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Neil’s Notebook: Opportunity Eludes Spartans in Loss to Penn State

Feb. 25, 2017

By Neil Koepke staff writer

EAST LANSING – For 51 minutes, Michigan State held the highest-scoring team in college hockey to one goal.

And when senior defenseman Rhett Holland calmly shot the puck into the lower left corner of net with 8:28 left in the third period, it looked like just maybe this closely-contested game might end up on a positive note for the Spartans.

Or maybe not.

It took just 13 seconds to change that outlook as Penn State tied it 2-2 on the next rush, and 3 minutes and 42 seconds later, converted on a power play, with Dylan Richard twice batting a puck out of mid-air to score and give his team a 3-2 lead.

The No. 11 Nittany Lions foiled two MSU power plays in the final five minutes, and added an empty-net goal to earn a 4-2 victory in a Big Ten series opener on Friday at Munn Arena.

It was another missed opportunity for the frustrated Spartans, who were in good position in two winnable games last weekend that ended up as one-goal losses.

“Everything was going good. We’re coming off that momentum from the goal and then on the next shift, it’s 2-2 and that’s something that can’t happen,’’ Holland said. “That gave them the momentum and it kind of deflated us. We can’t let that deflate us. We have to work hard on any play after a goal.’’

Friday’s ending was similar to Michigan State’s last game against Penn State – a 5-3 loss in mid-January at Pegula Arena in University Park, Pa.

The Spartans were playing well and leading 2-1 midway through the third period when things unraveled after an errant pass into the middle of the ice turned into the tying goal at 9:31.

Less than six minutes later, the Nittany Lions scored a fluky power-play goal to take a 3-2 lead, and added another goal nine seconds later and it was lights out for the Spartans.



On Friday, MSU was in the game until the end and had two good opportunities to tie it, 3-3, with power plays starting at 15:59 and 18:20. But the Spartans managed just one shot on goalie Peyton Jones (26 saves) on each power play, and had several shots that went over the net or wide.

MSU goalie John Lethemon (35 saves) was pulled for a sixth attacker at the start of the last power play, giving the Spartans a 6-on-4 advantage, but they weren’t sharp in moving the puck and setting up chances and Penn State survived, wrapping it up on David Goodwin’s empty-net, shorthanded goal with 30 seconds left.

Penn State came into the game averaging a nation-leading 4.11 goals per game.

“It just goes back to playing a full 60 minutes and giving up our five-minute spurt that we do, and that kills us,’’ said Cox, the Spartans’ senior right wing and captain who tied the game 1-1 with a 35-foot shot from the slot just 18 seconds into the second period.

“We can’t play games like that. We’ve been trying to fix it and it hasn’t been working.’’

Michigan State (6-20-3 overall, 2-11-2-0 Big Ten) and Penn State (19-8-2, 8-6-1-0) close out the series at 7 p.m. Saturday at Munn Arena in the Spartans’ last home game of the season. It’s Senior Night and eight graduating seniors will be recognized in ceremonies after the game.

On Friday, MSU had a sluggish first period in which they managed only two shots on goal and fell behind 1-0 on Alec Marsh’s backhand goal from the edge of the crease at 3:14.

The Spartans rebounded in the second period and outplayed the Nittany Lions, even though the PSU held a 14-13 edge in shots. MSU got a big lift when Cox scored his sixth goal of the season, gobbling up a turnover just outside the blue line and skating into the offensive zone, finding some space and rifling a shot over Jones’ left shoulder.

“We went back to our game. We kind of brought it to them in the second period,’’ Cox said. “When we play our game, we’re a pretty good contender, and I thought we gave it a good push back. We can’t play like we did in the first period and in the stretch in the third and win a game.

“We were playing well in the second period. We were making simple plays in the defensive zone, picking up guys and no one (on Penn State) was free. In our zone, everyone had a guy and then when we went into the offensive zone, we got pucks deep and had a hard first guy and then we had a smart second guy going in, picking up pucks and we were able to establish some offensive zone time.

“Those are two major keys going into the next game. It’s picking up a guy in the defensive zone and having a quick, second guy on the rush and on the forecheck.’’

The Spartans’ go-ahead goal came as a result of great plays by Thomas Ebbing and Taro Hirose and a perfect shot by Holland for his third goal of the season and fourth of his career.

Ebbing, driving into the offensive zone, kept the puck alive while falling down near the left boards and backhanded it to Hirose in the slot. Hirose glided into the left circle made a nice play to backhand the puck back to an onrushing Holland, who was open in the slot.

From 30 feet out, Holland’s quick wrist shot went between the legs of a PSU defenseman and caught the left corner of the net at 11:32.

“It was more of a great play by Taro more than anything, and Ebbing to get it to Taro, and then for him to have the awareness to see me coming in late and get me the puck,’’ Holland said. “All I had to do was pretty much shoot it.’’

But Holland didn’t shoot it wide or over the net. He hit the target, and at least for a few seconds, the Spartan enjoyed a 2-1 lead.

On the ensuing faceoff, Penn State shot the puck into the MSU zone and the Spartans failed to clear the puck out. Nittany Lions defenseman Vince Pedrie kept it in at the left point and put a shot on goal.

The puck was stopped by Lethemon but defenseman Jerad Rosburg bumped into his goalie and fell in front of him. The puck came loose and PSU’s Alec Marsh dug it out. Chase Berger raced in, got the puck and a quick backhander was blocked by either Lethemon or Rosburg, but Berger got the rebound and shot it into the net at 11:45.

After Penn State’s Andrew Sturtz was called for boarding at 13:01, Holland was penalized for elbowing at 13:36. When Sturtz got out of the penalty box, the Nittany Lions had a power play for 35 seconds.

And they capitalized with nine seconds left on their power play.

Pedrie again started the play with a slap shot from the point in the middle of the ice. It hit the boards on the right, bounced back out to the side of the net where Sturtz fired the puck off the right post.

The puck deflected up into the air, but not over the crossbar, and Richard backhanded it out of mid-air with the shaft of his stick, and as the puck fluttered toward the net, Richard tapped it again – on his forehand- into the top right corner above the left shoulder of Lethemon at 15:57.

It was one of the most bizarre goals the Spartans have had scored against them in a season of crazy goals allowed by MSU.

The officials went to video review to make sure Richard didn’t hit the puck above the crossbar but it was ruled a good goal and bad news for the Spartans.

“It’s a frustrating way to give up the game,” MSU coach Tom Anastos said of the last 8 minutes and 15 seconds of the third period. “We didn’t win the key moments. We pulled ahead and gave up a goal right away.

“Our power play was ineffective. Their power play gets a key goal for them. So, special teams went their way and that’s the difference in the game.”

Penn State outshot the Spartans, 39-28, but in total attempts at the net, the Nittany Lions’ edge was only 61-56, with nine MSU shots off target.

“We had possession, we had good looks, but our execution wasn’t good enough,’’ Anastos said. “Pucks weren’t in the right spot when you’re moving it to guys, we were missing the net on shots. You have to make those plays. Players need to step up and make plays in those situations.

“They did when the chips were down and we didn’t, and that swung the game their way.’’

Anastos said his team was reluctant to be aggressive offensively in the first period and that led to being outshot, 9-2, and fortunate to be only down only by one goal.

“We started a little on our heels. We were hesitant to be jumping in on the forecheck and thinking too much defense,’’ he said. “We had a good start in the second period and with that quick goal, we played a better period and better overall game from that point on.

“It was hard to get to get their net. At times, we did a decent job but we had pucks going wide or over the net. You have to put pucks in play, and the most dangerous place to put pucks is at the goal crease. And if you look at their last two goals – not including the empty-net goal – they were just scrambles and they resulted in goals. That hasn’t been a strength of ours.

“One of our challenges is playing with confidence. We’re trying to find ways to win and it hasn’t come easily. When you’re playing with confidence, you seem to find ways to win and when you’re not, you’re trying to hold and you find ways to lose. That’s not a place you want to be.’’

THE NITTANY LIONS’ VIEW: Coach Guy Gadowsky liked the way his team played in opening 20 minutes but not so much in the second period, and felt fortunate that the game was 1-1 after 40 minutes.

“I liked how we played in the first period. We weren’t giving up much and we weren’t generating much offense, but I thought we were playing well,’’ he said. “In the second period, Michigan State took over. Give them credit. We just weren’t ourselves and we were frustrated that nothing was happening.

“Our goaltender had to make huge saves. We were lucky to not be down two or three.’’

In the third period, the Nittany Lions played their best after going down 2-1, and it was enough to pull out a victory and end their two-game losing streak

“I give our guys credit. We went down 2-1 and got a huge response from Chase Berger and that line (with Andrew Sturtz and Alec Marsh). That was the more important play of the game,’’ Gadowsky said of the tying goal by Berger.

“We feel very fortunate to come out on top. I don’t think it was necessarily how we wanted to play the game and I don’t think it was how they wanted to play the game. It was one of those games where there didn’t seem to be a lot of flow either way.

“But then at the end, there was a hockey game.’’

The victory kept fourth-place Penn State (25 points) one point behind third-place Ohio State (26) and eight in back of Minnesota and Wisconsin, who share first place with 33 points.

The Nittany Lions play host to the Badgers next weekend before finishing the regular season at Michigan.

SENIOR FINALE: Eight seniors will be saluted after Saturday’s game and will take the traditional Senior Skate around Munn Arena.

The seniors include defenseman Rhett Holland and forwards Joe Cox, Thomas Ebbing, Villiam Haag, JT Stenglein, Connor Wood, Chris Knudson and Justin Selep.

Stenglein won’t be able to play because of a sports hernia that required surgery and ended his season two weeks ago.

The eight seniors have combined to play in 752 games over the last four years.

IN THE BIG TEN: Wisconsin climbed into a first-place tie with Minnesota with a 3-2 victory over the Gophers on Friday night in Minneapolis.

After giving up a fluke goal just 28 seconds into the game – by Vinni Lettieri, who banked the puck off the back of Badgers goalie Jack Berry from behind the net – Wisconsin scored three goals in the second period to take a 3-1 lead.

Freshman Trent Frederic tied it at 3:42, senior Aidan Cavallini scored shorthanded at 7:22 and Ryan Wagner’s power-play goal made it 3-1 with 55.6 seconds left in the middle period.

Minnesota cut the deficit to 3-2 on Lettieri’s second goal at 11:52 of the third period, but the Badgers survived several dangerous plays around the net and skated off a late penalty to hold on for the victory.

The Gophers outshot the Badgers, 38-18, and Berry made up for his misplay in the first minute with several outstanding saves. Minnesota held a huge edge in shot attempts, 83-38.

Both Minnesota (20-9-2, 11-4-0-0) and Wisconsin (18-10-1, 11-4-0-0) have 33 points with five games remaining in the regular season.

In Columbus, Michigan took a 1-0 lead over Ohio State midway through the first period, but the Buckeyes (17-8-6, 8-6-1-1) scored three straight goals and went on to a 4-2 victory.

Kevin Miller had two goals and David Gust and Nick Schilkey scored power-play goals for the Buckeyes. Evan Allen had two goals for the Wolverines (9-17-3, 2-11-2-2)

OSU led 3-2 late in the second period when Schilkey scored his 24th goal of the season on a power play with seven seconds left. Surprisingly, the third period was scoreless. The Buckeyes outshot Michigan, 46-34.

Both Wisconsin and Minnesota and Michigan and Ohio State complete their series on Saturday.

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