By Neil Koepke
MSUSparans.com staff writer
DETROIT – Six minutes into the first period, things looked pretty bad for Michigan State.
By the time the first period ended, things were looking pretty good for the Spartans.
But it went the other way again to start the third period.
And a disastrous four-minute stretch to start the third period doomed Michigan State in the game and ended the Spartans’ season.
Ohio State, up 2-0 early in the first period and down 3-2 late in the second, erupted for three goals within 3 minutes and 26 seconds early in the final period to break a 3-3 tie and cruised to a 6-3 victory over MSU in a Big Ten quarterfinal on Thursday at Joe Louis Arena.
A seemingly winnable game suddenly turned into an insurmountable three-goal deficit.
For sure, it was a disappointing finish to a frustrating season for the Spartans, who close out 2016-17 with an overall record of 7-24-4.
“That’s kinda been the story of the season – those five-minute stretches when things fall apart,’’ MSU senior right wing and captain Joe Cox said. “We stayed away from the things that have been successful and those five minutes bit us.’’
Tied 3-3, MSU started the third period killing a hooking penalty called on defenseman Carson Gatt with 24 seconds left in the second period. It took the Buckeyes (21-10-6) only 25 seconds to take the lead for good as David Gust picked up his own rebound in the slot and fired it past goalie Ed Minney for a 4-3 edge.
Just 1 minute and 13 seconds later, Gust drove down the right wing, cut into the left circle and fired the puck past Minney’s catching glove and into right corner of the net. There wasn’t much room on the short side, but Gust found it.
OSU struck again 2 minutes and 13 seconds later and pretty much turned out the lights on the Spartans’ season when Tanner Laczynski fired in a rebound from the left circle at 3:31 to take a commanding 6-3 lead.
“They’re a high-powered offensive team and they scored some good goals and goals we didn’t like,’’ MSU sophomore right wing Mason Appleton said. “They were the better team and deserved to win.
“You can’t blame any one guy for losing like that. Little things here and there we didn’t like to see. You never want to have those stretches. It’s something we had to work on all year.’’
Ohio State moves on to the Big Ten semifinals to play No. 2 seed Wisconsin at 4:30 p.m. In the other semifinal, No. 1 Minnesota meets No. 4 Penn State at 8 p.m. The Nittany Lions defeated Michigan 4-1 in Thursday’s second quarterfinal.
Michigan State did have one very good stretch starting midway through the first period that made up for the bad stretch to start the game.
After trailing 2-0 on goals by OSU’s Mason Jobst (wide-angle shot) at 4:09 and Nick Schilkey (shot from the point), on a power play, at 5:44, the Spartans rebounded with three straight goals – at 8:58, 12:15 and 14:20 to take a 3-2 lead.
The line of Patrick Khodorenko, Villiam Haag and Dylan Pavelek ignited MSU’s comeback. Khodorenko made a great pass from along the left boards to a wide-open Haag in the slot, and the senior right wing beat goalie Matt Tomkins to the far right corner at 8:58.
Khodorenko made another excellent pass to set up the tying goal by Pavelek at 12:15. Skating down low in the left circle on an odd-man rush, Khodorenko slid the puck past an OSU defenseman right on to the stick of Pavelek, who directed it into the right corner to tie it 2-2.
MSU capitalized on its second power play of the night to go up 3-2 when freshman Sam Saliba, standing to the right of the net deflected Appleton’s slap shot from the point past Tomkins at 14:20.
“Our mindset was that it was very early in the game and time to make things up, and Vil started it and we were back in the game,’’ Cox said of MSU’s resiliency. “We answered it perfectly. Patty’s line got those two goals and we were back in it.’’
For about the next 19 minutes, Michigan State continued to hold on to its 3-2 lead, but the Spartans also didn’t have many quality scoring chances in the second period to make it a two-goal game and put pressure on the favored Buckeyes.
Instead, Ohio State’s fourth line tied it 3-3 at 13:54 when sophomore Brandon Kearney pounced on a rebound of a blocked shot and beat Minney from the right circle. It was Kearney’s third goal of the second and second against the Spartans.
For the Buckeyes, the goal was one turning point, and the other was converting on the power play to start the final period.
“I liked our resiliency, how we climbed back into the game, and I actually liked our second period, even though we gave up a goal,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “Obviously, the third period was not something we felt good about.
“Giving up that power play, I thought that was a key moment to start the third period. Somebody was going to get momentum, either they were by scoring a power-play goal, which we’ve struggled to shut down the power play, as many schools have (against OSU).
“We were hoping to shut it down and build some momentum. It didn’t work that way, and they moved ahead and scored a couple additional goals and had us reeling at that point.’’
After the third goal, Anastos changed goaltenders – out went Minney (21 saves) and in came freshman John Lethemon, who made seven saves the rest of the game and didn’t allow a goal.
Ohio State, which boasts the most productive power play in the nation at 32.2 percent, converted on two of three manpower advantages, with eight shots on goal. Michigan State was 1-for-3, with five shots on goal.
The Buckeyes, who went 4-1 against MSU over the four weeks, have eliminated the Spartans from the Big Ten Tournament in three of the last four seasons. The first two meetings were decided in overtime – 2-1 in 2014 and 4-3 in 2016, both in St. Paul, Minn.
Anastos summed up the season and finish as “disappointing” but noted that he enjoyed working with a team that worked hard in practice trying to get better and were resilient.
“I’m very disappointed with the season. Disappointing end for sure,’’ he said. “I knew coming into the season that we were introducing a lot of new players to the team, a lot of freshmen would play key roles, we’d be playing a lot of freshmen on defense and we’d have a huge question mark in goal.
“We didn’t get good enough results. It’s tough to win in our league. There’s a lot of good teams and we had a very tough schedule.
“There’s been a lot of frustrations for a variety of reasons. As you kind of try to reflect, and my head is not super clear to reflect on it now, but yeah, I expect to win. There’s a lot of dynamics that go into that, so I’m sure no one takes winning for granted because it’s not an easy thing to do.’’
FRESHMEN RISE: MSU had 10 freshmen see action this season with seven or eight in the lineup most nights. Anastos sees the rookies as a bright spot for the future.
“It’s a very good group. I liked the skill, I like the hockey intellect, loved their work habits,’’ he said. “Real good personality on the team and (we) had a good chemistry on our team all together.’’
The freshman class includes forwards Taro Hirose, Patrick Khodorenko, Sam Saliba and Logan Lambdin, defensemen Mitch Eliot, Jerad Rosburg, Butrus Ghafari, Damien Chrcek and Anthony Scarsella and goalies John Lethemon and Spencer Wright, the No. 3 netminder who did not play in any games. In addition, forward Justin Selep joined the team as a graduate transfer.
“Introducing 10 new guys to the mix, I thought our upperclassmen did a terrific job of embracing guys right from the beginning,’’ Anastos said. “So, all those things, in spite of the challenges of the season from a won-lost perspective, you’d say geez, it’s been a long season. I haven’t seen it that way. I’m coming into the game tonight and (I’m saying) geez, where did the season go, even though it’s been very challenging and there’s been a lot of sleepless nights.
“But because of the kind of kids we have, it’s a very good group to work with, and I think that class over time will really show the level that they’re capable of.’’
GOODBYE SENIORS: Meanwhile, the careers of eight seniors ended with Thursday’s loss. All were sad and many took it hard.
Five were in the lineup against the Buckeyes – captain Joe Cox, Thomas Ebbing, Villiam Haag, Rhett Holland and Connor Wood. Chris Knudson and Selep were healthy scratches and JT Stenglein’s season ended in January when he was diagnosed with a sports hernia and later had surgery.
“It’s disappointing to end my five years on this note, but at the same time, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the five years that I’ve been here and just thank the school, the program, the coaching staff and my teammates for everything they’ve done for me through the years, and this team especially,’’ said Holland, who was redshirted as a freshman because of an injury.
“It’s not the way we wanted to end the year, obviously, but this is a moment to reflect with (my teammates) and be three for them.’’
Haag had similar thoughts as he digested the end of his college career.
“Of course, it’s incredibly disappointing. But as Rhett said, I think we’re an amazing group of guys,’’ said Haag, a senior forward from Gothenberg, Sweden. “We stick together and we came to the rink every day and worked hard. I’m very proud of being a part of this team and as a Spartan as a whole.
“It’s a great place to be at. You have the opportunity to get an education and play hockey against the best guys in the world. I’ve very lucky to have had that opportunity. It was an amazing experience, these four years.’’
SPARTAN POTPOURRI: With one assist on Thursday, Mason Appleton ended his sophomore season as the Spartans’ top scorer with 12 goals and 19 assist for 31 points in 35 games.
Freshman Taro Hirose was second with six goals and 18 assists for 24 points in 34 games. Freshmen Sam Saliba, who scored MSU’s third goal Thursday, and Patrick Khodorenko, who set up the first two goals, tied for third with 18 points. Saliba had 10 goals and eight assists in 35 games, while Khodorenko had seven goals and 11 assists in 35 contests.
Sophomore Zach Osburn and junior Connor Gatt, who had an assist on Thursday, ended the season as MSU’s highest-scoring defensemen with 12 points. Osburn had four goals and eight assists in 35 games, while Gatt had three goals and nine assists in 31 games.
The Spartans’ power play scored 24 goals on 155 opportunities for a 15.4 percent conversion rate. On the penalty kill, MSU allowed 42 power-play goals, skating off 111 of 153 opponents’ power plays (72.5 percent).
NITTANY LIONS ADVANCE: After getting swept at Michigan last weekend in the final series of the regular season, 3-2 and 4-0, Penn State got some revenge on Thursday with a decisive 4-1 victory over the Wolverines in the second Big Ten quarterfinal.
The Nittany Lions, fighting to keep their NCAA hopes alive as an at-large team in case they don’t win the Big Ten championship, erupted for three unanswered goals in the first period and went up 4-0 early in the second period.
Freshman Liam Folkes, a fourth-line right wing, freshman center Nate Sucese and senior right wing David Goodwin scored in the opening period, with Goodwin’s coming with 29 seconds left.
Then sophomore defenseman Vince Pedrie’s shot from the left point eluded U-M goalie Zach Nagelvoort 1:03 into the second period for a 4-0 cushion. The Wolverines (13-19-3) cut it to 4-1 on James Sanchez’s power-play goal at 10:19.
The rest of the game was scoreless as PSU narrowly outshot U-M, 34-31. Folkes, whose goal was the third of his career, led PSU with six shots on goal.
During the regular season, Penn State went 0-4 against regular-season champion Minnesota
TRACKING THE PAIRWISE: The Big Ten still has a good chance to get three teams into the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota, ranked No. 5 in the PairWise Rankings, which mimic the formula used by the NCAA Hockey Committee to select the 10 at-large teams and seed the 16-team field, is a lock to at least earn an at-large berth. Penn State started the day ranked No. 13 in the PWR and with its win over U-M, the Nittany Lions climbed into a tie for 12th with Providence. Ohio State remained at No. 14 while Wisconsin is still 18th in the PWR.
So, it’s a battle among Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin to get into the NCAAs, with the Badgers needing to win Friday against the Buckeyes to have any hope of making the tournament.
The Nittany Lions and Buckeyes could lose in the semifinals and still make the tournament, but a lot has to do with what happens in the other five conference tournaments going on Friday and Saturday.
The Big Ten hopefuls are rooting for no major upsets, especially in Hockey East and the ECAC. If Boston College, ranked No. 16 in the PWR, should win the championship, that would hurt the Big Ten’s chances of getting in three teams. And it’s the same if Quinnipiac (20th in PWR) captures the ECAC title, since Harvard, Union and Cornell will get NCAA bids even if they don’t win the championship.
The NCAA Tournament field and first-round matchups will be announced on the NCAA Hockey Selection Show at noon on Sunday on ESPNU.