Neil’s Notebook: Young Trio Demonstrating Offensive Chemistry
Neil Koepke highlights the line of Khodorenko, Hirose and Lewandowski in his look ahead to this weekend’s series.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING – The season is only two games old but Michigan State’s forward line of Patrick Khodorenko, Taro Hirose and Mitchell Lewandowski appears to be a unit that can lift Spartan fans out of their seats.
They’re skilled, they’re smart, they have good chemistry and look like they’ve been playing together for years.
Actually, in some ways they have.
Khodorenko, a sophomore center, and Lewandowski, a freshman right wing, were linemates for two seasons in midget hockey in Detroit with Honeybaked four and five years ago.
Khodorenko played on the same line with left wing Hirose, also a sophomore, for the first 16 games of last season.
So, only Hirose and Lewandowski were new to each other when the team started limited practices in September.
After Coach Danton Cole decided to put Khodorenko, Hirose and Lewandowski together, it didn’t take him long to like what he saw and envision good things in the offensive zone.
“They’ve been good. They have really good offensive flow and they’ve been fun to watch,’’ Cole said. “They have a good understanding of the game and play off each other very well.’’
Hirose scored the Spartans’ only goal – on a power play – in their season-opening 4-1 loss at Bowling Green last Friday. He scored the winning goal with 40.1 seconds left in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over the Falcons at Munn Arena.
Hirose also assisted on Khodorenko’s second-period power-play goal on Saturday. Khodorenko assisted on Hirose’s game-winner, while Lewandowski earned an assist on Hirose’s goal on Friday and made the pass to set up Hirose’s game-winner on Saturday.
“It’s safe to say that they’ll probably stick together,’’ Cole said.
This weekend, the Khordorenko-Hirose-Lewandowski trio will take aim at Western Michigan in a home-and-home non-conference series. The teams meet at 7 p.m. on Friday at Munn Arena and at 7 p.m. Saturday at Lawson Arena in Kalamazoo.
“There’s a fun way to play hockey and that’s with smart players, and when you throw three of them out there, that’s great,’’ Cole said. “They fill lanes, their offensive theory and understanding of how to come through the zones and fill the right areas, well, not everyone has that.
“Taro is really good, Lewie does a nice job. He has a good pace to has game and makes a lot of good plays. Patrick Khodorenko has been really good for us. He has confidence coming through the zone, he’s big and he’s strong. I was shocked he didn’t get drafted (in the NHL Entry Draft) last summer. There’s no way he gets through (undrafted) this year.’’
Lewandowski is thrilled to be paired with two highly skilled and smart players in his first season of college hockey.
“It’s been great. Me and Patty have that connection of playing together at Honeybaked and we’ve clicked here right away,’’ said Lewandowski, 19, a 5-foot-9, 176-pound, left-hand shot forward from Clarkston. “And Patty and Taro clicked pretty well last year.
“We kind of find each other very well and create areas for each other. We cycle the puck and find the open guy. I think we all have good hockey IQ (intelligence quotient).’’
Lewandowski is especially impressed with Hirose’s hockey smarts.
“Taro has one of the highest IQs out of anybody I’ve ever played with,’’ he said. “Having that IQ is so important.’’
The Khodorenko line likes to play fast and move the puck quickly, but it’s not always about speed. It’s recognizing different situations to make the right play.
“Sometimes, guys want to go, go, go and chip the puck in (and chase it). I mean there’s times when you have to chip it in but sometimes you want to slow the game down, slow the play down at the blue line and wait for a guy coming in high,’’ Lewandowski said. “I think we do a nice job of that.’’
Hirose is flattered and amused by Lewandowski’s IQ compliments.
“I think we have a lot of smart guys on this team. I think it’s a constant battle for that spot at the top,’’ Hirose said with a laugh.
“Just being able to think the game is an important part of playing the game. You don’t have to be the biggest or strongest player. I’m not going to be battling guys in the corner all the time, but if I’m smart about it, I can take a good angle and be quick, instead of using my strength,’’ added Hirose, 21, a 5-10, 160-pound, left-hand shot forward from Calgary. “That something I like to use to my advantage.’’
Hirose, who had six goals and 18 assists last season, said he was a little surprised by scoring two goals the first weekend of the season. But with former linemate Mason Appleton, MSU’s top scorer last year, leaving school to turn pro with the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, Hirose knew he was being counted on to make a bigger impact offensively.
“I wouldn’t have thought I would have done this well to start the season,’’ he said. “But with Apps leaving, I knew I would have to step up my game and score a little more this season. “The three of us work well together. I live with Pat and so we have good chemistry. Lewie has been great. He’s a smart player and we’re all pass-first guys, but when we get the chances, we know we can put it in.’’
With Hirose and Lewandowski on his wings, Khodorenko has an excellent chance of improving on his numbers from his freshman season – seven goals, 11 assists, 18 points, in 35 games.
“I used to play with Lewie back at Honeybaked and we have some good chemistry from that, and I played with Taro a lot last season,’’ said Khodorenko, 19, a 6-foot, 210-poundere from Walnut Creek, Calif.
“I think we’re all pretty skilled guys and work hard, and once we grind them down a little, we can use our skill to our advantage.’’
LOOKING FOR BALANCE: With Khodorenko, Hirose and Lewandowski established as the No. 1 forward line, the Spartans will be looking for offensive production from other forwards to provide the right balance need to win.
Coach Danton Cole is looking for contributions from players like sophomores Sam Saliba, Logan Lambdin, juniors Brennan Sanford and Cody Milan, senior Dylan Pavelek and seven other freshmen – Tommy Apap, Gino Esteves, David Keefer, Jake Smith, Austin Kamer and Brody Stevens.
“We’ve got (left wing) Logan Lambdin and (center) Sammy Saliba together. I tend to work in pairs and try to find the other forward (to fix in the mix),’’ Cole said. “They’ll probably stay together.’’
Saliba and Lambdin skated with Milan last Friday at Bowling Green and Pavelek joined the unit on Saturday.
Apap centered a unit with Sanford on left wing and Kamer on the right side on Friday and Milan joined Apap and Sanford on Saturday.
The fourth line last weekend was made up of all freshmen with Esteves centering Smith on left wing and Keefer on right wing.
The Spartans have 14 forwards so 12 will dress and two will be scratched each game, unless Cole decides to play seven defensemen and 11 forwards.
Early games and practices will be used to find the best combinations.
“Tommy Apap did a heck of a job. He scored a goal (on Saturday) and I think that was a more of a reward (for hard work and positioning),” Cole said. “But with some of the internal numbers he drives, in terms of faceoffs, puck possession and chances for and against, they’re really good.’’
Apap, 21, a 6-2, 202-pounder from Bloomfield Hills, played three seasons (2011-14) of high school hockey at the University of Detroit Jesuit and three years (2014-17) of junior hockey with Wichita Falls of the NAHL and Youngstown of the USHL before starting his college career.
“Tommy put in a lot of work this summer,’’ Cole said. “He went to a power-skating school. He’s a dynamite kid in the weight room and classroom. He’s a good leader and a big body. I don’t know how much he’s going to score but hopefully he’ll contribute.’’
Cole is hoping Apap and Sanford can be a good fit with Milan, who’s been on the No. 1 power play with Khodorenko, Hirose and Lewandowski.
“They drove some good internal numbers in the minutes they played together,’’ Cole said of the Apap-Sanford-Milan line. “That’s two big juniors and an older freshman that have a little bit of experience and can play heavy and play in the offensive zone.
“Most of their goals will be within five feet of the net, and that’s OK. Hopefully, that gives us a little (scoring punch), and from Saliba’s line as well.’’
Then there’s a rookie line which will be a work in progress as they gain experience.
“As the season goes along, I think they’ll do more and more. Gino Esteves at center is a high motor guy, plays fast, has a good shot and good offensive instincts,’’ Cole said. “We’ve been spreading it around with other freshmen on that line.
“At some point, they’re going to have game where they’re going to pop a couple, two or three. Hopefully, it’s before Christmas but it might be after Christmas.’’
THE MSU-WMU RIVALRY: Michigan State holds a 64-33-9 edge in the series with Western Michigan. The teams met for the first time on Oct. 19, 1979 – a 7-6 Spartans victory at Lawson Arena in Kalamazoo.
The Broncos hold a 4-1 edge in the last five games and they’re 6-3-1 against MSU in the last 10 meetings.
The time the teams played each other was in last season’s Great Lakes Invitational semifinals. WMU scored four power-play goals in the first two periods and cruised to a 4-1 victory at Joe Louis Arena.
The last series between the teams ended in a Broncos’ sweep on Nov. 22-23, 2013. WMU blanked Michigan State, 2-0, in the series opener at Munn Arena then won 4-1 at Lawson Arena.
SCOUTING THE BRONCOS: Western Michigan is off to a 2-2-1 start with a 6-1 home win and 3-2 road loss with Ferris State, a 3-1 home victory over Bowling Green and in last week’s home series, a 2-2 tie and 4-2 loss vs. Clarkson.
Western Michigan lost its top two scorers – both sophomores -from last year to the NHL and its third-leading scorer graduated. Matheson Iacopelli (20-16-36) signed with the Chicago Blackhawks and Griffen Molino (15-18-33) was a free agent and he joined the Vancouver Canucks organization.
Sheldon Dries (16-14-30) was one of six seniors that said goodbye to program.
So, the Broncos are missing 51 goals, 48 assists and 99 points from just those three players.
And one junior – Frederik Tiffels (9-12-21) – also left to sign a pro contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Broncos were the 11th-highest scoring team in the nation last year, averaging 3.33 goals per game. They finished third in the NCHC with a record of 13-9-2 and were 22-13-5 overall, good enough to earn an NCAA at-large bid. WMU lost in the first round to Air Force, 5-4, in Providence.
Western Michigan’s offense is now led by junior Colt Conrad (13-16-29 last season) and sophomore Wade Allison (12-17-29).
Conrad centers a line with Allison on right wing and sophomore left wing Dawson DiPietro, a unit that is a threat to score on every shift.
In five games, Conrad already has three goals and six assists for nine points, while Allison has two goals and five assists for seven points. DiPietro has chipped in with three goals and three assists for six points.
Conrad is the leading scorer in the nation, although the Broncos have played five games and most teams have played four or three games, and the Ivy League schools haven’t played any.
WMU has a solid goaltender in Ben Blacker, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound sophomore, who had a standout freshman season with a 17-8-2 record, a 2.55 goals-against average and a .915 percentage. This season, he’s 2-2-1, with a 1.98 GAA and a .932 saves percentage.
Coach Andy Murray, a former NHL coach, is in his seventh season with the Broncos and has a record of 105-99-33, with two NCAA Tournament appearances.
IN THE BIG TEN: All seven teams will be involved in non-conference series this weekend with the most anticipated games involving No. 8 Minnesota and No 4. North Dakota in Grand Forks.
After the Gophers (2-2, 1-1 Big Ten) moved to the Big Ten and the Fighting Hawks (3-0-1) helped start the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) in 2013-14, the two schools didn’t play each other for three seasons. Last year, Minnesota and North Dakota met in Minneapolis – a 5-5 tie and 2-0 Gophers victory.
The Fighting Hawks haven’t played Minnesota in Grand Forks since 2011-12.
Meanwhile, Michigan (1-1) opens its home season with a two-game series against Vermont (2-2) of Hockey East on Friday and Saturday.
No. 5 Notre Dame (2-1-1) plays host to Sacred Heart (1-2) of the Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA) the season with four straight road games (at Clarkson, at St. Lawrence and two at Minnesota) opens its home season against American International College (0-4-1), also of the AHA.
No. 6 Wisconsin (4-1, 1-1) plays Northern Michigan (3-1) on Friday and Saturday in Green Bay.
Ohio State (1-1-2, 1-1) takes to the road to play Massachusetts (3-1) on Friday and Saturday in Amherst, Mass.