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Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Settle For Split With WMU

Oct. 22, 2017

By Neil Koepke staff writer

KALAMAZOO – After edging Western Michigan on Friday at Munn Arena, Michigan State expected an energetic pushback from the Broncos on their home ice on Saturday.

The Spartans were anticipating an intense, fast-paced game from WMU, a young team saddled with a three-game winless streak (0-2-1).

And that’s exactly what they got.

The Broncos were better, the atmosphere at Lawson Arena was chaotic, as usual, and as much as Michigan State hung in to the end, WMU capitalized on just enough chances to pull out a 3-1 victory in front of 3,817 fans.

“The guys battled right from the beginning. I thought our focus was good and we kept battling,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “That was a pretty desperate team after losing last night. They couldn’t have afforded to go to 2-4-1 to start the season.

“Western played a heckuva game. Sometimes, you have to give the other team credit.’’

With goalie John Lethemon (35 saves) keeping his team in contention, trailing only 1-0 after two periods, the Spartans kept their hopes for a non-conference sweep alive when they finally scored at 2:39 of the third period.

Patrick Khodorenko, on a perfectly executed play off a faceoff in the right circle, tied it, 1-1, when his one-timer from the right circle rocketed into the back of the net.

But the Spartans’ momentum was short-lived.

Less than two minutes after the tying goal, Western Michigan regained the lead on a goal by Josh Passolt, who drove to the net from the left boards and made a nice play in close to beat Lethemon at 4:31.

The Spartans (2-2) had plenty of chances to tie it on three consecutive power plays starting at 5:15, 8:40 and 9:27. The last two penalties gave MSU a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:13, and while pucks were bouncing around in front of the net, the Broncos survived.



Lethemon was pulled for a sixth attacker in the final minutes, but MSU lost a key faceoff in the offensive zone, and Colt Conrad of WMU scored into an empty net from about 145 feet with 36 seconds left.

“They came out hard like we thought they would and when playing on the road, we have to embrace that,’’ MSU senior defenseman Carson Gatt said. “They kind of took it to us in the first period, but we battled hard.

“I thought the shots on goal in the period (13-3 WMU) were a little skewered. Coach came in with the stat that the shot attempts were about even. But we played hard and they made it hard for us to play. And I thought we did that for them.’’

Hugh McGing of the Broncos scored the only goal of the first period as he found some room in the slot and fired a perfect shot into the top right corner at 11:51.

WMU goalie Ben Blacker was credited with 15 saves as the Broncos held a 38-16 edge in shots on goal.

But Cole felt the disparity in shots was deceiving.

“If you coach games by the shot clock on the road, you’re an idiot,’’ he said. “It wasn’t a matter of settling down (in the first period). I thought we handled things fine. There was no panic. We just needed to get pucks in better and get pucks out better.

“I liked the way we battled, the way we held together and our goaltending was really good. And we had some chances.’’

Road games at Bowling Green and Western Michigan, loud buildings with great student support, will help a young Spartans team for life on the road in the Big Ten. In two weeks, MSU will open conference play at Minnesota.

Cole was impressed with how his team responded to atmosphere here Saturday.

“I thought it was good. We expended a lot of energy and worked extremely hard,’’ he said. “If we’re going to hang around in games like this and have a chance to pull our goalie at the end, that’s a good spot to be in

“It’s a situation we’ve gone through now and we’ll be better next time we have to do it.’’

Despite trailing 1-0 and being outshot 29-8 after two periods, Gatt said the Spartans were confident about making plays to turn the game in their favor in the third period.

“Coach kind of predicted it in the locker room. He said we were going to get our feet moving and get some power plays and that happened,’’ Gatt said. “He said when we were on the power play, we were going to score. Then we were going to take it to them.

“We got an unfortunate bounce and they got their second goal, but our pushback was good. We’ve dominated third periods so far this season and we gave ourselves a chance to do that tonight.’’

CLOSE GAMES ROUTINE: Michigan State has played four games this season and the last three have been decided in the third period.

The Spartans broke a 2-2 tie against Bowling Green in the final period a week ago to earn a 3-2 victory. And both games against Western Michigan were decided in the third period, starting with MSU’s three unanswered goals on Friday that turned a 4-3 deficit into a 6-4 victory.

“I told the guys in the locker room on Friday, when it was 3-3 going into the third period, that they should get used to being in games that are tied, up or down by a goal going into the third period,’’ said Carson Gatt, MSU’s only senior defenseman and who has played in more games than anyone on the team.

“Over my career here, that’s how the majority of games go. It’s a little attention to detail or a little bounce here or there can turn a win into a loss in the third period. We have to get used to playing in close games in the third period.’’

LETHEMON SPARKLES: Sophomore John Lethemon continues to provide the Spartans with excellent goaltending. Despite giving up four goals in Friday’s 6-4 win, he did have a solid game, and he was even better in making 35 saves, tying a career high, in Saturday’s 3-1 loss. He gave up two goals, both on excellent plays by two Bronco forwards.

Lethemon was in sync on Saturday with several key saves in the first two periods to give the Spartans in position to pull out a victory in the final 20 minutes.

“He’s was the main reason why were still in it in the third period,’’ defenseman Carson Gatt said. “He kept us in the game. He’s made big saves when he needed to. I wish we could have bailed him out a little more and reduced the scoring chances against him.’’

Lethemon compared his role on the team to that of a bail bondsman.

“It’s my job to bail out our team. That’s the way the goaltending position is,’’ he said. “I chose this position and that’s what you have to do.’’

And he’s doing it well in playing in all four games and starting the last three.

“I thought I was better tonight than on Friday. I had better puck touches, better movement behind the net and felt more comfortable. I felt confident all weekend,’’ Lethemon said.

“I’ve had good experiences and bad experiences from last season and have taken those into this year.’’

Said Coach Danton Cole: “John was great tonight. He made good saves and battled like the rest of the team. His goalie touches were really good. I thought he was really on his game.

“He’s been outstanding, he’s held the fort, and we need that tonight.’’

UP NEXT: For the third consecutive week, the Spartans play a former rival from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. MSU plays host to Lake Superior State in a non-conference series at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Munn Arena.

The Lakers (1-3-2) are coming off an interesting non-league series at No. 1 Denver. LSSU tied the Pioneers 3-3 on Friday, despite getting outshot 66-17. Lakers junior goalie Nick Kossoff made 63 saves. DU scored late to send the game into overtime.

On Saturday, Denver (2-0-2) got back on track and topped LSSU, 5-1. This time, the Pioneers held a 54-16 edge in shots on goal.

Lake Superior State is coached by former Spartan forward Damon Whitten, now in his fourth season in Sault Ste. Marie.

And former Spartan All-American Mike York is in his first season at LSSU as an assistant coach. York spent last season as an MSU hockey student assistant coach, while completing his undergraduate degree.

IN THE BIG TEN: Michigan rallied from a 2-1 deficit late in the third period Saturday against Vermont, tying the game on Jake Slaker’s goal with 4:53 left and winning 3-2 on another Slaker goal at 19:06 to complete a non-conference, home sweep. The Wolverines (3-1) posted a 4-1 victory over the Catamounts (2-4) on Friday.

No. 8 Minnesota’s bid for a non-conference sweep at No. 4 North Dakota fell short as the Fighting Hawks blanked the Gophers ,4-0, on Saturday in Grand Forks.

UND (4-1-1) scored two goals in the first period and two in the second, the last three goals coming on power plays.

Minnesota (3-3, 1-1 Big Ten) won the series opener, 2-1, on Friday.

No. 6 Wisconsin (5-2, 1-1) rebounded from Friday’s 5-4 loss to Northern Michigan (4-2) and blanked the Wildcats, 4-0, on Saturday in Green Bay. Backup goalie Jack Berry faced only 11 shots in earning the shutout.

Ohio State (3-1-2) completed a sweep of Massachusetts (3-3) with a 2-0 victory over the Minutemen in Amherst, Mass. The Buckeyes won 3-1 on Friday.

Next weekend, in the only conference series, Michigan is at Penn State, which is coming off a split with American International College, on Friday and Saturday.

Minnesota is home against Clarkson and Wisconsin plays host to St. Lawrence on Friday and Saturday.

Notre Dame plays Nebraska-Omaha on Thursday and Friday in South Bend. Ohio State plays a home-and-home series with Robert Morris – on Friday in Columbus and Saturday in suburban Pittsburgh.

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