Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Battle But Fall Short in B1G Opener
Notes, quotes and analysis from Neil Koepke on Friday's Big Ten opener at Minnesota.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
MINNEAPOLIS – The scoring opportunities were there. The finishing touches were not.
Michigan State worked hard, battled hard and did its best to create quality scoring chances on Friday night. But the Spartans fell short in their bid to upset No. 5 Minnesota, losing to the Gophers 3-1 at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
In a game in which the shots on goal (27-26 Minnesota) were fairly even and the total attempts (50-43 Minnesota) were close, the Gophers (6-3, 1-1) were just a bit more opportunistic in the opening game of a Big Ten series, the first of the season for the Spartans (4-3, 0-1).
“I thought the guys did a darn good job. They battled really well and handled a lot of different situations,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “When the guys go out there and do what you ask them to do and work as hard as hard as you want them to, sometimes things go our way and sometimes they don’t.’’
Gophers junior goalie Eric Shierhorn (25 saves) was selected as the game’s No. 3 star, but he easily could have been No. 1. Without a standout performance by Shierhorn, Michigan State would have been the team celebrating a victory.
Shierhorn, the Big Ten’s Goaltender of the Year the past two seasons, made key saves on MSU’s Jerad Rosburg in the first period, Patrick Khodorenko, Cody Milan, and Mitchell Lewandowski and Tommy Apap in the second, and Khodorenko and Apap again in the third period.
On a few occasions, the Spartans had the puck around the net in dangerous scoring situations, and either shots got blocked or bounced over sticks or loose pucks were cleared by the defense or smothered by Schierhorn.
“We had a lot of really good chances,’’ Cole said. “Eric Shierhorn, he’s played for me before with U.S. teams a little bit, and he did a good job tonight. Two or three times, we had the puck behind him … but we couldn’t get it over the last couple of inches.’’
Meanwhile, Spartans sophomore goalie John Lethemon also had an excellent game with 24 saves. He held the highly skilled Gophers to one goal for 39 minutes and 10 seconds, before Minnesota, on a power play – a deflection in the slot – scored to make it 2-0 with 50 seconds left in the second period.
Michigan State’s only goal came off the stick of sophomore center Sam Saliba after a wild scramble just outside the crease at 2:18 of the third period, cutting the deficit to 2-1. The goal came five seconds after a MSU power play expired.
“For a road game, I thought we played pretty well. We had a lot of chances,’’ said Saliba, who now has four goals and shares the team goal-scoring lead with Khodorenko. “We had a couple of breakdowns, but overall, I liked the way we played.
“It wasn’t like we were defending all game. We were up there with 20-plus shots and a good amount of chances.’’
The Spartans missed an excellent opportunity to tie it with another power-play chance at 3:01 of the third period, but didn’t threaten. And just 49 seconds after the Gophers killed the penalty, they converted to take a 3-1 lead.
Freshman center Casey Mittelstadt, one of the top rookies in the nation and an NHL first-round draft pick by the Buffalo Sabres, stole the puck from the Spartans along the boards in the MSU zone.
He fed a perfect pass to Rem Pitlick in the slot and the sophomore left wing one-timed the puck past Lethemon at 5:50 to put Minnesota up by two goals. The Gophers have won three straight and five of their last six games.
“We got it to 2-1 and things were good. It’s just unfortunate they got their third goal,’’ Cole said. “We had a little forecheck going and there was a pick and Lewandowski got knocked down and that sprung them. It’s always a little play like that and they end up at the other end and it’s in the net.’’
The Spartans were 0-for-4 with a man advantage with two shots on goal on each on their first two power plays. The Gophers were 1-for-2. The game’s first penalties didn’t come until 9:42 of the second period – roughing calls on Rosburg and Scott Reedy of the Gophers. The first power-play went to MSU at 13:49.
“Our power play didn’t get one tonight but we had some outstanding chances,’’ Cole said. “Minnesota is a really good team. Things have to go right and we have to pop in some goals. We just didn’t get enough to keep the game going longer.’’
The Spartans will try to earn a series split when they face the Gophers at 5 p.m. today at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
What’s Cole’s message to his team after a solid, competitive outing on Friday?
“I want them to understand that they can play with that team and be ticked off and not accept (the result) and say it was close and this and that,’’ the Spartan coach said. “It’s no, you deserve exactly what you get so let’s go out and deserve better and earn it.’’
DEFENSE CHALLENGED: The Spartans played without sophomore defenseman Mitch Eliot, who was injured in practice earlier in the week and did not make the trip to Minnesota.
Sophomore Butrus Ghafari, playing in his second game of the season, took Eliot’s spot with Jerad Rosburg. Senior Carson Gatt remained teamed with freshman Tommy Miller while junior Zach Osburn was paired with sophomore Anthony Scarsella, who got more ice time than usual.
Despite facing highly skilled and speedy forwards like the Gophers’ Tyler Sheehy, Rem Pitlick, Casey Mittelstadt, Brent Gates, Scott Reedy, Leon Bristedt and Mike Szmatula, MSU’s defense defended well and moved the puck out of its zone fairly effectively.
“I thought they did a real good job,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “Scarsella and Ghafari had to play a lot more minutes than they normally do and they did a great job.
“The more ice time you get, the more poise you show as the game goes along. They played a good hockey game.’’
Cole said Eliot’s injury isn’t one that will keep him out for a long time.
Only one Minnesota goal Friday came off a turnover – Pitlick’s goal in the third period. The Gophers first goal – just 3:22 into the first period – was the result of great rush by defenseman Ryan Lindgren. He stickhandled into the MSU zone, slid the puck to defense partner Jack Sadlek on the right and then went to the net. Sadlek held the puck for a second or two, then fired it toward the left edge of the crease, where Lindgren directed it into the net.
Minnesota’s second goal, on a power play, was scored by Gates from the slot. Bristedt, along the right boards, passed the puck into the middle and Gates got his stick down to deflect it past MSU goalie John Lethemon for a 2-0 lead with 50 seconds left in the second period. “Our defense battled their tails off. Hats off to (Scarsella and Ghafari),’’ senior defenseman Carson Gatt said. “We had a little less experience back there but they played hard and that’s all you can ask for.’’
Gatt said the defense got excelled support from the forwards and, of course, Lethemon, making his sixth-straight start. For the most part, the Spartans did a good job of adjusting to the wider ice surface (100 feet wide) and deeper corners at Mariucci.
“I thought we did a good job breaking the puck out,’’ Gatt said. “For those who have never seen a game here, it’s a little different adjustment in the defensive zone.
“We focused on supporting each other, supporting the weakside d-man, the d-man going back to get the puck, and our centers were good in getting open can calling for the puck.
“The forwards made it easier on the defense breaking the puck out.’’
The Spartans will try to take the positives out of Friday’s game and build on it and execute and finish better in Saturday’s rematch.
“We competed hard. It’s a tough place to play with the big ice and a top five team nationally,’’ Gatt said. “They have some very good forwards, defensemen and goalies.
“But we had some good stretches, it was an up-and-down came and we were close. We were in it until the end.
“If we play like that on Saturday, defend a little harder and finish, I think we’ll be happy with the results.’’
STATISTICAL LOOK: Both teams showed some balance in shots on goal. Only four of the 18 Spartans’ skaters didn’t have a shot on goal – defensemen Tommy Miller and Butrus Ghafari and forwards Jake Smith and Austin Kamer. Only three Gophers didn’t have a shot on goal. Logan Lambdin led MSU with four shots, while Sam Saliba, Patrick Khodorenko and Jerad Rosburg each had three shots. Cody Milan, Tommy Apap and Mitchell Lewandowski each had two shots on goal.
Scott Reedy led the Gophers with four shots while Leon Bristedt had three. Seven players had two apiece.
Minnesota goalie Eric Shierhorn has allowed only two goals in his last three games against Michigan State. In the last series of the regular season last year, Shierhorn shut out the Spartans, 4-0, and then allowed one goal in a 1-1 tie. He did allow two goals in the shootout, won by the Spartans, 2-1. In nine games against MSU, Schierhorn has allowed 16 goals for a 1.78 goals-against average. Schierhorn and MSU senior defenseman Carson Gatt were junior teammates with the Muskegon Lumberjacks in 2014-15.
IN THE BIG TEN: In the only other conference series, No. 10 Notre Dame topped No. 16 Ohio State, 4-1, in Columbus. The Irish (5-3-1 overall, 1-0), making their Big Ten debut, took a 1-0 lead into the third period and scored early before the Buckeyes (5-2-2, 1-2) made it 2-1. But Notre Dame added a third goal at 13:40 and an empty-netter with 35 second left.
Michigan fell short in trying to sweep Ferris State in a non-conference series at Red Berenson Rink at Yost Arena. The Bulldogs rallied in the third period to tie it, 2-2, and then won it 3-2 on Ryker Killins’ goal at 2: 26 of overtime. Dexter Dancs’ goal seven minutes into the third period gave the Wolverines (4-3, 1-1) a 3-2 lead, but Mitch Maloney tied it for the Bulldogs (3-6-1) at 11:56. Michigan won Thursday in the series opener, 7-2, scoring four unanswered goals in the third period.
No. 17 Penn State was upset by Mercyhurst, 7-4 in their non-conference series opener in University Park, Pa. Meryhurst (3-2-2) stunned the Nittany Lions (4-5, 2-2) by storming out to a 3-0 lead in the first period. PSU scored two goals late in the opening period, but each team scored twice in the middle period, and Mercyhurst added two goals in the third.
In the much-heralded matchup of two former WCHA rivals and top 10 teams, No. 4 North Dakota edged No. 7 Wisconsin in Madison, Wis. The Fighting Hawks (6-2-1) broke a 2-2 tie on Nick Jones’ power-play goal at 11:03 of the third period.
Matthew Freytag scored both goals for the Badgers (6-4, 1-1). UND played without senior goalie Cam Johnson, who was injured in Friday’s morning skate. Johnson had started 75 of the Fighting Hawks’ last 78 games.
UND freshman goalie Peter Thome made his college debut, making 36 saves – only two in the first 20 minutes but 15 in the second period and 19 in the third