Neil’s Notebook: Off to a Strong Start, Spartans Now Ready for B1G Play to Begin
Neil Koepke previews this weekend's series at No. 5 Minnesota.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
MINNEAPOLIS – The first month of the season was a good learning experience for a Michigan State hockey team dominated by sophomores and freshmen.
The Spartans accomplished a lot in October with a 4-2 record, including four home victories, a good work ethic, resiliency and a productive offense that scored six goals two times.
But now the challenges get tougher.
The Big Ten season is set to begin, with 10 of MSU’s next 12 games against conference opponents. And the Spartans begin it with a road series against the highest-ranked Big Ten team in No. 5 Minnesota.
“We like the direction, the way the guys are working, and now we’ll find out a lot about our team in the next few weeks,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said.
The Spartans (4-2, 0-0) face the Gophers (5-3, 1-1 Big Ten) at 8 p.m. ET on Friday and 5 p.m. ET on Saturday at 3M Arena at Mariucci. The Gophers are coming off a sweep of Clarkson, 3-1, 2-1, while MSU is feeling upbeat about its sweep of Lake Superior State, 4-3, 6-0.
Minnesota was picked to finish first in the Big Ten coaches’ pre-season poll. In each of the four previous seasons of the conference, the Gophers have won the regular-season title.
“It’s definitely fun to be back into Big Ten play, especially going to Minnesota. It’s a good atmosphere,’’ said junior forward Cody Milan. “They always have a skilled team. It’ll be a good, fun challenge.’’
This month, the Spartans will play three top-ranked teams and five of their eight games will be on the road.
Next weekend, they host to Wisconsin, currently ranked No. 7, before playing a home-and-home, non-conference series against Ferris State. Then it’s three straight Big Ten series – at No 17 Penn State, home against No. 10 Notre Dame and then at Michigan and home vs. the Wolverines, leading into the Christmas break.
“Our November is a big month with us going on the road,’’ senior defenseman Carson Gatt said. “The Big Ten is a good conference, the competition is very good.
“It seems like every time we go to Minnesota, we generally raise up our game. We’ve won up there and that’s big for our confidence, knowing we can compete in an intimidating place to play.’’
The Spartans’ challenges against the Gophers are numerous. Minnesota is known for its speed, skill and offensive capabilities, and its ability to play well on its large sheet of ice. Mariucci Arena is Olympic size – 100 feet wide, which is 15 feet wider than Munn Arena and most rinks in college hockey.
“They obviously present a lot of challenges. Not only are they extremely talented with a lot of drafted guys, you go in there and you’re playing in a different environment,’’ said Cole, who’s making his Big Ten coaching debut in this weekend’s series.
“You’re on a bigger sheet, something you don’t see over often, like a couple times a year. We’ll see how we handle their speed and the rink. If we go in there and back off and try to be really conservative and just back off and let the game come to us, we’ll get run over.’’
The Gophers, who have 12 NHL draft picks on their roster, have all sorts of dangerous forwards, including 2017 Big Ten Player of the Year Tyler Sheehy, a junior, and sophomore Rem Pitlick, junior Tommy Novak, senior Leon Bristedt and highly touted freshmen Casey Mittelstadt and Scott Reedy.
“We have to go in there and try to play the style we want,’’ Cole said. “It’s to take away time and space regardless of the arena.”
The defense is solid in both zones and junior goalie Eric Schierhorn has played in 83 games and was selected as the Big Ten Rookie of the Year in 2015-16, and in each of the last two seasons – Big Ten Goaltender of the Year and All-Big Ten First Team.
“They have good players and smart guys, they move the puck well, they possess it and do a good job on (zone) entries,’’ Cole said. “They’re a talented team and (coach) Don Lucia does a great job coaching. It’s a pretty good combination – lot of skill and good coaching. They’re a deep team and we’ll have to deal with that.’’
The Spartans haven’t played on an Olympic-size rink since the last time they played the Gophers at Mariucci to close out the 2017 season. MSU lost 4-0 and tied the second game, 1-1, before winning the shootout to earn the extra point in the conference standings.
“As a defenseman on the bigger ice, you have to make sure you stay inside the dots, and you want to combat their speed,’’ said Gatt, who played on MSU’s 2014-15 team that won at Minnesota, 4-2.
“It’s kind of easier on the offense, in my opinion, so I think our forwards can thrive on that with the extra space. I think that’ll help our skill players generate some offense.
“We’re excited for the challenge. They’re always a top 10 team nationally, and I’m sure the home crowd will have it going.’’
Said Milan, “You definitely have to be good defensively, playing a team like Minnesota on the big ice sheet. Then it’s work ethic.’’
EARLY POSITIVES: Coach Danton Cole has been impressed by the way his players have digested all the different things the MSU coaching staff has given them over the last two months. That’s been a bit of a surprise.
“The biggest thing is the number of things we wanted to implement and the guys have been able to pick up on,’’ Cole said. “Certainly, in no area of the game have we arrived and say ‘we’re really good at this.’
“What we dominate at or hang our hat on is resiliency, poise and work ethic. That’s a good place to start.’’
The Spartans have shown good structure, they’re working hard to follow the game plan in the defensive zone, offensive zone, they’re creating good scoring chances and finishing fairly well, and the power play has been contributing with a goal in five of six games.
“Offensively and defensively, the way the game is played up and down the ice, they’ve done a real nice job,’’ Cole said. “And as we implement some things, it’s nice to see them go from a skill part of practice to a drill part to as scrimmage aspect and see it in a game.
“That’s rewarding things for a coach to see the guys pick that up.’’
Of course, there’s a lot of aspects of MSU’s game to improve, especially with a high level of competition coming up in the Big Ten.
“I still think our transition from defense to offense and offense to defense has to be better,’’ the Spartans’ coach said. “There have been times when we’ve been fortunate that the puck didn’t end up in the back of the net.
“You want to keep tightening that up. And defensively, we’re going to have to continue to be better. And I always include in defense, that’s your forecheck, that’s how you are in the neutral zone, that’s how you’re breaking out. I think all of those things can get better.’’
THE RIVARLY: Minnesota holds a huge 113-45 edge in the series against Michigan State, which started with a 2-0 Gophers victory on Feb. 19, 1926. A big reason for the one-sided series is Minnesota’s 28-0-1 edge to start the series – from one game in 1926 and then from 1950-1956. That was when Minnesota’s program was already developed and MSU was in its early stages of varsity hockey.
Meanwhile, the Gophers are 10-2-4 vs. the Spartans in the four years of the Big Ten. But MSU has won the shootout in all four ties, including the last meeting – 1-1 on March 11, 2017.
MSU is 1-3-1 in the last five games and 2-6-2 in the last 10. The Spartans’ last victory in Minneapolis was 4-2 win on Feb. 27, 2015.
The Gophers will play only one game in East Lansing this season since the two teams are taking part in the annual hockey-basketball doubleheader at Madison Square Garden in New York. Minnesota and MSU face off at Munn Arena on Thursday, Jan. 18, and then at MSG on Saturday, Jan. 20. The basketball game is Minnesota vs. Ohio State.
TOP FRESHMAN SCORER: MSU freshman Mitchell Lewandowski’s nine points (3 goals, 6 assists) is the No. 1 rookie scorer in the Big Ten and is in a three-way tie for the national scoring lead among freshmen.
Lewandowski, 19, 5-foot-9, 176-pound, left-hand shot who’s playing right wing this season, has nine points in six games for an average of 1.5 per game, second in the nation among players who have appeared in at least five games.
He had two goals in last Saturday’s 6-0 win over Lake Superior State, and has at least one point in five of his six games. Two weeks ago, Lewandowski scored one goal and had three assists in MSU’s 6-4 victory vs. Western Michigan.
Lewandowski, who’s from Clarkson, shares the rookie scoring lead with Massachusetts forward Oliver Chau (3-6 in 8 games) and New Hampshire defenseman Benton Maass (0-9 in 7 games).
SCOUTING THE GOPHERS: Minnesota was at 3-3 last week before sweeping then-No. 9 Clarkson, 3-1, 2-1, in Minneapolis.
The Gophers started the season in the IceBreaker Tournament in Duluth, losing to Minnesota-Duluth, 4-3 in overtime and defeating Union, 2-0. They opened Big Ten play with a home split with Penn State – a 3-1 loss and a 6-3 victory.
Minnesota then visited North Dakota for the first time in five years and came away with another split – a 2-1 victory and 4-0 loss.
Through eight games, the Gophers haven’t been as dynamic offensively as they usually are. They’re scored 19 goals in eight games for a 2.38 average, which ranks 48th in the nation. Minnesota’s leading scorers include sophomore Rem Pitlick (3-5-8), freshman Casey Mittelstadt (2-5-7), junior Tommy Novak (1-5-6), sophomore defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf (0-4-4) and freshman Brannon McManus (3-0-3).
Tyler Sheehy, the 2017 Big Ten Player of the Year, First-Team All-Big Ten and conference co-scoring champion, is off to a slow start with just three assists in six games. He missed the Penn State series because of an injury. Sheehy led the Gophers in scoring last season with 20 goals and 53 points.
The Gophers’ power play (6-for-41) is converting at 14.6 percent. That ranks 48th nationally.
Goalie Eric Schierhorn, a junior, has played all eight games and has a 2.13 goals-against average and a .923 saves percentage. Defensively, Minnesota is 10th in the nation.
The Gophers’ roster, made up mostly of in-state players, includes two forwards from Michigan. Mike Szmatula is a 25-year-old senior from Commerce Township who transferred to Minnesota in 2015-16 after playing two years at Northeastern. Brent Gates Jr., 19, is from Grand Rapids, and his father played baseball for the Gophers, before embarking on a Major League career.
The Gophers’ roster also includes 21 players from Minnesota, and one each from California, Alaska and Wisconsin and one each from Sweden and Canada (Ontario).
SAUER FOUNDATION AUCTION: The Coach Sauer Foundation, which honors late former Wisconsin hockey coach, Jeff Sauer, will hold a silent, online auction starting on Thursday here. The Sauer Foundation will supply sticks and skates to those who can’t afford them, underwrite this year’s Midwest Regional Sled Hockey Festival in March and help establish the Jeff Sauer Award, a Wisconsin prep hockey version of college’s Hockey Humanitarian Award.
Auction items include NHL jerseys, U.S. Olympic jersey, Packers-Vikings suite tickets in Green Bay, Badger hockey tickets, Minnesota Wild tickets, College World Series tickets and other items.
Sauer, who played at Colorado College under Bob Johnson, was head coach at Colorado College for 11 years and at Wisconsin for 20 years, winning NCAA titles in 1983 and 1990. He also coached U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Teams and served as an assistant commissioner of the WCHA.
Sauer passed away on Feb. 2, 2017, from pancreatic cancer.
BIG TEN THRIVES IN POLLS: For what’s believed to be a first in the U.S. Collegiate Hockey Online poll, five Big Ten teams are ranked this week in the top 20, more than any other conference, including the National College Hockey Conference.
Minnesota is ranked No. 5, Wisconsin is No. 7, Notre Dame is 10th, Ohio State is 16th and Penn State is No. 17.
The NCHC has four teams ranked – No. 1 Denver, No. 2 St. Cloud, No. 4 North Dakota and No. 8 Minnesota Duluth. Hockey East also has four – Providence, 6th; Boston University, No. 12; New Hampshire, No. 13, and Northeastern, No. 15.
Even though Ivy League schools Harvard (1-0) and Cornell (2-0) just played their first games last weekend, the ECAC has four teams ranked – Harvard, No. 3; Quinnipiac, No. 11; Clarkson, No. 13, and Cornell, No. 18.
Meanwhile, the WCHA has two teams in the top 20. Minnesota State is No. 9 and Michigan Tech is 20th. Atlantic Hockey has one ranked team – Air Force at No. 19.
IN THE BIG TEN: In addition to MSU-Minnesota, there’s one other Big Ten series this weekend. No. 10 Notre Dame (4-3-1, 0-0) visits No. 16 Ohio State (5-1-2, 1-1) on Friday and Saturday.
In a matchup of teams in the top 7, No. 4 North Dakota (5-2-1, 1-1 NCHC) plays at No. 7 Wisconsin (6-3, 1-1) in a non-conference series on Friday and Saturday.
Michigan (4-2, 1-1) and Ferris State (2-5-1, 0-3-1) open the weekend on Thursday with the first game of a non-conference series at Michigan. The teams also play on Saturday in Ann Arbor.
No. 17 Penn State (4-4, 2-2) also steps out of conference to play host to Mercyhurst (2-2-2 1-1-2) on Friday and Saturday.