Neil's Notebook: Lewandowski, Spartans Sharp in Exhibition Win
Notes, quotes and analysis from Neil Koepke.
By Neil Koepke
EAST LANSING – Freshman forward Mitchell Lewandowski said he was “a little nervous coming to the rink” late Saturday morning for his first game in a Michigan State uniform.
Once the puck dropped in the Spartans’ exhibition game against the University of Toronto, Lewandowski relaxed and just played the game he loves.
And he did it very well, thank you, with a solid debut in front of the home fans, even if it was and exhibition contest that doesn’t count in MSU’s overall record.
Lewandowski, 19, a 5-foot-9, 176-pound right wing from Clarkson, Mich., assisted on all three Spartan goals in a 3-0 victory over the Varsity Blues on Saturday afternoon at Munn Arena.
“It was really fun to get out there and see what’s it like. It’s an exhibition game but it’s still fun for the first time,’’ Lewandowski said. “My linemates, Taro (Hirose) and Patty (Khodorenko) did a great job tonight.”
In the final tune-up before next weekend’s season opening series against Bowling Green, the Spartans played a solid game at both ends of the rink, were good on special teams and pleased the coaches with continued improvement.
Individually, Lewandowski was one of several players who stood out, entertained the fans and contributed to the win.
“I think we moved the puck pretty well and found each other very well, too,’’ Lewandowski said of his 5-on-5 linemates and power-power pals – Hirose, Khodorenko, forward Cody Milan and defenseman Carson Gatt. “Taro and Cody are good on the sides, Patty’s in the middle and Gatt is great up top (at the right point).
Lewandowski assisted on sophomore center Khodorenko’s goal – off a Toronto defenseman’s skate – at 7:03 of the first period. He earned the first assist on Milan’s power-play goal – out of mid-air at the left side of the net – at 7:59 of the second period.
Less than 10 minutes later, Lewandowski and Hirose combined to give MSU a 3-0 lead with a dazzling lead pass and perfect finish. Lewandowski fired the puck from the right boards near his own zone to the left corner of the Toronto zone.
It would have been an icing but Hirose, who was at the far blue line, beat the Varsity Blues defenseman to the faceoff dot, nullifying the icing, and then gobbled up the puck, rebound off the boards, and drove to the net to beat goalie Frederic Foulem at 17:26.
“I was a little nervous coming to the rink but as soon as the puck drops, the nerves go away and it’s just like another game,’’ Lewandowski said. “Our team played well and we can move forward. We can look at video and get better for next week.’’
Khodorenko assisted on Milan’s goal and had four shots on goal. Hirose had three shots on net.
“I felt good, I’m sure my linemates felt good and we moved the puck well in the offensive zone,’’ Khodorenko said. “The whole team was working hard, we didn’t make major mistakes and the goalies played well. That’s all you can ask for.’’
After a week of official practices, the Green and White scrimmage and the exhibition success against Toronto, Michigan State on Monday begins preparations for season-opening non-conference series against Bowling Green. The Spartans and Falcons meet at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at the BGSU Ice Arena and at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Munn Arena.
MSU coach Danton Cole was impressed with many aspects of his team’s play on Saturday, including Lewandowski’s contribution.
“He has good awareness of spacing and where other guys are on the ice – not just our guys,’’ Cole said. “He can deliver the puck. Certain guys have the ability to do that at the right time – like drag someone into him and create space for (a teammate).
“He’s got a good hockey IQ and he and Taro and Patrick have looked good. They read off each other well. He’s a smart player and he’s done a lot of work with Coach Vork (strength and conditioning coach Mike Vorkapich) in the weight room and his conditioning is a lot better.’’
Lewandowski, a product of the Honeybaked youth system in Detroit, committed to MSU in 2013. He played the last two seasons with the Chicago Steel of the U.S. Hockey League.
He had seven goals and 18 assists in 49 games in 2015-16 and scored 15 goals and collected 19 assists for 34 points in 55 regular-season games in 2016-17. Lewandowski helped the Steel win the USHL’s Clark Cup championship in 2016-17 with three goals and nine assists for 12 points in 13 playoff games.
“I think there’s a lot more there. He’s just starting to get there,’’ Cole said of Lewandowski. “If you look at his game now and see where he is at the end of the year and next year, he’s going to keep getting better.’’
GOOD REVIEWS: With Bowling Green, Western Michigan, Lake Superior State and Minnesota coming up over the next four weeks, the Spartans know they’ll have to keep improving and raising their level of play to have success against a higher level of competition.
Still, the Spartans accomplished most of their goals in Saturday’s stepping-stone to the regular season. The power play looked sharp, moving the puck around, creating chances and scoring one goal in three chances. The penalty-killing units skated off two Toronto power plays.
Coach Danton Cole’s message to his players before the game was to relax, play loose, have fun and just play hockey.
“I thought they did a good job. They competed hard, defended well, created some things and probably moved the puck better than we thought they would,’’ he said. “From the (view of) the coaching staff, everything was positive. We got a win out of it and now we have to do the same things (next weekend).
“Our mantra is just keep getting a little bit better every single day. There’s going to be bumps along the way, but it’s just keep moving forward, and the guys have done an outstanding job with that.’’
In implementing new systems in breaking the puck out of the defensive zone or forechecking in the offensive end, Cole said sometimes messages have to be reinforced.
“In terms of teaching breakout theory, our guys have done a decent job. But early in the week, I didn’t like it,’’ he said. “I mean, you go a couple of practices and they can really get away from it. They were fanning out and not supporting their partner very well.
“We doubled back (in working on it) and did some good things in the Green and White game. And today, we were outstanding. It was working for a partner, getting (the puck) up, supporting it and then attacking with speed.
“Defensively, there were a couple of breakdowns. But they’re good mistakes. We got them on film (for teaching). The guys on the backside did a good job filling in so Toronto didn’t get much out of it. That’s kind of the way you learn. You go through it, make some mistakes and get a feel for it.’’
MSU had trouble holding leads the last few years so it felt good Saturday to build a lead and not give up the goal that changed the momentum and put the Spartans on their heels.
“We were pretty solid. Our forwards were good and we moved the puck out of our zone,’’ said Osburn, a junior. “We made some mistakes but it’s good for a learning experience. The whole defensive corps worked hard and made good plays.
“We’re ready to go and we’re hungry.’’
Gatt noted that Toronto last week scored four goals in an exhibition game against a pro team – the Brampton Beast of the East Coast Hockey League – in a 5-4 shootout loss.
But the Spartans limited the Varsity Blues (3-2 in exhibition play) to only a few quality scoring chances.
“From the start, coach focused on our defensive zone and backchecking and I think we did a good job on that,’’ said Gatt, MSU’s only senior on defense. “Any time you hold an opponent to zero goals, 14 shots on goal and 30 attempts, that says something about your defense.’’
“This year, we have to play better 5-on-5. Today, there were times when Toronto was cycling the puck in our zone pretty well, but you just have to bear down and limit their scoring chances. Even though they skating around our zone, they weren’t necessarily getting great chances.’’
MILAN FINDS A NEW SPOT: Cody Milan, a junior forward from White Lake, Mich., scored a power-play goal and led MSU with six shots on goal Saturday. He looked comfortable and effective on the top power-play unit with forwards Taro Hirose, Patrick Khodorenko and Mitchell Lewandowski and defenseman Carson Gatt.
During 5-on-5 play, he played right wing on a line with sophomore center Sam Saliba and sophomore left wing Logan Lambdin.
“It definitely gives you confidence when coach puts you in situations like that,’’ Milan said of his power-play role. “We moved the puck around and the guys were setting me up. I know they want me to work the puck over to Taro’s side and to (Lewandowski) and Patrick and let them play around with it, and maybe get it back to me (in front of the net on the left). It’s definitely a good role for me.’’
Milan had one goal and four points in 24 games last season and two goals and five points in 29 contests as a freshman.
“He’s got great hands. When I talked to our guys in the spring, half the team would say Cody has the best hands on the team. He’s an incredible athlete,’’ Coach Danton Cole said. “He’s one of our fastest guys.
“There’s a lot there and he’s trying to figure out what kind of player he is and build some confidence. Probably what I like most is that he was more aggressive. With his skillset and his makeup, when he’s aggressive, he can be a pretty good player.
“We needed a right-hander on that side of the power play and he fits in well. He’s getting an opportunity and making the most of it.’’
SUCCESSFUL START FOR BGSU: Bowling Green has played two exhibition games and came away with victories – 3-1 over Wilfrid Laurier (Waterloo, Ontario) on Oct. 1 and 4-1 against the U.S. National Team Development Program’s U-18 team on Friday.
The Falcons last season finished in fourth place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association with a 14-13-1 record. The were 21-18-2 overall.
BGSU was picked to finish fourth in the WCHA’s 2017-18 preseason coaches’ poll, behind No. 1 Minnesota State, No. 2 Bemidji State and No. 3 Michigan Tech.
IN THE BIG TEN: In the first conference series of the season, Ohio State and Wisconsin split, each winning 3-2 in Madison. The Buckeyes (1-1 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) rallied with two late goals to win on Friday, while the Badgers (2-1, 1-1) scored the first three goals on Saturday, but gave up two goals in the third period before holding on for the victory.
In non-conference games, Notre Dame won twice while Michigan, Penn State and Minnesota each went 1-1.
The Irish (2-0) swept Alabama-Huntsville, 5-3 and 4-0, in South Bend. The Wolverines (1-1) went on the road and topped St. Lawrence, 3-1, on Friday but lost 3-0 against Clarkson on Saturday. The Nittany Lions (1-1) lost at Clarkson, 2-1, on Friday but bounced back to defeat St. Lawrence, 4-1, on Saturday.
In the Icebreaker Tournament in Duluth, Minnesota (1-1) lost to Minnesota-Duluth, 4-3 in overtime on Friday and shut out Union, 2-0, in the third-place game on Saturday. Michigan Tech (2-1) won the Icebreaker title with a 4-3 victory over UMD (1-1) on Saturday.