Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Tie U-M on Friday; Turn Focus to Rematch in Detroit
Notes, quotes and analysis from Neil Koepke on Friday's 1-1 tie with Michigan.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING – It was not a loss, but it felt like one.
Officially, Michigan State and Michigan played to a 1-1 tie on Friday night at Munn Arena. But the Wolverines won the shootout, 1-0, to earn two points in the Big Ten standings to one for the Spartans.
At the end of the shootout, U-M was celebrating and MSU felt the sting of not winning the game and the shootout in front of a near-capacity crowd of 5,917.
“It’s kind of frustrating. It’s crazy that a shootout can change your emotion that much,’’ MSU senior defenseman and assistant captain Carson Gatt said. “You have to stay even-keeled.
“When you win a shootout, it’s not as good as it seems and when you lose, it’s not as bad as it seems. You have to find the middle ground.’’
In their three previous meetings, the Spartans and Wolverines combined for 4 goals (a 4-0 U-M win), 5 goals (5-0 MSU victory) and 10 goals (U-M 6-4 win).
On Friday, goals were at a premium and each team’s goal was scored by a defenseman close to the net in the second period.
Michigan freshman Quinn Hughes got loose in front of the net, maneuvered his way around a couple of Spartans and, while falling to the ice at the edge of the crease, he backhanded the puck into the net 5:06.
Gatt tied it at 15:17, finishing off a 3-on-2 rush with Taro Hirose and Patrick Khodorenko while the teams were playing 4-4. He took a great pass down low from Hirose and fired the puck into the net from a spot between the goal line and the right circle.
“I’m mot quite sure how I found myself down there,’’ Gatt said. “But props to Patty and Taro for making a great play. I just tapped the puck in.’’
It was Gatt’s fourth goal of the season and second in his last two games.
Michigan, which outshot MSU, 38-18, still leads the season series 2-1-1 but the teams are 1-1-1 in three Big Ten games.
The Spartans (10-17-2 overall, 4-13-2-1 Big Ten) and Wolverines (13-13-3, 8-10-3-2) close out the weekend and season series at 7 p.m. Saturday in the annual Duel in the D at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
The best player on the ice for either team on Friday was MSU sophomore goaltender John Lethemon, who made 37 saves, including several clutch stops when Michigan had excellent chances to score.
For sure, it was near the top of Lethemon’s best outings of the season, and kept the Spartans from a worse ending than a shootout loss.
A key moment in the game came during about a 12-second sequence late in the second period while each team was one man short. Lethemon made a sensational save on wide-open U-M forward Brendan Warren at the edge of the crease to the goaltender’s right at 15:05. MSU retrieved the puck and raced down the ice on a 3-on-2 rush.
Khodorenko skated over the blue line, gave the puck to Hirose in the slot, and after faking shot, he made a perfect pass to Gatt, who shot it past U-M goalie Hayden Lavigne at 15:17 to tie the game 1-1.
Lethemon was outstanding in the third period, too, with 19 saves, including a couple of clutch stops on shots by U-M sophomore forward Nick Pastujov.
“He was phenomenal,’’ Gatt said. “He was square to the shooter on all pucks, he was blocking with them with his glove, blocker and I think he stopped one off his head, too.
“It’s kind of a bummer we couldn’t get give him the shootout victory.’’
Lethemon said he had a solid week of practice and felt he was prepared to play at a high level against the Wolverines.
“I felt good. I knew the last couple weeks wasn’t my best so I wanted to have a good game tonight,’’ he said. “I made sure I was prepared and ready to go.
“I was seeing the puck well, and the guys did a good job of keeping them to the outside and getting sticks on pucks. When they did get through, I thought I was dialed in and watched the puck all the way.
“I was controlling rebounds and keeping it simple and tried to win at second chances. And that’s kind of what worked tonight.’’
In the shootout, the first two rounds were scoreless with Hirose shooting wide and Lavigne making a save on Mitchell Lewandowski. Lethemon made saves on Cooper Marody and Hughes.
But in the third round, Khodorenko’s shot was stopped by Lavigne and U-M’s Tony Calderone won it with a pinpoint shot to the top right corner, over Lethemon’s catching glove.
“It was a good shot. He came in with speed and he kind of fooled with me a little,’’ Lethemon said. “It’s going to happen. He just made a nice shot.’’
Even though the game ended in a tie, Lethemon, like his teammates, was feeling down because they were expecting a victory.
“Any time you’re playing Michigan, it doesn’t matter if it’s a tie in the standings, you want those bragging rights,’’ he said. “So, there’s lots of motivation to bring the good stuff we did tonight into tomorrow and play for some hardware. That’s exciting for us.’’
The winner of the Duel in the D gets possession of the huge and heavy Iron D Trophy.
Another key stretch in Friday’s series opener came midway through the first period when the Spartans had a five-minute power play from 7:30 to 12:30. U-M defenseman Joseph Cecconi made a high hit on MSU freshman forward Jake Smith just inside the Spartan blue line and was assessed a major penalty for contact to the head and a game misconduct.
Smith was shaken up and didn’t return. He won’t play in Saturday’s rematch in Detroit.
MSU’s power-play units moved the puck around the outside and near the points but rarely got it in close, and when they did get a shot, several were wide or over the net. The Spartans got one shot on goal and the Wolverines survived MSU’s only power play of the game.
“You always have to give credit to the other team, especially on a five-minute power play when you don’t get much and not many good looks,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “Our spacing, especially with Taro’s group (with Khodorenko, Hirose, Gatt and Cody Milan) wasn’t good. We were patient and handled the puck well, but kind of accepted being on the outside.
“We needed to get some pucks to the net and loosen them up, and then plays can be made.’’
For the most part, the Spartan coach liked the way his team competed but the focus on Saturday will be creating more scoring chances.
“The guys battled hard and did a lot of good things. We blocked a lot of shots and I think we’ll do a couple things better tomorrow,’’ he said. “We need to spend more time in the offensive zone.
“It was a pretty even game. I think the (total) shots kind of skewed the way the game went. They did a better job of getting pucks to the net. And when challenged, John (Lethemon) did a great job.’’
Cole said he didn’t focus on not winning the shootout with his team.
“I don’t get caught up too much in the shootouts unless it’s for a battle for position in the standings. We talked about (the game) and looked at it as a tie, and we have to come out and get the win on Saturday and it’ll be a heck of a weekend.’’
Cole was happy to see Lethemon lift his game back to the high level the Spartans have seen much of this season.
“He was out and he was confident,’’ Cole said. “When you look at a shortstop and they’re on their toes and not back-peddling trying to find the ball, that’s how John was. He was on it. He made some saves look easy but there were a lot of good saves there.’’
The Spartans are 2-4-1 in their last seven games they’ve been position to win every game. With five games left in the regular season, MSU is striving to be playing at its best entering the Big Ten playoffs the first weekend of March.
“We’ve played quite a few good periods of hockey. We should be getting a little bit of confidence and that doesn’t always mean you’ll end up on the right side of it,’’ Cole said. “We’re fired up about Saturday and they’ll take that tone going in.
“Hey, tonight was a tie and if you win the game tomorrow, that’s a great weekend and you get a trophy. How often do you get to get a trophy in February in Detroit?”
Michigan State and Michigan will be playing their third games at Little Caesars Arena. The Spartans lost to Michigan Tech, 5-2, in the Great Lakes Invitational opener and the Wolverines fell to Bowling Green, 6-4. In the third- place game, U-M rallied from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits and topped MSU, 6-4.
“Where we’re at, it’s kind of fun. Every game we’re playing in is like a playoff game,’’ Cole said. “(The players) are trying to prove to all teams in the Big Ten and in the country that they’re a good hockey team and to prove it to themselves.’’
ELIOT BOLTS TO OHL: Michigan State got a big surprise on Thursday when sophomore defenseman Mitch Eliot revealed that he was leaving school to play major junior hockey with the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League.
Apparently, the 6-foot, 185-pounder from Grosse Pointe, who celebrated his 20th birthday on Tuesday, felt he can develop better on the OHL in order to eventually be ready to play at the professional level.
Eliot, a stay-at-home type defenseman, played in all of MSU’s 35 games last season and missed only two of 28 games this season. He had three assists in 2016-17 and had two goals and three assists for five points this year.
It’s not unusual for college players to leave school early in the season or at the Christmas break for major junior in Canada or juniors in the U.S. Hockey League or North American Hockey League. But it’s not usual for defections this late in the season.
“No, it’s not common, especially for a guy who’s played almost every game for two years. It’s odd,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “Mitch is a nice young man and we wish him well. The timing of it, well, you can’t say that it’s not disruptive.
“We had different pairs all over out there. And with had a good rhythm going and (Eliot) and Jerad (Rosburg) were really good for us.’’
“At this point even if we wanted to leave, it would have been nice to finish (the season),’’ Cole said. “If you want to leave early in the year, that’s one thing. But with six games to go and the Michigan weekend and the playoffs coming up, it’s an odd time.
“We’ll deal with it. We want the guys in the locker room to want to be in the locker room.’’
Instead of playing Michigan at Little Caesars Arena on Saturday, Eliot will be making his Sarnia Sting debut with a home game against the Niagara Ice Dogs. He’ll be able to play next season in the OHL and then seek a spot in pro hockey.
“He’s a great dude. We’ve loved the guy since he’s been here. He’s a great guy,’’ said Osburn, a junior. “I think he’s got a lot of good hockey sources in his life and he’s made a decision as to how he wants to play the game and keep chasing his dream.
“We’re still good friends and we’ll support him 100 percent. You don’t like to lose a guy like that. He’s doing it for the (betterment) of himself.’’
STATISTICAL SIDE: In 125 minutes of hockey against Michigan at Munn Arena this season – six 20-minute periods and one five-minute overtime – Michigan State allowed only one goal. MSU blanked U-M 5-0 on Dec. 8 and allowed one goal – to Quinn Hughes – on Friday in a 1-1 tie . . .
While MSU failed to score on its only power play – the five-minute power play in the opening period, U-M was 0-for-2 on a power play in the second period (no shots on goal) and one early in the third period (2 shots) . . .
Michigan State had 18 shots on goal with Mitchell Lewandowski, David Keefer and Jerad Rosburg leading the way with three apiece. The KHL Line of Taro Hirose, Patrick Khodorenko and Lewandowski combined for five shots on goal. In addition to Lewandowski’s three, Hirose and Khodorenko each had one . . .
IN THE BIG TEN: No. 1 Notre Dame clinched the Big Ten regular season title with a 2-1 victory over second-place Ohio State on Friday in South Bend. Irish defenseman Jordan Gross broke a 1-1 tie in the second period and goalie Cale Morris stopped 31 shots to earn his 21st victory of the season.
The Irish (22-5-2, 16-2-1-1), in their first season in the Big Ten, extended their lead over the No. 6 Buckeyes (18-7-4, 11-7-1-0) to 16 points with five games (15 possible points) remaining for each team.
Alex Oglevie scored for Notre Dame in the first period, but OSU tied it on a power-play goal by Kevin Miller at 6:52 of the second period. Less than three minutes later, Gross gave the Irish the lead for good. The teams close out their series on Saturday night.
In the other conference game on Friday, No. 12 Minnesota broke a 2-2 tie with two late goals and emerged with a 4-2 victory over No. 17 Wisconsin in Madison. Tyler Sheehy gave the Gophers a 3-2 lead at 15:12 of the third period with his second goal of the game and Darian Romanko scored into an empty net with 1:37 left. The series finale is set for Saturday night.
No. 19 Michigan moved into third place in the Big Ten with its 1-1 tie and shootout win over Michigan State. The Wolverines have 29 points and Wisconsin has 28.
Minnesota jumped over No. 16 Penn State and into fifth place with 26 points, one more than the Nittany Lions, who have 25 and are on a bye this weekend.
The Wolverines and Badgers have three games left, Penn State has four and Notre Dame, OSU, MSU and Minnesota all have five.
In the Big Ten playoffs, Notre Dame has earned a first-round bye with their first-place finish. The second, third and fourth-place finishers host best-of three series, March 2-4. The matchups are No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 vs. No. 6 and No. 4 vs. 5.
Notre Dame hosts the lowest remaining seed in a single-game semifinal on March 10. The second-highest remaining seed plays host to the third-highest seed in the other semifinal, also on March 10.
The Big Ten title game is March 17 with the highest surviving seed hosting.