Neil’s Notebook: Intensity Makes Rivalry One of the Best
Neil Koepke previews this weekend's series vs. Michigan.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING – For Michigan State players, there’s nothing more gut-wrenching, annoying and depressing on the ice than losing a game to Michigan.
For Michigan players, a defeat at the hands of the Spartans is also gut-wrenching, annoying and depressing.
Spartans hate to lose to Wolverines. Wolverines hate to lose to Spartans.
It’s been that way for probably more than 60 years and the rivalry has been especially ramped up over the last 30 seasons, ignited by more attention from expanded TV and Internet coverage and the presence of social media.
Michigan State and Michigan have played more games against each other than any rivalry in college hockey. So, there’s been lots of glory and pain.
And while the games may not be as chippy and nasty as they were in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, intensity and emotions still run high, and the atmosphere, no matter where the games are played, is among the best in the sport.
For one team, winning is wonderful. For the other, losing is devastating. And that’s not only for the players – it’s also the coaches, the staff and, of course, the fans.
“We don’t like them, they don’t like us. That’s the way it is. Every time you beat them, it feels really good,’’ MSU sophomore center Sam Saliba said. “It’s such a great feeling when you win. These games tend to be more personal than most.
“The history behind the rivalry is huge. And it’s really intense throughout the entire game.’’
The Spartans (10-17-1 overall, 4-13-1-1) and No. 19-ranked Wolverines (13-13-2, 8-10-2-1) will meet for the fourth and fifth times this season this weekend with a two-game Big Ten series. It starts at 7 p.m. Friday at Munn Arena and concludes at 7 p.m. Saturday with the annual Duel in the D at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
Sophomore left wing Taro Hirose, the Spartans’ leading scorer, is 3-3-2 against Michigan in two seasons in the rivalry. MSU went 2-1-2 vs. the Wolverines last season and trails the series 1-2 this year.
“When you lose, it sticks in the back of your mind, it’s a bad feeling and you’re thinking about it all the way home and for the next couple days,’’ Hirose said. “When you win, it’s really hard to describe. You’re on a high. We’ll definitely look for that high this weekend.’’
MSU and U-M first met this season in a home-and-home Big Ten series Dec. 7-8 and both games were shutouts. The Wolverines won 4-0 in Ann Arbor in the opener and the Spartans bounced back and rolled to a 5-0 victory the next night to earn a series split.
The third meeting came in the third-place game in the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit on Jan. 2. Michigan State built leads of 2-0 in the first period and 3-1 in the second, but Michigan rallied, scored four straight goals, breaking a 3-3 tie in the third period and holding on for a 6-4 victory.
MSU coach Danton Cole played for the Spartans from 1985-89 and had good success against Michigan. In four seasons, his teams went 14-6 vs. the Wolverines, and he still remembers the highs and lows of the rivalry.
“It’s funny, when you have good teams, you remember the losses more. You really hate losing more than you like winning,’’ Cole said. “That’s something that sticks in your gut.’’
In four seasons, Cole went 4-2, 5-1, 1-3 and 4-0 against Michigan. But he still remembers an 8-2 loss as a sophomore to the Wolverines at Munn Arena on Jan. 23, 1987.
“I remember (former captain and All-America defenseman) Donnie McSween talking in the locker room (after the loss) about how important those games were regardless what was going on in the standings and regardless of where we were nationally,’’ Cole said.
“Even as a guy who grew up a Michigan State guy, that’s when it really kicked in – how important these games were.’’
The Spartans’ first-year coach says he reinforces the message to his players about the importance of success in the rivalry.
“I think as a team and how young we are, I don’t want to rely on the fact that the guys know how big Michigan week is,’’ he said. “There’s been a lot of things we’ve been trying to do culturally- and mentally-wise here and we have to make sure we instill that. They have to understand how big these games are.’’
In three games coaching against Michigan, Cole has felt the pain of losing twice and the high of winning once.
The Spartans’ 5-0 win at Munn Arena is still arguably the high point of the season for MSU. It quickly wiped out some of the disappointment of the 4-0 loss the previous night at Yost Arena.
“The timing was unbelievable. We had one more game against the U.S. (U-18) team but that really was the end to our first half,’’ Cole said. “If you flip it around and win the first game and lose the second, you wonder how much different you would have felt.
“If you’re going to split a series, it’s better to win on Saturday. It’s a different feeling when you come off a win. You show up on Monday with more energy and the guys feel confident.’’
MSU assistant coach Chris Luongo was a teammate of Cole for the same four seasons, so he also had success against Michigan.
Their teams made the NCAA Final Four in 1986, 1987 and 1989 – winning the national title in 1986, finishing runner-up in 1987. But in 1988, the Spartans had a good season with 27 wins and made the NCAAs and won a first-round series but went 1-3 against the Wolverines and didn’t make it to the Final Four.
“You could make the argument that in the overall sense – but not in the Michigan State hockey sense - that it was a good year,’’ Luongo said. “You made the NCAA Tournament, won a round which was a big deal, but after our (team) meeting, the feeling was ‘that’s not good enough.’
“The thought was that we knew that. The Michigan (losses) were what we were pointing to. It was a 27-win season and yet it still wasn’t enough. That’s my example of the expectations that Ron Mason instilled in us. That was memorable.’’
In Luongo’s and Cole’s senior season, Michigan State won all four games from Michigan, so apparently those lessons were learned.
Michigan State is 2-4 in its last three series against Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio State, and has been in position to win each game. The Spartans split at Wisconsin, Jan. 12-13, winning 2-0 and losing 5-2, then lost two games decided in the last 2-3 minutes to Minnesota – 5-4 at Munn Arena and 2-1 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Last week, MSU split a series last weekend at Ohio State, losing the opener 4-2 and winning 6-3 on Saturday.
The Spartans will try build on their recent positives in the last six games of the regular season and be playing at a high level entering the Big Ten playoffs.
“Our coaching staff believes that we’ve been doing a lot of things really well,’’ Cole said. “And it’s easier to come in on Monday and show us scoring six goals and getting the win. From a confidence standpoint and from a growth standpoint, it’s good to get positive feedback.’’
THE RIVARLY: Michigan holds a 162-134-21 edge in a series that started with a 5-1 Wolverine victory on Jan. 11, 1922. The early era of the rivalry lasted until Feb. 6, 1930, with U-M building a 14-2 edge. The series resumed in February, 1950. Over the last five seasons, the Spartans are 8-13-2 against Michigan – 2-4-1 at Munn Arena, 3-3 at Yost Arena, 2-4-1 at Joe Louis Arena, 1-0 at Comerica Park, 0-1 at Soldier Field in Chicago and 0-1 at Little Caesars Arena.
In three games this season, Michigan won 4-0 in Ann Arbor on Dec. 7 and MSU won 5-0 at Munn Arena on Dec. 8. Hayden Lavigne earned the shutout for the Wolverines with 21 saves. John Lethemon got the shutout for the Spartans with 29 saves.
The Wolverines captured the third-place game in the Great Lakes Invitational, 6-4, on Jan. 2, at Little Caesars Arena.
SCOUTING THE WOLVERINES: Despite an inconsistent, up-and-down season, Michigan still has hopes of finishing third or fourth in the Big Ten and earning home ice for the first round of the playoffs.
The Wolverines (13-13-2 overall, 8-10-2 Big Ten) are in fourth place with 27 points, one behind Wisconsin (28), two in front of fifth place Penn State (25) and four in front of sixth-place Minnesota (23). But the Gophers have six conference games remaining while U-M, Wisconsin and PSU have only four.
After facing the Spartans, Michigan closes out Big Ten play with a home-and-home series against first-place and No. 1 ranked Notre Dame next weekend. On the final weekend of the season, U-M plays a non-conference series against Arizona State.
The Big Ten’s new playoff format gives the first-place team a first-round bye, and then the remaining six teams are matched up in three best-of-three series at the second, third and fourth-place teams. It’s No. 2 vs. No 7, No. 3 vs. No. 6 and No. 4 vs. No. 5.
Since the start of 2018, the Wolverines are 6-6. They started January going 1-3, then 4-0 with sweeps of Minnesota on the road and Penn State at home, and are 1-3 in their last four games – two losses at Ohio State, Jan. 26-27, and a win and a loss at home vs. Wisconsin last weekend.
Michigan has three forwards with 10 goals or more – junior Cooper Marody (10-22-32), senior Tony Calderone (15-13-28) and sophomore Jake Slaker (12-9-21). Marody, who scored three goals against MSU in the 6-4 win in the GLI, is in a six-way tie for 16th in the national scoring race. Calderone had three goals against MSU in U-M’s 4-0 win in the first meeting between the teams.
Other Wolverines to watch include freshman forward Josh Norris (8-10-18), senior forward Dexter Dancs (7-11-18), junior forward Brendan Warren (7-5-12) and freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes (1-15-16) and junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi (4-11-15).
“They have a couple of good lines that can score, a pretty good defensive corps and I think they’re a pretty solid, all-around team,’’ MSU sophomore center and alternate captain Sam Saliba said. “We just have to make sure we play the right way for three periods.
“The first game we played against them, they got the better of us, but to be able to regroup and respond the next night (in a 5-0 win), showed a lot about our team.’’
In goal, U-M sophomore Hayden Lavigne (9-9-2, 2.90 goals against average, .902 saves percentage) has started 11 consecutive games, but was pulled in last Saturday’s 4-2 loss to Wisconsin three minutes into the second period after giving up four goals. Sophomore Jack LaFontaine started nine games in the first half of the season.
Lavigne has started all three games against Michigan State. In the 5-0 loss, he was replaced by LaFontaine after two periods and the Spartans up, 4-0.
In various comparisons between MSU and U-M, the Wolverines have an edge in goals scored – averaging 3.18 per game while the Spartans are averaging 2.50 – but MSU holds an edge on the power play. MSU is converting on 20.2 percent of its chances (No. 21 nationally), but U-M has struggled with the extra man and is clicking on only 16.2 percent (44th in the nation).
When it comes to defense and penalty killing, the two teams are pretty even and not in a good way. Both MSU and U-M have allowed an average of 3.18 goals against (44th nationally). Penalty killing stats are similar, too. The Spartans are killing off 76.5 of opponents’ power plays (54th in the nation) while the Wolverines are at 76.1 percent (56th nationally).
Faceoff success is pretty even, too. MSU has won 50.8 percent (25th) and U-M has won 51.5 percent (20th).
Mel Pearson is in his first season as Michigan coach after a six-year stay at Michigan Tech. He spent 23 seasons as an assistant at U-M under coach Red Berenson before taking over at Michigan Tech, his alma mater, in 2011.
SPARTANS POTPOURRI: Taro Hirose is not only MSU’s leading scorer, he’s also the top point-getter against Michigan in eight career games against the Wolverines.
Hirose, 21, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound sophomore from Calgary, has three goals and eight assists for 11 points against U-M. He had two goals and four assists for six points in five games last season. In three games his year, Hirose has one goal and four assists for five points.
Sam Saliba, a sophomore center, and senior defenseman Carson Gatt are MSU’s second-leading scorers against Michigan. Saliba has three goals and three assists for six points in eight games. Gatt has one goal and five assists for six points in 17 games.
Sophomore center Patrick Khodorenko is the top goal-scorer vs. U-M with five in eight games. He had the first two goals in the 5-0 win over the Wolverines at Munn Arena and two goals in the 6-4 loss in the GLI . . .
Hirose, Mitchell Lewandowski and Khodorenko are 1-2-3 in team scoring. Hirose has nine goals and 22 assists for 31 points in 28 games He ranks No. 5 in the Big Ten in points and tied for No. 4 in assists. Lewandowski has 15 goals and 13 assists for 28 points in 28 games, while Khodorenko has 22 points, also in 28 contests – 10 goals and 12 assists.
Despite not scoring a goal in the last three games, Lewandowski’s 15 goals still lead the nation among freshmen. He’s tied with Michigan’s Tony Calderone as the top goal-scorer in the Big Ten . . .
MSU defensemen have boosted their offensive production in recent games with at least one blueliner getting a point on 14 of the Spartans’ last 17 goals over a span of six games. Six defensemen have combined for 19 points (4 goals, 15 assists) over the last six games. Sophomore Butrus Ghafari has two goals and Zach Osburn and Carson Gatt have one apiece during this stretch. Gatt is the team’s highest-scoring defenseman with three goals and 12 assists for 15 points, which is fifth in overall team scoring . . .
Junior right wing Cody Milan has points in three straight games and is MSU’s fourth-leading scorer with five goals and 14 assists for a career-high 19 points – 14 more than last season. He scored a goal against Minnesota on Jan. 20 and hand an assist in each game at Ohio State last weekend.
Freshman center Tommy Apap is second in the Big Ten and 13th in the nation in winning percentage on faceoffs. Apap has won 58.4 percent of his faceoffs – 187-133 . . .
Freshman defenseman Tommy Miller has blocked a team-leading 61 shots this season for an average of 2.18 per game. That ranks No 4 in the Big Ten and No. 10 in the nation.
IN THE BIG TEN: In the other rivalry matchup this weekend, No. 12 Minnesota plays at No. 17 Wisconsin on Friday and Saturday. The Gophers, with six games remaining, hope to make a run make a run at third and fourth places in the Big Ten in order to earn home ice for the first round of the playoffs. Minnesota is five points behind the Badgers and four in back of Michigan. Wisconsin and U-M have only four conference games remaining.
The Gophers play host to No. 6 Ohio State next weekend and close the season at No 16 Penn State, Feb. 23-24. The Badgers have a bye next weekend before finishing at Ohio State, Feb. 23-24.
In the other conference series this weekend, first-place Notre Dame (47 points) is home against second-place Ohio State (34 points) on Friday and Saturday.
Penn State, which is winless in its last seven games (0-5-2), is off this weekend. The fifth-place Nittany Lions (25 points) visit Michigan State next weekend in the Spartans’ final home series of the season.