Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Dominant in Another Victory at Michigan
Notes, quote and analysis from Neil Koepke on the Spartans' 4-1 win at Yost.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
ANN ARBOR – So just maybe Michigan State should have played of all its games this season at Yost Arena?
Why not? The Spartans are unbeatable this year at this historic arena that is considered one of the toughest places for visiting teams to have success.
For whatever reason, Michigan State has played two of its best games at Yost Arena, coming away with two victories and allowing only one goal and scoring seven.
Three weeks after shutting out Michigan, 3-0, on the road, the Spartans came within 9.6 seconds of doing it again on Saturday in front of a sellout crowd of 5,800, which didn’t have much cheer about all night.
Michigan State made freshman goalie John Lethemon’s first career start at Yost Arena one to remember in a well-played 4-1 Big Ten victory over the Wolverines.
Lethemon made 23 saves and didn’t have to be spectacular or make acrobatic saves. He just had to play well, and he did that in earning his first victory as a Spartan, after going 0-6-1 in his first seven decisions.
“It’s pretty exciting. It’s huge. I thought I played pretty well all night. I wasn’t tested too much and the guys did a great job in front of me,’’ said Lethemon, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound rookie from Northville. “I made the saves I was supposed to make.’’
MSU’s bid for two straight shutouts at Yost fell short when Michigan scored a power-play goal from the point and off a faceoff with 9.6 seconds left. The goal ended MSU’s Yost Arena shutout streak of 122 minutes and 12 seconds going back to last season.
It was a night of a few other “firsts” for the Spartans:
It was the first MSU season sweep at Yost Arena since 1989-90 when the Spartans won 3-0 on Dec. 9, 1989, and 5-3 on Feb. 17, 1990. Jason Muzzatti, now MSU’s goaltending coach, was in goal for both of those games.
“Michigan State’s playing better here than we are,’’ Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “It was a great environment. Our crowd has been so good but our team is not giving the crowd – I mean, just look at our home record (6-7-1). It’s disappointing.’’
The Spartans have won three of their last four games at Yost Arena, starting with a 2-1 win on March 14, 2015, when goalie Jake Hildebrand had a brilliant game with 37 saves.
With Saturday’s win, Michigan State captured the regular-season series in conference play over U-M, 2-0-2, and leads the overall series 2-1-2 with another meeting unlikely in the Big Ten Tournament because of where the teams stand in the conference race.
If the teams don’t play again, it’ll be the first time MSU has won the season series since 2007-08, when the Spartans went 2-1-1 against Michigan.
The Spartans scored three unanswered goals in the second period – two by defensemen Rhett Holland and Zach Osburn and one shorthanded by Taro Hirose. They added another shorthanded goal early in the final period – by Mason Appleton. Michigan State outshot Michigan 14-5 in the scoreless first period and 34-24 overall.
“I liked our game all night long. We came out hungry from the start and scored some good goals and stuck to our keys for a full 60 minutes,’’ Appleton said. “We got the results we wanted. It’s weird to have two shorthanded goals in a game.
“Me and Taro (Hirose) got some good looks. He was awesome on that breakaway (with 50 seconds left in the second period).’’
The weekend didn’t start as well for MSU as it ended. In Friday’s series opener, the Spartans built an early 2-0 lead, then gave up two late goals in the first period, took a 3-2 lead in the second period, only to see Michigan tied it again before period ended.
U-M took a 4-3 lead early in the third period but the Spartans rallied to tied it with five minutes left. After coming close to winning it in overtime and the game ending in a 4-4 tie, the Spartans lost in shootout, 2-1, which determines the extra point in the conference standings.
Three weeks ago, MSU and U-M tied 2-2, with the Wolverines winning the shootout, 1-0, at Munn Arena.
“Coming off those two shootouts the last times we played them, that kind of left a bitter taste for us,” MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “This will kind of ease that bitterness.’’
Indeed, it will, especially since the Spartans clearly outplayed the Wolverines all game, and never allowed Michigan to sustain much pressure in the defensive zone. And U-M’s power play hardly threatened, until the final 10 seconds when the Wolverines finally solved Lethemon on freshman defenseman Griffin Luce’s first career goal on hard, quick shot from the point. Michigan went 1-for-8 on the power play with four coming in the first two periods and four more in the third period, with MSU already up 4-0.
“We played a solid game all night long. I liked the way we moved the puck around and I liked our penalty kill, other than giving up that goal at the end,’’ Anastos said. “It was nice to see pucks go in from our defensemen. That was a positive, so were the shorthanded goals.
“We were solid defensively. We made them earn their space. The depth in our (forward) lines was good tonight. We got contributions up and down the lineup.’’
On Friday, Lethemon took over for starter Ed Minney to start the second period with the score tied 2-2 in the series opener at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Lethemon gave up two goals – one late in the second period and one early in the third period.
On Saturday, Lethemon faced another challenge – holding off what was expected to be a charged-up Wolverine team, upbeat over its shootout win and eager to make amends for its 3-0 home loss to MSU on Jan. 20.
“Obviously, I didn’t like the outcome from Friday but it felt good to get back in the net the next day. It always helps,’’ Lethemon said. “I’ve been confident the last couple weeks in practice and in games. I felt it today and I think it showed on the ice, and I hope the guys feed off it.
“I knew Michigan would have a pushback (after trailing 2-0) and I had to be ready for it. I had been locked in all night and I thought I was up for the test. And the guys played great in front of me.’’
Losing the shutout was disappointing for Lethemon and the whole team, but skating off the ice at Yost Arena celebrating a victory made it a special night.
“It’s one of them,’’ Lethemon said, when asked if the victory was his biggest thrill in his hockey career. “I won a state championship in high school (Farmington High). But this is my first career win and this is on a whole new level.
“It was a cool experience to play in front of this crowd. It’s a big-time rivalry and I grew up watching it and it’s really special to be a part of it. It’s a crazy feeling to be out there.’’
Lethemon’s teammates were excited to see him get his first victory, especially at the home of the Maize and Blue.
“It was awesome. He had to face some good shots and he had to step up with a lot of pressure on him,’’ Osburn said. “He looked great. I’m happy for Johnny.’’
Anastos liked the way his freshman goaltender played in Friday’s tie in Detroit and the way he handled playing in a tough environment at Yost Arena.
“John got his first win so we’re really happy for him. I’m kind of grinding a little that we gave up the shutout at the end there,’’ Anastos said. “But overall, it was a good performance for him. He looked confident. He came in in a relief role on a big stage on Friday and played well.
“This is a tough building to play in and I thought he looked very poised. That should be a great confidence boost for him.’’
After falling five points behind the fifth-place Wolverines because of Friday’s shootout loss (U-M earned two points, MSU got one), the Spartans picked up three points with Saturday’s victory and now are two points behind Michigan in the battle to avoid place.
Michigan State (6-17-3 overall, 2-8-2-0 Big Ten) has eight points, while U-M (9-14-3, 2-8-2-2) has 10 and is seven points in back of fourth-place Ohio State.
Anastos said his team played at faster pace and there was more consistency in most phases of their game on Saturday than there was on Friday.
“We were a little slow and a little hesitant in some of our systems on Friday and I thought Michigan was able to take advantage of that and that put us on our heels,’’ he said. “Tonight, we did a better job of adjusting and executing our game plan. That allowed us to build momentum.
“We started looking to shoot the puck a little more. I’ve been preaching that all season long and we’re a little hard-headed on that.’’
The Spartans went 0-for-5 on the power play but had four shots on goal on the last two manpower advantages in the third period.
DEFENSEMEN SHOOT, SCORE: Michigan State’s first two goals came off the sticks of defensemen.
Rhett Holland scored his second goal of the season and second in the last three games at 7:18 of the second period to give the Spartans a 1-0 lead. His shot from a wide angle along the right boards found its way past a few players in front of the net and goalie Jack LaFontaine.
Late in the period, with MSU still up 1-0 and in control but holding a precarious lead, sophomore Zach Osburn, parked inside the U-M blue line on the right, moved up to break up a pass intended for Dexter Dancs. He got possession, went to his left, around U-M defenseman Sam Piazza, and found and open lane. He skated in close and fired the puck into top right corner at 16:28 for an unassisted goal.
“I saw that the forwards were behind me and I kind of anticipated a pass going to (Dancs) and I just jumped the pass and stopped it and the puck ended up in my feet,’’ Osburn said. “I kicked it up to my stick and realized I was in on a fast break and ended up putting it upper (goalie’s catching) glove.
“(Brennan) Sanford was on the left and I looked up to make a play to him but I saw there was a guy on him. I had a clear lane to the net and just broke in.’’
Osburn has four goals and eight assists for 12 points. His last goal came at Penn State on Jan. 13. Osburn’s latest goal gave his team some breathing room, and it wasn’t long before the Spartans added another goal as Taro Hirose scored shorthanded at 19:10.
“It’s the most satisfying thing to beat them in their own rink,’’ Osburn said. “I think we’ve matched up well with them and we’re excited to get a couple of wins at Yost.’’
SHORTHANDED GOALS A BOOST: Taro Hirose and Mason Appleton are more known for being dangerous and efficient on the power play. On Saturday, they made a huge difference while killing penalties. They each scored timely, spectacular unassisted goals to pretty much seal MSU’s 4-0 victory.
Hirose knocked the puck away from defenseman Sam Piazza inside the MSU blue line and had a clear breakaway, with Appleton actually trailing. Hirose went to his backhand to slip the puck between the legs of goalie Zach Nagelvoort, who had replaced starter Jack LaFontaine, who suffered a hip injury, midway through the second period.
Hirose’s goal, his sixth of the season, came at 19:10. MSU started the third period killing another penalty and it took Appleton 50 seconds to make it 4-0.
He gained possession in his own zone, skated down the left side, entered the U-M zone and cut to the middle, and between the two circles, he fired the puck to the far left corner and it eluded Nagelvoort, who was moving to his left. It was Appleton’s 10th goal of the season and first since the second game of the Penn State series, Jan. 14.
WOLVERINE VIEW: After playing what he thought was “pretty good game” on Friday in the 4-4 tie and shootout win for the extra point in Big Ten play, U-M coach Red Berenson said his team “took a step backward, and obviously, our rival took a step forward’’ on Saturday.
“They took advantage of (their opportunities) and they nullified ours. We didn’t have many opportunities either,’’ Berenson said. “We didn’t compete hard enough. To me it’s compete. It’s preparation and compete.
“Whether Friday’s game influenced tonight’s game in any way, I don’t know, but I thought we’d be better tonight and we weren’t even close to being better. There was no offense. Our power play was out of sorts.’’ UP NEXT: The Spartans will get their first look at high-scoring Ohio State with the first two of four games the teams will play over the next three weekends. MSU and OSU will meet at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Munn Arena in the first of two straight home series. The Spartans and Buckeyes will play again on March 3-4 in Columbus.
Ohio State (14-8-6, 5-6-1-1), which is 2-4 in its last six games, has scored 20 goals in the last four contests, including 10 in a split against Michigan and 10 in a split vs. Minnesota.
The Buckeyes are the second highest-scoring team in the Big Ten and the nation with 116 goals in 28 games, for an average of 4.16 goals per game. Penn State is No. 1, averaging 4.27.
The Nittany Lions close out MSU’s home schedule, Feb. 24-25.
IN THE BIG TEN: Coaches hate when their team gives up two or three power-play goals in a game. But how about six?
That’s what Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik is dealing with after watching Minnesota score SIX power-play goals on Saturday in a 6-5 comeback victory over the Buckeyes in Columbus.
The No. 5 Gophers (18-8-2, 9-3-0-0) fell behind 3-0 early in the second period but got back in the game with two power-play goals, but No. 12 OSU answered with a power-play goal to boost its lead to 4-2. Minnesota proceeded to score two more goals during a five-minute power play in the last three minutes of the period to tie it 4-4.
The Buckeyes went up 5-4 midway through the third period, but once again, Minnesota was able to capitalize on another major penalty on OSU. The Gophers’ Vinni Lettieri scored his second goal of the night at 12:34 to tie it, and defenseman Jake Bischoff scored three minutes later for a 6-5 lead. Minnesota held on for the win and a series split, after OSU won the first game, 5-4.
No. 10 Penn State (18-6-2, 7-4-1-0) completed a sweep of No. 17 Wisconsin (15-10-1, 8-5-0-0) with a 5-2 victory in Madison. Freshman Denis Smirnov and Nate Sucese each scored two goals for the Nittany Lions, who have 22 points, two behind second-place Wisconsin and five in back of first-place Minnesota.
In addition to MSU’s home series with Ohio State next weekend, Minnesota plays at Penn State and Wisconsin plays host to Michigan.