a goalie in the net and one without no goalie in the net.

Sometimes the puck just won’t go in for a team no matter how many good opportunities it gets. Some nights, the puck just goes in, thanks to good plays and good puck luck, and that’s how it went for the Spartans on Saturday.

Defensemen Butrus Ghafari and Carson Gatt fired the puck from the blue line that hit nobody in front and ended up in the back of the net.

Patrick Khodorenko and Taro Hirose were in the right spot around the OSU net and took advantage of a turnover to score a shorthanded goal. Hirose made the steal and found Khodorenko out front for a nice tap-in.

Freshman Austin Kamer was also in the right spot to get his first career goal, thanks to good bounce off the boards and a quick shot that eluded a likely screened OSU goalie Sean Romeo.

“We were kind of cycling down low and the puck ended up going back to the point to Mitch Eliot. He took a shot and it bounced off the end wall and it came right to me,’’ Kamer said. “I put it right on net. That’s one that you shoot through a screen and you realize a second later that it’s in.’’

Kamer, playing on a line with Gino Esteves and Jake Smith, was also on the ice for Ghafari’s goal.

“It’s exciting to get your first goal in a game like that. I’m definitely going to remember it,’’ said the 5-foot-10, 183-pounder from Grand Rapids. “Our team came out ready to play and we had a good start. And to get rewarded like that is a good sign.’’

Meanwhile, the goal of the night – a highlight reel type – was scored by freshman David Keefer, his second of the season and first since Oct. 28 against Lake Superior State.

Keefer drove to the net from the left circle, cut in front of Romeo and from an angle on the right, fired the puck into the top left corner of the net – at the intersection of the left post and crossbar – but the puck also bounced back into play.

The referee behind the net ruled that it was goal, but the play was reviewed to determine whether the puck actually went in, crossing the plane of the goal line. After a long review, officials ruled that it was a good goal.

“I was cutting through the middle and Sandy (Brennan Sanford) passed it to me and I kind of paused (in the left circle) and tried to look back for him,’’ said Keefer, a 5-foot-10, 189-pounder from Brighton.

“Their two guys cut over (toward Sanford) and they kind of gave me a lane, so I just took it to the net, went around the goalie and tried to put it over his glove. Luckily, it went in.

“From my angle, I thought it was in. But I wasn’t too sure after seeing (the replay on the scoreboard). I was a little worried after seeing one of the camera views.’’

Keefer’s goal – at 11:20 of the second period – gave MSU a 4-1 lead, and it turned out to be the game-winner.

“I think we played a great all-around game. Just how coach has been talking about – we played with focus and intensity,’’ Keefer said. “Everybody was going tonight.

“Last night, there were some hits we didn’t finish and that led to some of their goals. But tonight we were hitting everybody and that led to their turnovers.’’

UP NEXT: The Spartans resume their rivalry with Michigan next weekend with the fourth and fifth meetings of the season with the Wolverines. The teams play at 7 p.m. on Friday at Munn Arena and at 7 p.m. on Saturday (Fox Sports Detroit Plus) at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. The teams split their first conference series in early December with U-M winning 4-0 at Yost Arena and MSU earning a 5-0 win at Munn Arena. The Wolverines edged the Spartans, 6-4, in the Great Lakes Invitational third-place game at Little Caesars Arena on Jan. 2.

STATS AND FACTS: Michigan State had a tough night in the faceoff circle on Saturday. It was pretty lopsided after the first two periods and thanks to some key faceoff wins by freshman center Tommy Apap in the third period, Ohio State’s final edge was reduced to seven, 29-22. Apap was 10-5, Sam Saliba was 6-10 and Patrick Khodorenko finished 5-10. OSU’s Matthew Weis won 15 and lost only 8.

“Tommy was our strongest guy, Sammy was doing a decent job but Khodo really struggled,’’ Coach Danton Cole said. “It happens. We’ve all had those nights. It just wasn’t his night.

“We’ve been over 50 percent forever so give them credit. But we covered well.’’

Led by Tommy Miller (5) and Taro Hirose (4), MSU blocked 15 shots Saturday, while Ohio State had seven blocks. Defensemen Zach Osburn and Jerad Rosburg and forward Tommy Apap each had two....

MSU was 0-for-4 on the power play, with three shots on goal. OSU was much more dangerous with the man advantage, going 3-for-5 with eight shots on goal. The Buckeyes have the best penalty-killing percentage in the nation at 90.4 percent. . . .

Among current Spartans, the top goal-scorers against Ohio State are sophomore forwards Sam Saliba (7) and Logan Lambdin (5) and junior forward Brennan Sanford (3). Saliba, who had an assist on Friday but was held pointless on Saturday, has seven goals and two assists for nine points in nine games vs. the Buckeyes. Lambdin, who had a goal each night and an assist on Friday, has five goals and two assists for seven points in nine games. . .

In each of the last two seasons, Ohio State has swept the Spartans in East Lansing but has split with MSU in Columbus. OSU won 3-2 and 4-2 at Munn Arena last year and 4-1 and 5-3 this year. Last year, the teams split at Value City Arena, the Spartans winning 5-4 and losing 5-3, and of course this season, the Buckeyes won the series opener 4-2 and lost the second game, 6-3. . . .

Michigan State held Ohio State sophomore forward Tanner Laczynski, the Big Ten’s leading scorer (12 goals, 25 assists, 37 points) and tied for fifth nationally, to one point in the two-game series. Laczynski had an assist on Friday on Dakota Joshua’s empty-net goal in the last minute. Laczynski had three shots on goal on Friday but none on Saturday.

IN THE BIG TEN: Notre Dame moved closer to clinching first place in the conference with a 2-2 tie and shootout win against Penn State on Saturday in University Park, Pa. The Irish took five of six points from the Nittany Lions, who are winless in seven games at 0-5-2. Notre Dame, which won the series opener, 5-3 on Friday, started the week ranked No. 2 in both college polls but it’ll probably regain its No. 1 ranking after a win and tie vs. Penn State and No. 1 Cornell’s 2-1 home loss to Rensselaer on Saturday.

In Saturday’s other conference game, Wisconsin raced out to a 4-0 lead and then held to defeat Michigan 4-2, and salvage a series split at Yost Arena in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines won 5-3 on Friday. With Saturday’s win, the Badgers climbed over U-M and took over third place in the Big Ten with 28 points, one more than the Wolverines.

First-place Notre Dame has 47 points, Ohio State is in second with 34 points, followed by Wisconsin (28), Michigan (27), Penn State (25), Minnesota (23) and Michigan State (14). Notre Dame, OSU, Minnesota and MSU have six games remaining, while Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State have only four.

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