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Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Seek to Carry Momentum into B1G Tournament

March 1, 2018

By Neil Koepke staff writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Michigan State found a way to win one game at Ohio State a month ago. The challenge now is to figure out how win two games – and extend its season.

College hockey’s “Second Season” is here as the Spartans skate into a Big Ten playoff series against the Buckeyes this weekend.

MSU, the seventh seed, and OSU, the second seed, meet in a best-of-three series at 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday and, if necessary, on Sunday, at Value City Arena.

For the Spartans (12-20-2, 6-16-2), it’s win two games or go home with the season over.

For the Buckeyes (21-8-5, 14-8-2-1), it’s win two or not have a chance at the Big Ten championship, but still have a good shot of getting an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament because of their high PairWise Ranking (6th).

So, there’s more at stake for Michigan State.

But after 34 games, including 24 in the Big Ten, the Spartans feel they’re well-prepared, focused and ready for their biggest challenge of the season.

“The last four weekends have been a good building experience for us. We’ve played really good hockey and beat some good teams,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “And one of the teams we beat was Ohio State.

“Our mindset is good. We know we’ve got our work cut out for us. But without confidence and belief, we don’t get much done, and I think our guys have both of those things.’’

The Spartans have worked hard and played well over the last month and have gotten rewarded with some solid victories. They’re 3-4-1 in their last four series – 1-1 at Ohio State; 0-1-1 against Michigan at home and in Detroit; 1-1 vs. Penn State at home and 1-1 at Notre Dame.

Even in the last two series in January, MSU was competitive and played well in a split at Wisconsin and two one-goal losses against Minnesota – one at home and one in New York.



“Going back to that trip to Ohio State and the series split, we thought we played better that the result (a 4-2 loss) in the first game and it was a big turning point for us on Saturday when we took it to them got the 6-3 victory,’’ senior defenseman and assistant captain Carson Gatt said.

“Ever since, we’ve built off that. Especially last weekend at Notre Dame after that bad second period on Friday and then coming back to win on Saturday. To get that win on the road was big, and helps us build toward this weekend.’’

Notre Dame, ranked No. 5 in the nation and already having clinched first place in the Big Ten, topped Michigan State, 6-3 on Friday, set up by a five-goal second period. But the Spartans showed resiliency in winning 4-3 on Saturday, battling back from 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 deficits to pull out the victory in the third period.

“We’re trending in an upward direction. We’re playing good hockey the last few weeks,’’ sophomore goaltender John Lethemon said. “We’ve been playing a good team game.

“We’ve had a couple of lapses but we’ve bounced back from those. You head into a three-game series and anything can happen against a team we know we can beat.’’

If the Spartans are to pull off a first-round upset, they’ll have to have their game at a high level against a team that’s strong offensively and solid on defense and in goal and has effective special teams. MSU will have to play at good pace, play smart, limit turnovers, get good goaltending and be opportunistic.

“They’re really structured, they’re a tough team,’’ Gatt said of the Buckeyes. “They’re top five in the nation in goals against, they compete hard and have high-end offensive guys who can score.

“They’re pretty balanced so there’s not really one thing where we can say we have to exploit this. We just have to go in there and play hard hockey and tough it out.’’

Lethemon didn’t have good outings against the Buckeyes in the losses (4-1 and 5-3) at Munn Arena in early January, but played better in the two games in Columbus (4-2 loss, 6-3 win). He’s striving to be at his best this weekend.

“I think it’s about keeping it simple. My mindset is me versus the puck, not me versus the jersey,’’ he said. “It doesn’t matter who I’m playing. My job stays the same.

“I think there’s a lot to look forward to. We’ve had some good games against them but I don’t think I’ve played up to my standards. I need to have a strong game. I don’t think I have to be great but just be very good and that’ll give us a chance to win.’’

Cole believes his team has done as much as it could to be ready for the postseason matchup against Ohio State.

“We’ve won when we’ve played well and hung around and even won some games when we haven’t played well,’’ Cole said. “We’ve talked about a certain game – the first game at Ohio State (on Feb. 2). It was the 4-2 (loss) with an empty-netter. But earlier in the year, that probably would have been a 5- or 6-goal loss for us. But now, we were able to manage that one.

“And maybe we weren’t at our best, but we were able to come back the next night and win. I like the resiliency of the group.’’

Since early January, the Spartans have outplayed most of their opponents in the third period. The did it last weekend in both games at Notre Dame and the two games against Penn State, Feb. 16-17, and the game against Michigan at Little Caesars Arena. MSU had strong third periods in the one-goal losses against Minnesota.

The Spartans have scored at least one goal in the third period in each of their last five games, outscoring opponents by a combined margin of 8-3.

“I think it’s just a lot of concepts and habits that are better and when we’re not at our best, we’re able to maintain and keep the game at bay for awhile until we can get it going,’’ Cole said. “We’re a deeper team now.

“Earlier, we had to rely on one line offensively and defensively. Now, we have all four lines going. Gino’s (Esteves) line, with three freshmen, has given us a lot of good minutes. If they can give us 7-8 minutes a game, we’ll now Taro (Hirose) doesn’t have to play 24 minutes. He can play 18-19 and he’s a lot better player being able to do that.’’

THE RIVALRY: Michigan State leads the series with the Buckeyes, 90-41-12, but Ohio State holds an 2-8 edge in the last 10 games. The Spartans, however, won the last meeting, 6-3, on Feb. 3 to earn a split of the weekend series. In early January, OSU swept the Spartans, 4-1 and 5-2, at Munn Arena. Over the last four seasons, MSU is 4-4 at Value City Arena but only 2-5-1 vs. the Buckeyes at Munn Arena. The Spartans haven’t been swept in Columbus since Nov. 7-8, 2009.

Michigan State and Ohio State are familiar rivals in the Big Ten Tournament with the Buckeyes eliminating the Spartans in three of the last four seasons in the quarterfinals. OSU won 2-1 in overtime in the 2014 Big Ten Tournament in St. Paul, Minn., 3-2 in overtime in the 2016 tournament, also in St. Paul, and won 6-3 in the 2017 tourney at Joe Louis Arena.

SCOUTING THE BUCKEYES: Ohio State is undefeated in its last three games after going 1-3 in its previous four contests. Last weekend, the Buckeyes closed out the regular season with a sweep of Wisconsin, 6-2 and 4-0.

In the first game, the Badgers carried a 2-1 lead into the third period, but OSU erupted for five unanswered goals to hand Wisconsin a loss that wiped out its hopes of finishing fourth and getting home ice for the first round of the playoffs.

In the series finale, Ohio State used backup goalie Tommy Nappier, a freshman, instead of standout junior goalie Sean Romeo. Nappier and the Buckeyes blanked Wisconsin, 4-0.

Ohio State has five forwards with 10 or more goals – Mason Jobst (16), Tanner Laczynski (14), Dakota Joshua (13), Matthew Weiss (10) and Freddy Gerard (10). Christian Lampasso has nine goals.

Laczynski, a sophomore, leads the team in points with 39, Jobst is second with 35, followed by Weiss (34) and Joshua (21). Laczynski is third in the Big Ten in overall scoring. In the Big Ten scoring race (conference games only), Jobst finished second (13-13-26), while Laczynski (9-16-25) was tied for third with MSU’s Taro Hirose (8-17-25).

The Buckeyes average 3.13 goals a game, which ranks No. 3 in the Big Ten behind Penn State (3.65) and Michigan (3.21), and No. 13 in the nation. Their power play is converting on 21.9 percent of their chances, which is the best in the Big Ten and No. 13 nationally.

The big reasons for Ohio State’s big improvement over last year and high ranking in the polls and PairWise are defense and goaltending. The Buckeyes have a 2.06 goals-against average, which is No. 1 in the Big Ten and tied for No. 3 in the nation.

Romeo, in his first season at OSU after transferring from Maine, has a 2.06 goals-against average (2nd Big Ten, 12th nationally) and a .928 saves percentage (3rd, 10th).

The Buckeyes’ penalty killing is the best in the nation. They’re killing 91.1 percent of opponents’ power-play opportunities.

Since losing 6-3 to the Spartans on Feb. 3, Ohio State has allowed eight goals in its last six games. In three games, the Buckeyes gave up two goals, twice they allowed one and there was one shutout.

Ohio State accomplished something this season it has never been able to do: Win season series from Michigan (4-0), Wisconsin (3-1) and Minnesota (2-1-1) in the same season. The Buckeyes went 1-3 vs. Notre Dame, 1-2-1 against Penn State and 3-1 vs. MSU.

Only twice this season has OSU lost two games in a row.

“I like their team. They play the game the right way,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “They play hard, they’re skilled, they defend and their special teams are good. I look at it as a good challenge for our team.’’

Coach Steve Rohlik is in his fifth season at OSU and has an 88-71-23 record. The Buckeyes reached the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2008-09.

DEFENSE BOOSTS OFFENSE: Michigan State’s offense is getting a boost from a group of defensemen which is scoring goals and setting up goals more frequently than it has all season.

Defensemen have been involved in 24 of the Spartans’ last 33 goals over the past 10 games.

Last weekend at Notre Dame, defensemen had a hand in all seven goals – three on Friday in a 6-3 loss and four on Saturday in a 4-3 victory. D-men scored three goals and collected six assists for nine points in the two-game series.

The last time MSU faced Ohio State, five Spartan defensemen contributed eight points – two goals and six assists – in a 6-3 victory on Feb. 3 in Columbus.

“I think it’s a combination of things,’’ said senior Carson Gatt, MSU’s top-scoring defenseman with four goals and 15 assists for 19 points. “The D-corps is getting a little more confident. We’re making more plays but the defense can’t do it all by ourselves. And definitely the forwards are getting open on breakouts.

“We’ve been doing a better job of getting pucks through (to the net) and moving the puck, but the forwards have been getting open and putting the puck in the net.’’

Coach Danton Cole says that for an offense to be successful, the defense must play a major role. If not, it’s going to be difficult to score consistently.

“If your defensemen don’t move the puck up, if they don’t keep pucks in, don’t get pucks on net, it’s hard to be a good offensive team,’’ he said.

“When you look at how goals are scored, they’re scored off rebounds, scrambled plays that you kept (the puck in), and if you’re not doing any of those things, now you have to create everything off the rush or create off cycles, and it’s hard to do because teams are good defensively.’’

In the last 10 games, freshman Tommy Miller has seven assists, Zach Osburn has three goals and three assists for six points, Gatt has two goals and four assists for six points, Jerad Rosburg has one goal and three assists for four points and Butrus Ghafari has two goals and one assist for three points.

Meanwhile, Rosburg, who had the winning goal and two assists in last Saturday’s 4-3 win at Notre Dame, has one goal and nine assists for 10 points in his last 18 games going back to early December.

Rosburg is MSU’s second-highest scoring defenseman with one goal and 10 assists for 11 points, Miller has no goals and 10 assists, Osburn has eight points (4-4) and Ghafari has three points (2-1).

“Our defense has gotten better in all three zones, and one thing they’ve done better in the offensive zone is just getting pucks on net,’’ Cole said. “Getting pucks through and understanding it doesn’t have to be a big slap shot, that if they get a good wrister through, there’s a chance that it will get tipped in or that there will be a rebound.

“They’ve done a better job with that and it’s reflected on the scoresheet.’’

SPARTAN POTPOURRI: Mitchell Lewandowski is the seventh freshman in MSU history to score at least 19 goals in a season, and the first since Rustyn Dolyny scored 20 in 1997-98. The last Spartan to score more than 19 goals in a season was Corey Tropp, who had 20 in 2009-10.

Lewandowski had two goals in MSU’s 4-3 victory at Notre Dame last Saturday. He also had two goals in a 4-2 win vs. Penn State two weeks ago. Lewandowski has six two-goal games this season. The 5-foot-9, 176-pound right wing from Clarkston has more goals than any freshman in Division I hockey, and only 11 players have scored more goals than Lewandowski. The top goal-scorer in the nation is Northeastern forward Adam Gaudette with 29.

His 33 points are third among all freshmen in the country and eight more than any other rookie in the conference.

Lewandowski, a strong candidate to win the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award, has five game-winning goals, and he’s in a 10-way tie for second nationally, one goal behind Northern Michigan’s Darien Craighead’s six game-winners . . .

MSU’s KHL line of Patrick Khodorenko, Taro Hirose and Lewandowski finished the regular season with 102 points – 42 goals and 60 assists. That’s 44 percent of the team’s total points. Both Hirose (3-7-10) and Khodorenko (2-6-8) have points in six of the last seven games. Hirose continues to lead MSU in scoring with 12 goals and 28 assists for 40 points, Lewandowski second with 33 points (19-14) and Khodorenko is third with 29 (11-18) . . .

Hirose ranks second in the Big Ten in points (40) and assists (28). His 28 assists are the most by a Spartan since Jim Slater had 32 in 2004-05, while his 40 points are the most since Tropp had 42 in 2009-10 . . .

Freshman center Tommy Apap leads the Big Ten in faceoff winning percentage at .597. He ranks sixth nationally.

IN THE BIG TEN: Notre Dame earned a first-round by in the playoffs by finishing in first place. The Irish (23-9-3 overall, 17-6-1-1 Big Ten) clinched the regular-season title on Feb. 9.

In the other two playoff series this weekend, third-place Michigan (18-3-3, 11-10-3-2) plays host to sixth-place Wisconsin (14-17-4, 8-13-3-1) and fourth-place Penn State (16-13-5, 9-10-5-2) is home against fifth-place Minnesota (19-15-2, 10-12-2-1). Both best-of-three series are Friday-Sunday.

The Nittany Lions and Gophers are meeting for second straight weekend in University Park, Pa. They closed out the season last Friday and Saturday, with Penn State taking all six points in the series with 5-1 and 5-2 victories.

PSU went into the series trailing Minnesota by five points and ended it one point ahead, in fourth place, and its reward was home ice for the first round of the playoffs.

The Wolverines enter their series on a roll. They’ve won five straight – sweeps of Notre Dame and Arizona State after a single win over MSU – and are 5-0-1 in their last six games.

Meanwhile, the Badgers are a tad cold. They’ve lost four in a row and are just 1-5-1 in their last seven games. Wisconsin got swept by Minnesota, 4-2 and 7-1 on Feb. 9-10, then had a week off, and last weekend lost twice at Ohio state 6-2, 4-0.

This weekend’s three series winners advance to next weekend’s single-game semifinals, with Notre Dame hosting the lowest surviving seed and the other two teams playing at the second-highest remaining seed.

The Big Ten championship game is March 17 at the highest seed of the two finalists.

The only team without a chance to host a semifinal or final game is MSU. Wisconsin can’t play at home in the semifinals but it could be home for the championship game – if it wins the series against Michigan and a semifinal game against the Penn State-Minnesota winner and the Spartans eliminate OSU this weekend and Notre Dame in the other semifinal.

That championship game would match 7th-seed MSU and 6th-seed Wisconsin at the Kohl Center in Madison. The odds, of course, are against it. But that’s why they play the games.

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