Neil’s Notebook: New Era of Spartan Hockey Begins Friday
Neil Koepke previews this weekend’s season-opening series vs. Bowling Green.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - There’s eight new players, three new coaches, new schemes, a new attitude and a new excitement about the future.
The new era in Michigan State hockey, which started last April with the hiring of Coach Danton Cole, continues this weekend with the opening two games for the new-look Spartans.
After two weeks of official practices, MSU makes its regular-season debut with a home-and-home series with former Central Collegiate Hockey Association rival Bowling Green.
The Spartans and the Falcons (0-1) meet at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at the Slater Family Ice Arena and then head north for MSU’s home opener – at 7 p.m. Saturday at Munn Arena.
Returning players – three seniors, three juniors and 11 sophomores – aren’t predicting title runs, but they’re confident this team will be more skilled, competitive and successful than it has been the last two years. The Spartans won seven games last season and 10 in 2015-16.
“If you look at the guys we brought in, there’s a lot of hockey players who can make plays. The freshmen have the ability to see the ice and make plays,’’ sophomore center and assistant captain Sam Saliba said. “I see improvement across the board … for the whole team.
“The intensity has gotten higher as we’ve gone along We’re looking to keep amping it up.’’
For the Spartans to be vastly improved, they’ll have to improve in almost every area – goaltending, defense, offense and special teams.
“We’ll definitely be improved and first and foremost, the defensive zone,’’ Saliba said. “We’ll defend a lot better. We’ll break pucks out better. Our neutral zone will be a lot smoother.
“A key aspect this year will be special teams. I think our penalty kill and power play will be improved.’’
Taro Hirose, MSU’s top returning scorer and anchor on the power play, is impressed with his team’s work ethic, new structure and chemistry.
“It’s exciting to see how much the team has progressed since Danton has come in, how much better the guys are at supporting the puck and playing defensively,’’ said Hirose, a sophomore and an assistant captain. “Everyone is upbeat and we’re looking forward to finally playing.
“It was a long September beating up on each other, so it’ll be fun to beat up on someone else. All the guys have come in in better shape and they’re working hard on the ice. The freshmen have come in and haven’t missed a beat. They look as good as the older guys.’’
Hirose and his teammates are eager for the challenge of putting what they’ve learned in practice into actual games, and to continue the learning process. “There’s a lot of good things going on, especially defensively,’’ Hirose said. “It’s exciting to see how much Danton’s systems are working to our advantage and how much the guys are buying into the system.”
Cole is also looking forward to see his team on the ice against a quality opponent like Bowling Green, which is picked to finish fourth in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Last Saturday, MSU was efficient in a 3-0 victory over the University of Toronto in an exhibition game at Munn Arena.
“I thought things went really well in that game. The guys picked up a lot of things that we’ve been working on, and our improvement from day to day and game to game was outstanding,’’ Cole said. “We look for more of the same this weekend.’’
Cole said he’s been encouraged with the way his team has picked up on his systems and playing with and without the puck in the offensive, defensive and neutral zones. Now comes the tests against quality opponents to start the season – BGSU, Western Michigan, Lake Superior State and Minnesota.
“In terms of systems and things meshing together and understanding how to play the full 200 feet of ice, I thought it would take quite a while to institute that,’’ said the first-year Spartan coach who spent the last seven years coaching at the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor and Plymouth.
“We thought we were going to be happy with pieces and parts being pretty good, but on Saturday the whole staff was pretty pleased. Obviously, it wasn’t the highest level of competition but it was a solid team.
“But (our players’) comprehension, picking up things and how they worked and how they limited the other team’s chances was outstanding. I thought it would take longer. We’re certainly not there yet but it’s been real encouraging.’’
SPARTAN DEBUT: After playing 180 games at Michigan State, 319 in the NHL, 340 in the minors and 28 in Europe and coaching 378 games as minor league coach, 94 in college and hundreds more with the U.S. NTDP, Danton Cole is set to make his MSU coaching debut on Friday at Bowling Green.
It’s special for Cole and his family for lots of reasons – he grew up in Lansing, it’s his alma mater and a job he coveted once he got involved in coaching and found out he loved it.
And now that he’s arrived at his destination and started to put his stamp on the program, it’s time to coach some games and lift MSU back into national prominence.
“I’m excited about it. It’s not my first rodeo,’’ Cole said with a laugh. “I’ve been behind the bench. I think I’m closing in on a couple thousand games. But yes, it’s exciting. I’m excited for the guys, too. They’ve put in an awful lot of work. They want to see what they get out of it.
“Even going to Bowling Green – there’s a lot of good memories down there. And coming home on Saturday for the home opener will be a good night. Maybe it’s extra special but you should feel that way every time (you play), whether you’re playing or coaching.’’
Cole, 50, a Waverly High School graduate, played four seasons at MSU – 1985-89 – and played in three Frozen Fours, winning the NCAA title in 1986 and finishing runner-up in 1987. His four teams compiled an amazing record of 131-44-8.
His first job as a college coach was at Bowling Green in 2006-07. He served as an assistant to Scott Paluch for one season before becoming head coach at Alabama-Huntsville, where he spent three seasons and guided the Chargers to a berth in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
Cole said he enjoyed both stays in BGSU and Huntsville. Making his Spartan debut in Bowling Green makes it a little more special.
“I really liked it down there. Going back to when I was playing, that was a big rival for us,’’ he said. “They were a heckuva team at that point. They just came off a national championship (1984) two years before and every game was a battle.
“They were big and strong and their fans were into it. I always loved going there. It’s probably one of my better memories of playing college hockey. Then going back there to coach, I got the flip side of it and got to know a lot of people there, and it was very similar to Michigan State – there’s good people in town, good people on campus. They care, they work, there’s a blue-collar mentality.’’
MSU-BGSU RIVALRY: The Spartans hold a 73-31-9 edge in the series which started with a 7-2 MSU victory on Jan. 2, 1971 at Demonstration Hall, Michigan State’s former home before Munn Arena.
The teams haven’t played in the last four seasons, with Michigan State in the Big Ten and Bowling Green in the WCHA. The last time the teams met was in 2012-13, the last year of the CCHA. The Falcons won 2-1 at home on Feb. 8, 2013, and the Spartans earned a split with a 3-1 victory at Munn Arena on Feb. 9, 2013.
MSU is 3-2 vs. BGSU in their last five meetings and 7-2-1 in the last 10.
SCOUTING THE FALCONS: Bowling Green has played three games this season – a 3-1 exhibition win at home against Wilfrid Laurier, a Canadian university in Waterloo, Ontario, on Oct. 1; a 4-1 exhibition win at home over the U.S. U-18 Team last Friday and 3-1 loss at Western Michigan on Tuesday in Kalamazoo.
Coach Chris Bergeron is in his eighth season at BGSU and has a record of 123-132-33.
The Falcons went 16 consecutive seasons - 1997-98 to 2012-13 -without compiling a winning record. But they’ve had four straight seasons over .500, starting in 2013-14. BGSU went 21-18-2 (4th in WCHA) last season and 22-14-6 (3rd, WCHA) in 2015-16.
Last season March, the Falcons reached the WCHA Championship game, losing a classic game at Michigan Tech, 3-2 in double overtime.
Bowling Green lost six key players to graduation or early departures, including four of its top six scorers and standout starting goalie Chris Nell (17-14-2, 2.15 goals against average, .916 saves percentage). Nell left school with one year of eligibility remaining to sign with the New York Rangers organization.
The Falcons return their top scorer in senior Mitchell McLain (17-14-31) and No. 3 scorer in senior Tyler Spezia (8-22-30). Sophomore goalie Ryan Bednard, who’s 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, played in seven games as a freshman (4-3), 2.70 GAA, .883 saves percentage), and started Tuesday’s game at WMU. Freshman Eric Dopp (6-0, 170) is also expected to be in the goaltending mix for the Falcons.
BGSU’s 27-man roster includes four seniors, eight juniors, seven sophomores and nine freshmen. In Tuesday’s game at Western Michigan, the Falcons dressed three seniors, six juniors, five sophomores and five freshmen.
McLain centered a line with Spezia on left wing and freshman Brandon Kruse on right wing.
Freshman Cameron Wright scored BGSU’s only goal on a power play in the first period, tying the game at 1-1.
The Broncos took the lead early in the second period and clinched the win with an empty-net goal with 50 seconds left.
BGSU outshot WMU 34-23, holding a 15-3 edge in the first period.
HIROSE BACK IN QB ROLE: Taro Hirose returns to his role as the quarterback on the Spartans’ No. 1 power-play unit. He’ll usually carry the puck into the offensive zone and distribute it and start plays.
Hirose, 21, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound left wing from Calgary, Alberta, is MSU’s top returning scorer with six goals and 18 assists for 24 points in 34 games as a freshman. Mason Appleton, last year’s top scorer (12-19-31) as a sophomore, left school to sign with the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets organization.
“I’d be a dumb coach if I didn’t put him in charge of (the power play),’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said of Hirose’s role. “He’s got a good feel. The progression of that will be the other guys reading off him a little.
“Detroit used to run this (system) even with (defenseman Nicklas) Lidstrom there. They would run off (Pavel) Datsyuk (carrying the puck into the zone).
“With the puck in (Taro’s) hands, we’re in good hands. He wants the ice time and wants to be in charge. He’s not a loud guy but he’s a tremendous hockey player and he’ll help us be a lot better.’’
The Spartans’ top power-play unit includes Hirose and forwards Patrick Khodorenko, Mitchell Lewandowski and Cody Milan and defenseman Carson Gatt. In even-strength situations, Khodorenko centers MSU’s top line with Hirose on left wing and Lewandowski on the right side.
“I’m a guy who likes to have the puck on my stick and be able to make plays,’’ Hirose said. “And working with guys like Pat and Lew, I think it’ll be good for us and the team.’’
After a strong freshman season, Hirose hasn’t set specific goals for his year. He said he just wants to get better in all areas and show leadership.
“I want to be more of a leader this year and be able to help the freshmen, and sort of do what Appleton and Joe Cox and (other seniors) did in helping me as a freshman,’’ he said. “Looking at our offense, we don’t have that star player that some teams do, so we’ll be a score-by-committee. With the guys that we have, I think it’s looking good.’’
STARTING GOALTENDER? Will it be senior Ed Minney in goal on Friday at Bowling Green? Or will sophomore John Lethemon get the opening-night start? Coach Danton Cole said the decision will come later in the week and probably won’t be announced publicly.
“I thought both did a good job (against Toronto). There weren’t a lot of chances but they were pretty clean around the net,’’ Cole said “The shots they faced, they didn’t kick right out for second chances. They both looked comfortable.
“Going forward, we’ll have to see. We’ll probably make a decision on Wednesday but won’t release it then. Like everybody else, we’ll go game by game.’’
Last season, Minney started 24 games, Lethemon 14. Minney was 5-14-3 with a 3.58 GAA and a .873 saves percentage. Lethemon was 2-10-1, had a 3.62 GAA and a .883 saves percentage.
IN THE BIG TEN: Michigan State is only Big Ten team which hasn’t played a regular-season game. Wisconsin has already played three and the other five teams have played two.
In the only conference series of the weekend, No. 7 Minnesota (1-1) plays host to No. 11 Penn State (1-1) on Friday night and Sunday afternoon at 3M Arena At Mariucci, formerly known as Mariucci Arena.
In arguably the top matchup in the nation, No. 4 Notre Dame (2-0) is home against No. 1 Denver (0-0) on Friday and Saturday. The Irish last weekend swept Alabama-Huntsville, 4-0 and 5-3.
Denver defeated Notre Dame 6-1 in last season’s Frozen Four semifinals in Chicago. The Pioneers then topped Minnesota-Duluth, 3-2, to win the national championship.
No. 10 Wisconsin (2-1, 1-1 Big Ten) heads east to face two Hockey East opponents. The Badgers play at No. 13 Boston College (0-0-1) on Friday before moving over to North Andover, Mass., to face Merrimack (0-1-1) on Saturday.
Ohio State (1-1, 1-1 Big Ten) is home against Rensselaer (0-0) on Friday and Saturday. Michigan (1-1) has the weekend off.