By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING -- Here's one of the main challenges facing Michigan State in this weekend's series against No. 14 Ohio State:
How can the Spartans duplicate the way they've play on the road in some very difficult venues, display it for the home fans at Munn Arena and treat them to an exciting, consistent game that ends in a victory?
Michigan State's best games have come on the road this season -- a 4-3 victory and 2-2 tie at North Dakota, dominating 3-0 and 4-1 wins at Yost Arena in Ann Arbor and a come-from-behind 4-3 triumph at Ferris State. But those types of performances haven't showed up at home.
For players and coaches, it's been a mystery as to why the Spartans are 2-9-1 at home this season and 4-6-1 on enemy ice.
"I wish I could figure that out. That one eats at me," Spartans coach Tom Anastos said. "You want people who come here to leave feeling good, and we've struggled to deliver that.
"I wish I had the answer so I could turn the switch, because the guys care about it. At one point, we talked about it a lot -- about how important it is to own your own home, and then I'm thinking maybe it's getting into our heads so I didn't want to overemphasize it.''
Starting this weekend, the Spartans have a chance to make amends for their home struggles and treat their fans to victories over the two highest-scoring teams in the nation -- Ohio State and Penn State.
The Spartans (6-17-3 overall, 2-8-2-0 Big Ten) and the Buckeyes (14-8-6, 5-6-1-1) meet at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Munn Arena. Next weekend, MSU plays its final home games of the season with a two-game series against the Nittany Lions.
"Maybe it's just part of (our) consistency (issues),'' Anastos said. "It's important to win at home, to play hard at home, and be hard to play against and we need to be better at that.''
The Spartans' two home wins came early in the season. They defeated Princeton, 6-2, on Oct. 28, and won their next home game against Michigan Tech, 4-3, in overtime.
Since then, MSU lost at home to the Huskies (5-1), Ferris State (4-1), Minnesota (4-2 and 4-2), Northeastern (6-2) and Wisconsin (6-3, 4-3 in overtime). Before the series with the Badgers, the Spartans tied Michigan, 2-2.
Among the losses, MSU did play pretty well and was in good position to win in the second game against Minnesota and in the 4-3 OT loss vs. Wisconsin. In both games, MSU held a 2-0 lead only to see it disappear because of turnovers.
"I really can't tell you. I wish I had the answer,'' MSU senior right wing and captain Joe Cox said of his team's struggles at home. "Playing a full 60 minutes is a huge factor. I think we come out focused and play hard but then, as the game goes on, we start to deteriorate from it and that's where you see us struggle.''
Carson Gatt, a junior defenseman, admits that he's puzzled by the Spartans' lack of success in front of the home fans.
"I'm not sure there's a cut-and-dried answer for that,'' he said. "Sometimes on the road, you get the pressure off and you can use the other team's crowd as momentum for you, in those loud environments.
"I'm not sure why that is, but hopefully we can keep our confidence on the road going and build some of that at home going forward.
"It seems like we haven't gotten as many bounces at home like we have on the road.''
The Spartans will have to play an elite-level game this weekend, one in which they limit turnovers and penalties, play well on special teams and finish scoring chances if they hope to get a victory or two against Ohio State, which has scored 20 goals in its last four games. Of course, OSU has also allowed 20 goals in the last four games.
The Buckeyes are the second-highest scoring team in the nation, averaging 4.14 goals a game, and their power play is converting at an amazing 29.7 percent, No. 1 in the nation.
"They have an excellent power play. It's been very dynamic and they can score in bunches,'' Anastos said. "They have great depth in their lineup, more now than they have had in the last several years. The way they score, they're never out of the game.''
Two weeks ago, OSU split a series at Michigan, losing 5-4 and winning 6-5. Last week, the Buckeyes split with Minnesota, winning 5-4 and losing 6-5 in a game in which OSU squandered a 3-0 lead and the Gophers scored a school-record six power-play goals.
"They're fast and they're deep with their forwards, like Minnesota,'' Cox said. "Their offensive can be dominating. It's their strength as a team. They've been putting up a lot of goals and we're going have work hard on defending that. That's going to be our big objective.
"Their power play is No. 1, but I think our penalty killing has come a long way and I like the way we've been killing penalties the last few weeks. I think we've been dominating most of the time.''
The Spartans will try to do what Michigan and Minnesota couldn't do -- contain the Buckeyes' offense. It'll take standout goaltending, playing well in the defensive zone and limiting OSU power plays by staying out the penalty box.
"It's going to be high energy. We have to defend well, and coach stressed that a lot before last week, and it starts in the defensive one,'' Gatt said. "If you defend very well, you'll put yourself in a lot of games.''
SCOUTING THE BUCKEYES: Ohio State was cruising along, feeling very good about itself after a tie (and shootout win) and victory at Penn State on Jan. 20-21. But then the Buckeyes were swept by Wisconsin and split series with the Wolverines and Gophers, and now their NCAA Tournament hopes are in jeopardy.
Ohio State is in fourth place in the Big Ten with 17 points, five behind third-place Penn State (22), seven in back of second-place Wisconsin (24) and 10 away from league-leading Minnesota (27).
In the latest PairWise Rankings, which determines the 16-team NCAA Tournament field, after the six automatic qualifiers (conference playoff champions), the Buckeyes are No. 15, which would not give them a berth in the tourney. That's because the champions of the WCHA and Atlantic Hockey would get the No. 15 and 16 spots, and a team would have to be ranked No. 14 or above to get into the tournament.
Ohio State has eight games remaining -- four with MSU, two at home against Michigan and two at Wisconsin -- and then there's the Big Ten Tournament, March 16-18.
The Buckeyes have excellent balance on offense, with seven players with eight goals or more.
Senior Nick Schilkey is their most dangerous and exciting forward. The 5-10, 183-pound right wing from Marysville, Mich., has a team-leading 22 goals, including 12 on the power play, and 12 assists for 34 points. He's recently missed four games -- the Wisconsin and U-M series -- with a lower-body injury.
Schilkey's 22 goals rank third in the nation, behind Northeastern's Zack Aston-Reese's 24 and Union's Mike Vecchione's 23.
Mason Jobst, a 5-foot-8, 185-pound sophomore from Speedway, Ind., is Ohio State's top scorer with 14 goals and 26 assists for 40 points in 28 games. Other top forwards include senior David Gust (12-17-29), freshman Tanner Laczynski (8-20-28), junior Matthew Weiss (8-17-25), sophomore Dakota Joshua (8-15-23) and sophomore John Wiitala (9-8-17).
Jobst ended MSU's season last season when he scored on a rebound in overtime to give OSU a 4-3 victory in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament in St. Paul, Minn.
The Buckeyes will be without their best defenseman this weekend. Senior Josh Healey has been suspended for two games by the Big Ten for a high hit on Minnesota's Darian Romanko last Saturday. Healy was suspended for one game three weeks ago for a high hit against Wisconsin's Grant Besse.
The 6-foot, 197-pound Healey not only plays physically, he's also the team's top scoring defenseman with four goals and 16 assists for 20 points.
OSU's defensive corps includes juniors Sasha Larocque, Janik Moser, Matt Joyaux and Matt Miller, sophomore Tommy Parran, freshman Gordi Myer and senior Drew Brevig.
In three of the last four games, Ohio State has used two goaltenders. Senior Christian Fry started both games against Michigan two weeks ago, but got replaced by senior Matt Tomkins in each game. Last Friday vs. Minnesota, Tomkins started and won 5-4, and he started the second game. But he got pulled for Fry late in the second period, and Minnesota came back to win 6-5 and Fry got the loss.
Tomkins is 8-2-3 with a 2.73 goals-against average and a .899 saves percentage. Frey is 6-6-3, with a 3.15 GAA and a .911 saves percentage.
Ohio State relies heavily on its power play, which is converting at a sizzling 29.7 percent. The Buckeyes were 3-for-6 and 4-for-7 against Michigan and 1-for-2 and 2-for-5 vs. Minnesota.
However, like Michigan State, penalty killing has been an issue for the Buckeyes. OSU is killing off only 73.3 percent of opponents' power plays. That ranks No. 58 in the nation, one spot below the Spartans (74.2 percent).
THE RIVALRY: Michigan State holds an 88-34-12 edge in the series which started with an 18-0 victory by the Spartans on Dec. 7, 1957. Last season, the teams split in Columbus (a 4-2 MSU win and 2-1 loss) and Ohio State won (6-5 in overtime) and tied (1-1) at Munn Arena.
In the Big Ten Tournament, OSU eliminated the Spartans, 4-3 in overtime, the third-straight game between the two teams that's gone in overtime. Ohio State has edged MSU in the first round of the conference tournament twice in the last three seasons, both at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
Over the last 10 seasons, the Buckeyes are 15-14-5 against the Spartans, and in the last five years, OSU holds a 9-7-4 edge.
LETHEMON IN THE MIX: Freshman goaltender John Lethemon, who's played in MSU's last four games and started two of them, has worked himself into the mix for more playing time.
Lethemon's play has improved in practice, his confidence is on the rise and he's been solid and shown lots of poise in his recent outings, whether in a starting role or in relief.
Ed Minney has been pulled after the first period in his last two starts -- against Wisconsin on Feb. 3 and last Friday against Michigan in Detroit when he gave up two soft goals.
Lethemon, a 6-foot-2, 190-pounder from Northville, played the last two periods of the series opener with Wisconsin, then started the second game of the series (a 4-3 overtime loss) and then took over after the first period last Friday vs. U-M (4-4 tie).
Last Saturday, Lethemon got the start and played well in a 4-1 victory over the Wolverines at Yost Arena for his career win as a Spartan.
This weekend, there's a good chance Lethemon will get one start, or maybe both or he and Minney will each play one game.
"There's competition for sure. There's always been competition,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "In Johnny's case, he's trying to elevate his game and adapt his game to this level from his previous level and build confidence.
"In Ed's case, he's trying to elevate his game from a backup to try to play on a consistent basis.''
From Nov. 10 to Feb. 4, Minney started 15 of 16 games, with Lethemon's only start coming in the third-place game in the Great Lakes Invitational -- a 5-4 overtime loss on Dec. 30.
Minney is 5-11-2 with a 3.55 goals-against average and a .885 saves percentage. Lethemon is 1-6-1 with a 3.68 GAA and a .864 saves percentage.
"We're at the point where we need consistency across the board in our game and certainly in goal,'' Anastos said. "When we put a lineup together, it's about who do we think is going to give us the best chance to win that game.
"I think the competition will continue through the end of the season. My expectations for the goaltenders are to give us a chance to win every night. What that means in essence is stop the pucks you should stop and we're going to need some key saves at key moments and you never know when those will come.
"We're looking for consistency in our game and one piece of that is in net. If it takes two goalies to do that, that's what we'll do. If one goalie is capable of doing it, that's what we'll do.''
POSITIVE REBOUND: Coach Tom Anastos said he was worried about his team's emotional level at Michigan on Saturday after coming off the 4-4 tie and shootout loss against Michigan on Friday at Joe Louis Arena.
But instead of being down and playing slow and without much energy, the Spartans showed resiliency, dominating the Wolverines and carving out a decisive 4-1 victory -- the second time in three weeks that MSU has won at Yost Arena.
"I know the guys put a lot of emphasis on the Friday game at Joe Louis Arena, and even though the shootout is a kind of a coin flip, it still feels like a loss, even though you technically tied the game,'' Anastos said. "I know our guys were down about not bringing back that hardware (the Duel in the D trophy) and not winning the shootout and sending our Michigan State crowd home happy.
"I was worried about it Saturday, and yet I thought our guys came out really strong and displayed strong emotion. We executed our game plan to a better degree that we did on Friday, and that made it difficult for (Michigan) to get something going. The good news was that we got a good result.
"What I did see from it was a resiliency that I admire. We've had our share of disappointments and struggles and here we are in February, coming off a game that I know the guys were disappointed in the outcome and I thought we really responded.
"From a consistency standpoint, that continues to be a focus for our team and it's necessary for us to be able to have success. That level of consistency has eluded us as all year, but hopefully, we've gained some experience, some confidence, while playing over some injuries, and so all of those things are a good sign.''
SPARTAN POTPOURRI: With a pair of two-point games last weekend against Michigan, freshman left wing Taro Hirose has points in six of his last seven games. During this stretch, Hirose has three goals and six assists for nine points. He's MSU's second-leading scorer with six goals and 14 assists for 20 points, three points behind top scorer Mason Appleton, who has 10 goals and 13 assists for 23 points. Hirose has two shorthanded goals, including one last Saturday Ann Arbor that gave MSU a 3-0 lead in the final minute of the second period. . . . Senior defenseman Rhett Holland has doubled his career goal total in two of the last three games. He scored his second goal of the season and fourth of his career on Saturday, giving the Spartans a 1-0 lead in the second period. Holland has two goals and two assists for four points. . . . With the help of back-to-back four-goal games against Michigan, the Spartans are averaging 3.5 goals per game in February, which ranks 16th in the nation. . . . Sophomore forward Brennan Sanford has points in four of his last six games (one goal and four assists for five points). In 28 games, Sanford has two goals and six assists for eight points. . . . MSU scored two shorthanded goals last Saturday and now has five for the season, which is 14th in the nation. The five shorthanded goals are the most for the Spartans since 2009-10 when they also had five.
IN THE BIG TEN: Penn State can keep its Big Ten regular-season title hopes alive with a sweep or a win and a tie against Minnesota this weekend in University Park, Pa. The Nittany Lions (18-6-2, 7-4-1 Big Ten) are five points behind the first-place Gophers (18-8-2, 9-3-0-0) with eight games remaining for each team.
Two weeks ago, Minnesota swept Penn State, 5-1, 5-2, in Minneapolis. Last week, the Nittany Lions rebounded with a 5-3 and 5-2 sweep at Wisconsin.
PSU closes out the season at MSU, is home to Wisconsin and at Michigan. Minnesota finishes at home against Wisconsin next weekend, followed by a series at Michigan and two home games vs. the Spartans.
In the other conference series, second place Wisconsin (15-10-1, 8-4) plays host to Michigan (9-14-3, 2-8-2-2) on Friday and Saturday.
Tyler Sheehy of Minnesota leads the Big Ten in scoring with 17 goals and 24 assists for 41 points, one ahead of OSU's Mason Jobst (14-26-40). There's a three-way tie for third place with 34 points -- Ohio State's Nick Schilkey (22-12-34), Penn State's Denis Smirnov (14-20-34) and Justin Kloos of Minnesota (14-20-24).
Penn State's Peyton Jones has the best goals-against average (2.57) with Jack Berry of Wisconsin (2.67) No. 2.
NO GOALS FOR YOU: Northern Michigan sophomore goalie Atte Tolvanen tied an NCAA record last Saturday with his fifth consecutive shutout as he made 48 saves in a 2-0 victory over Alaska in Marquette.
Starting on Jan. 21, Tolvanen and the Wildcats have posted shutouts against Alaska Anchorage (4-0), at Bowling Green (3-0 and 2-0) and two last weekend vs. Alaska (3-0 and 2-0.).
Tolvanen, a 6-foot, 188-pounder from Vihti, Finland, tied the record set by Lake Superior State's Blaine Lacher, who had five shutouts in 1994.
Lacher holds the NCAA record for consecutive scoreless minutes at 375 minutes and 1 second. Tolvanen is 40 minutes away at 335:39.
Northern Michigan (11-17-4 overall, 9-12-3 WCHA), which is 7-0-2 in its last nine games, plays at Minnesota State this weekend.