By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Michigan State’s bid for its first series sweep of the season fell short Saturday night at Value City Arena.
And it was fairly easy to pinpoint the reasons.
Ohio State scored three power-play goals in four opportunities.
The Spartans put the puck in the net twice on four power-play chances.
Three power-play goals to two power-play goals. The difference was only one goal but that was the difference in the game, the difference in MSU losing and the Buckeyes winning.
Sophomore center Dakota Joshua’s power-play goal at 5:04 of the third period broke a 3-3 tie and No. 13 Ohio State held on for a 5-3 victory over the Spartans and a split of the Big Ten series.
With MSU pressing for the tie in the final minute, with goalie John Lethemon (21 saves) pulled for a sixth attacker, OSU senior Nick Schilkey scored into the empty net with 11 seconds left for his 26th goal of the season.
“When we score two power play goals, we have to win,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “Their fluky third goal and their power play – that was the difference in the game.’’
Michigan State (7-22-3, 3-12-2-0), which won Friday’s series opener, 5-4, managed only four shots on goal in the third period and Ohio State defenders blocked seven shots in the last 20 minutes and 13 for the game.
The Buckeyes (18-10-6, 9-8-1-1) came into the weekend converting on 29.8 percent of their power-play chances, which is No. 1 in the nation, and averaging 3.97 goals per game. After scoring five power-play goals and nine goals in the two games, Ohio State’s power-play percentage rate is at 31.9 percent (No. 1) and its goals-per-game average climbed to 4.00, 3rd in the county.
Saliba, a freshman center, scored two goals – on a power play in the first period to tie it 1-1 and even strength early in the second to pull MSU into at 3-3 deadlock. Appleton, a sophomore, assisted on both of Saliba’s goals and set up Patrick Khodorenko’s power-play goal in the first minute of the second period for a three-assist night.
Besides the Buckeyes’ power play goal early in the final period, another turning point came late in the second period, with the scored tied 3-3 and the Spartans controlling the play.
Within a few minutes, MSU had three excellent scoring chances stopped by OSU senior goalie Matt Tomkins (22 saves). He first stopped a good attempt by Saliba, going for a hat trick, with 2:47 left in the period and then made a clutch save off a faceoff on a wide-open Dylan Pavelek at the edge of the crease.
Then MSU’s Brennan Sanford got loose in the slot for a point-blank shot that Tomkins stopped.
“We had some good opportunities and we had good possession. There were a lot of good things that we did in the game,’’ Anastos said. “I didn’t like the fluke goal and obviously not staying out of the penalty box. But overall, the effort was good all weekend.’’
The weird OSU goal came early in the second period after each team had scored two power-play goals, with the game tied, 2-2.
The Buckeyes’ Kevin Miller backhand shot hit Lethemon’s pad and bounced up in the air, fluttering toward the net, and came down behind Lethemon, hit his back and ended up in the net at 2:03.
But the Spartans tied it 1 minute and 45 seconds later as Saliba scored from the left circle, shooting the puck through the legs of a defender and it found the right corner, past a startled Tomkins.
Michigan State outshot OSU 14-8 in the second period but couldn’t finish. Early in the third period, the Buckeyes did finish on their fourth power play with the game-winner.
With MSU sophomore Cody Milan in the penalty box for tripping at 4:20, Joshua got the puck behind the net, sidestepped a Spartan, and instead of passing out front, he saw an opening and carried the puck out front and slid it past Lethemon.
“I liked our 5-on-5 game a lot. It just goes back to our inability to kill penalties,’’ said Saliba, who now has nine goals. “It’s tough giving up three power-play goals.
“We were able to get two but we weren’t able to get some stops. We have to be a lot better. We had a couple of good scoring chances in the second period, and going into the third, it’s tied 3-3 and that’s where you want to be to give yourself a chance to win.’’
Appleton’s three-assist game was his first as a Spartan but it was his second three-point game, the first coming against Michigan Tech, with two goals and one assist on Nov. 4.
“It was neck and neck all the way through and both power plays provided good offense for their teams,’’ Appleton said. “Their third goal was pretty fluky – the one that popped up over Lethemon. Obviously, those are tough to give up, but we were resilient all game and kept battling back.
“It’s tough losing on Saturday night when you could get the sweep.’’
In Ohio State’s four games this season against MSU – 3-2 and 4-3 victories at Munn Arena two weeks ago and this weekend’s 5-4 loss and 5-3 win, the Buckeyes’ power play has gone 0-for-3, 2-for-4, 2-for-3 and 3-for-4. That’s seven power-play goals on 14 opportunities.
“We need to get better on the penalty kill. They’re obviously so good on their power play,’’ Appleton said. “They’ve got their point guys who love to rip it and guys down low around the net. They’re a team we might see in a week-in-a-half (at the Big Ten Tournament) and we have to be ready for them.
“We talked about how we needed to score more goals, especially to beat a team like Ohio State, which has such a high-powered offense. On the weekend, we had eight goals and that’s a pretty good recipe to winning games.’’
If Michigan State plays Ohio State in the Big Ten Tourney, which would be for the third time in four seasons with the Buckeyes eliminating the Spartans in 2014 and last season, one part of the game plan will be easy to figure.
“First things first, you have to stay out of the penalty box against this team,’’ Appleton said. “Overall, I thought as a team that we were pretty good. We did some good things on the power play, too.’’
UP NEXT: The Spartans close out the regular season with a two-game series at first-place Minnesota at 8 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.
In their first series this season, the Gophers swept MSU, 4-2 and 4-2, at Munn Arena on Dec. 9-10. Both games were essentially 3-2 losses with Minnesota scoring into an empty net in both. In the second game, the Spartans held a 2-0 lead until just after the halfway point in the second period. The Gophers tied it before the middle period was over and got the go-ahead goal with 8:46 left in the third period.
SPARTAN POTPOURRI: Mason Appleton has taken over the team assist lead from linemate Taro Hirose. With three assists on Saturday, Appleton now has 18, one more than Hirose. Appleton is MSU’s top scorer with 11 goals and 18 assists for 29 points, with Hirose second with 23 points (6-17). … Sam Saliba, who had one goal on Friday and two on Saturday, has four goals in his last five games and now has a team second-best nine goals and seven assists for 16 points. … Freshman defenseman Dylan Chrcek suffered an upper body injury from a hit in the first period and didn’t return. … Freshman goalie John Lethemon this weekend made back-to-back starts in the same series for the first time in his career at MSU. He started two games in a row in early-to-mid February - at Michigan (a 4-1 win) on Feb. 11, and came back to start vs. Ohio State (3-2 loss, Feb. 17. … Junior defenseman Connor Gatt got playing time on MSU’s first power play on Saturday and chipped in with two assists – secondary assists on Saliba’s power-play goal in the first period and Patrick Khodorenko’s PPG in the second period.
PLAYOFF OPPONENT POSSIBLES: With two games left in the regular season, Michigan State is likely to finish sixth, unless the Spartans can sweep Minnesota, or win and tie and win the shootout, and Michigan loses twice to Penn State. That would lift MSU into fifth place. U-M has a five-point lead on MSU.
So, the Spartans will play either Penn State or Ohio State in the quarterfinal round of the Big Ten Tournament in Detroit, March 16-18. But they could still face Wisconsin if Penn State picks up at least five points on the Badgers next weekend, and Wisconsin drops to fourth.
If Michigan State would win the No. 4 vs. No. 6 matchup, it would play the first-place team in the semifinal round.
IN THE BIG TEN: All three conference series ended in splits this weekend, so basically the standings look the same as before Friday’s games, in terms of points ahead and behind.
First-place Minnesota went into the weekend with a three-point lead over second-place Wisconsin and third-place Penn State was up on fourth-place Ohio State by two points. And that’s where it stands after Minnesota and Michigan split series – a 5-3 U-M win on Friday and a 4-1 Gophers win Saturday – and Wisconsin won 7-4 and lost 6-0 at Penn State.
So, it’s down to the final weekend with the Badgers (19-12-1, 12-6-0-0) still hoping to overtake the Gophers (22-10-2, 13-5-0-0) for first place and Ohio State (18-10-6, 9-8-1-1) looking to climb ahead of Penn State (21-9-2, 10-7-1-0) and into third place.
Next weekend, Michigan State is at Minnesota, Wisconsin is home against Ohio State and Penn State visits Michigan.
Minnesota and Wisconsin are the only teams that can win the regular-season title. Penn State, five points behind the Badgers, can still finish second with a sweep of U-M and Wisconsin losing two to OSU or losing one and tying one, with a loss in the shootout.