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Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Bounced From Tournament in OT Loss

March 4, 2018

By Neil Koepke staff writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Faced with Big Ten playoff elimination and the end to its season, Michigan State scratched, clawed and battled hard on Saturday in an attempt to stay alive and play another game on Sunday.

The Spartans and Ohio State started the third period tied 3-3 and went up-and-down the ice, looking for the go-ahead goal. But the 20-minute session was scoreless and MSU pushed the No. 6-ranked Buckeyes into overtime.

But history is not on Michigan State’s side when it comes to having success against OSU in overtime in the postseason. And it continued on Saturday.

The Spartans’ season came to a heartbreaking end when Freddy Gerard deflected a shot from the left point past MSU goalie John Lethemon 5:53 into the extra period to give the Buckeyes a 4-3 victory in front of 3,839 fans at Value City Arena.

Ohio State (23-8-5 overall) wins the best-of-three series, 2-0, and advances to the Big Ten semifinals next Saturday against Michigan.

Despite the disappointing end, the Spartans (12-22-2), who lost Friday’s series opener, 6-2, put up a great fight in the face of some adversity. MSU lost junior defenseman Zach Osburn to an upper-body injury with seven minutes left in the second period and he didn’t return.

The Spartans, who trailed 1-0, went up 2-1 and 3-2 in the second period only to have Ohio State bounce back with the tying goal.

“It was a really great, great effort by our guys,’’ Spartans first-year coach Danton Cole said. “You look at how hard they played and the determination – we lose Ozzie halfway through the game and he’s a really good defenseman and one of our upperclassmen so we had to play over that.’’



Ohio State outshot MSU, 42-18, although many of the Buckeyes’ shots on goal were from the perimeter and handled by the Spartans’ John Lethemon. The sophomore goaltender was sharp and made several quality saves to give his team a chance to win.

“John had a good game and we needed him to,’’ Cole said. “It was a good battle up and down the ice. It was a long time to stay tied at 3-3. There were some good chances and it was exciting hockey.’’

Cody Milan, Patrick Khodorenko and Tommy Apap scored for the Spartans. Mason Jobst led OSU with two goals and John Wiitala and Gerard each had one.

Gerard, a junior left wing, was in the right spot in the left circle when he saw defenseman Sasha Larocque’s shot from the left point headed toward the net. He put out his stick and deflected it away from where Lethemon was playing it, and it is slid into the left side of the net just out of reach of diving defenseman Jerad Rosburg.

“It was kind of like both teams were waiting for that one bounce,’’ Cole said. “And we couldn’t get a couple to go in and they got the stick on the puck coming through and that’s how it ends in overtime.

“That’s just the way it is. There’s one team that gets the ending they want, and we didn’t get it, but we did some good things and some stuff to build on going forward.’’

After Jobst gave his team a 1-0 lead on a power-play goal at 11:09 of the first period on a quick break-in, the Spartans tied it on a power play of their own with 27 seconds left in the opening period. Khodorenko, with the puck behind the net, spotted Milan moving in from the right point and put the puck on his stick and Milan fired it past Romeo for his sixth goal of the season.

Khodorenko gave MSU a 2-1 lead 29 seconds into the second period, scoring from the slot, with assists going to Taro Hirose and Mitchell Lewandowski. It was Khodorenko’s 12th goal of the season.

OSU tied it 2-2 seven minutes later when Brendon Kearney stole the puck along the left wing boards and centered the puck to a wide-open Jobst, who fired it past Lethemon.

But MSU answered quickly as Apap took a pass in front of net from David Keefer, who was behind the net, and wristed it past Romeo, giving his team a 3-2 lead 22 seconds after Ohio State’s second goal.

The Buckeyes took advantage of an MSU turnover tie it on John Wiitala’s goal at 11:22. Jobst’s long shot was caught by Lethemon but the puck bounced free and slid into the slot, where Wiitala raced in, made a nice toe-drag and fired it into the net at 11:22.

Less than two minutes later, OSU’s Tanner Laczynski crunched Osburn along the boards near the MSU blue line. He was assessed a minor penalty for boarding and Osburn was done for the night.

The last 8:38 of the second period and the full third period were scoreless, setting up another overtime for the Spartans and Buckeyes.

Almost six minutes into OT, Ohio State got the bounce it was looking for, and suddenly, Michigan State’s season was over.

OSU has now defeated MSU in the Big Ten playoffs four times in the last five seasons, three in a row and three in overtime (2014, 2016, 2018). In addition, the Buckeyes topped the Spartans, 4-3, in overtime in the 1998 NCAA West Regional, denying Michigan State a spot in the Frozen Four.

It’s another tough loss for the Spartans but also a valuable experience for a team that returns all but three seniors next season – defenseman Carson Gatt, forward Dylan Pavelek and goalie Ed Minney.

“Ohio State’s a good team. They’re good in transition and they have good sticks,’’ Cole said. “They made a good play in overtime – it was a good keep to keep (the puck) in and the guy making the tip made a good one.

“We as a staff are proud of how our guys handled themselves. They pushed a good team right to end. There’s tons (of things to be learned). You have to go through these things, and the important thing is, if you lose a game, lose a series, don’t lose the lesson, as we’ve said a lot.

“We have to figure out how to keep getting better between now and the time we take the ice in the fall. Shame on us if we don’t keep getting better. We’ll keep pushing. (The players) will get a week off and then get back at it.’’

After winning only seven games in last season, Michigan State won 12 this season. The Spartans developed one of the top forward lines in the Big Ten and the nation with their KHL unit – sophomores Khodorenko (13-19-32) and Hirose (12-30-42) and freshman Lewandowski (19-15-34).

Defensively, MSU allowed 117 goals, 17 fewer than last season and in one more game.

And now the focus is making the returning players better and bringing in four or five freshmen who can upgrade the team’s skill level and make an impact.

“I hope one day we’re having this conversation after winning national championship and say, “Hey, we’re taking a week off and then we’ll figure out how to be really good again next year.’’’

THE BUCKEYES’ VIEW: Coach Steve Rohlik liked the way his team played in a close, hard-fought game that ended on a positive note, and he also had high praise for the Spartans.

“First and foremost, tip your cap to Michigan State. They left it on the line tonight,’’ Rohlik said “They’re a good hockey team and we knew we had to bring our best. It’s tough to end a team’s season. I was telling our guys today, ‘How would you feel if our season was on the line today? How would we come out?’

“Again, a lot of credit to Michigan State. But our guys in the room, they believe in the culture and in what we are trying to do. I thought we played a complete game tonight.’’

On the play that set up his winning goal, Freddy Gerard was ready to head back into the neutral zone, thinking the puck was about to leave the zone. But defenseman Sasha Larocque kept the puck in the MSU end at the left point.

“He made a great play. For a second, I was worried the puck was going to get out of the zone and I was going to have to work hard to get back in the neutral zone, but he kept it in,’’ Gerard said. “I saw him throw it chest high and I was like ‘I’m going to try to get a stick on this.’ Fortunately, I did, and I was able to look back over my shoulder and watch (the puck) cross the goal line.’’

Mason Jobst, a 5-foot-8, 189-pound junior center from Speedway, Ind., has been a major thorn for the Spartans for the last three seasons. He had a goal and two assists in OSU’s 6-2 win on Friday and two goals and one assist on Saturday for a six-point weekend.

In 16 games against MSU, Jobst has 10 goals and 12 assists for 22 points. In 2015-16, Jobst scored in overtime to give his team a 4-3 victory over the Spartans in a Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal in St. Paul, Minn.

Jobst, who has 19 goals and 22 assists for 41 points, shares the OSU scoring lead with Tanner Laczynski (15-26-41).

Jobst is a former teammate of MSU senior defenseman Carson Gatt and freshman forward David Keefer with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the U.S. Hockey League.

THE FINAL STAT PACK: Taro Hirose, Mitchell Lewandowski and Patrick Khodorenko finished 1-2-3 in MSU scoring. Hirose ended his sophomore season with 12 goals and 30 assists for 42 points. Lewandowski, a favorite to win the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award, completed his first season in college hockey with 19 goals and 15 assists for 34 points. Khodorenko, who had a goal and an assist in Saturday’s 4-3 OT loss, wrapped up his second season with 13 goals and 19 assists for 32 points.

Cody Milan, a junior right wing who saw playing time on the No. 1 power play, was fourth in team scoring with six goals and 15 assists for 21 points.

Senior Carson Gatt was the fifth-highest scorer and the top scoring defenseman with four goals and 15 assists for 19 points.

Sophomore goalie John Lethemon played in 34 games, started 32 and finished with a 12-19-2 record with four shutouts, a 2.88 goals-against average and a .903 saves percentage.

Hirose led MSU with nine power-play goals, Khodorenko was second with six.

IN THE BIG TEN: In the other Big Ten playoffs series, home teams Penn State and Michigan posted high-scoring victories Saturday, eliminating Minnesota and Wisconsin and advancing to next Saturday’s single-game semifinals.

The Nittany Lions, the No. 4 seed who won the series opener 5-3 on Friday, built leads of 2-0 and 3-1 but fell behind 4-3 and 5-4 before tying the game 5-5 midway through the period.

Evan Barratt gave PSU a 6-5 lead with 8:35 left and the Nittany Lions held on for the victory and series sweep.

The win was Penn State’s fourth straight over Minnesota during the last two weekends. The Nittany Lions topped the Gophers, 5-1 and 5-2, last weekend to clinch home ice for the first round of the playoffs. Two more victories followed as PSU outscored Minnesota, 21-11, in the four games.

Penn State moves on to play Notre Dame in a semifinal next Saturday in South Bend. The Gophers’ season, however, may not be over since they they’re No. 13 in the latest PairWise (PWR) Rankings, which is a formula similar to the one used by the NCAA Hockey Committee in determining the 10 at-large teams and seedings in the 16-team NCAA Tournament field.

But it’s also possible that Minnesota could fall out of the top 15 in the PairWise, depending on the results of tournament play over the next two weekends.

Meanwhile, Michigan definitely ended Wisconsin’s season with a 7-4 victory on Saturday in Ann Arbor, sweeping the series 2-0. The Wolverines outscored the Badgers, 6-5, on Friday.

Wisconsin scored the first goal Saturday but trailed 2-1 after the first period and 5-3 after the second. Senior right wing Tony Calderone, who scored four goals, including the winner, on Friday, had two assists on Saturday.

Dexter Dancs had two goals for U-M and Trent Frederic scored twice for Wisconsin.

The Wolverines, tied for No. 7 in the PairWise, plays Ohio State at 7:30 p.m. next Saturday at Nationwide Arena in a one-game semifinal. Value City Arena is unavailable for the next two weekends.

Notre Dame is tied for No. 2 in the PWR, while Ohio State, after its sweep of MSU, is now No. 4, which would give the Buckeyes one of four No. 1 seeds.

The PWR is expected to change a lot over the next two weeks of postseason play, but it appears that Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan are locks for NCAA tourney spots, Penn State is in is good position but Minnesota on the bubble.

In the last four seasons, the highest number of Big Ten teams making the NCAA Tournament was three last year – Minnesota, Ohio State and Penn State. The Big Ten playoff champion earns the conference’s automatic bid into the tournament.

The NCAA Selection Show is at noon on March 18 on ESPNU.

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