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Neil's Notebook: Spartans Will Learn From Saturday’s Loss

Nov. 6, 2016

By Neil Koepke staff writer

EAST LANSING – As competitive as Division I college hockey has become, beating the same team in back-to-back games is not easy, unless one team is decidedly better than the other.

Series sweeps are difficult to attain because in most cases the loser of the first game is mad, determined and eager to make amends for its failure the first night.

After Michigan State’s satisfying 3-2 overtime victory on Friday over Michigan Tech, the Spartans were expecting a strong pushback by the Huskies in Saturday’s non-conference series finale at Munn Arena.

MSU players were reminded in the morning, afternoon and early evening that a difficult challenge was just ahead. They felt they were prepared mentally and ready to be tested on the ice.

As expected, the Huskies came on strong, and for some reason, MSU was out of sync for the first 10 minutes of the game and found itself down 2-0 just five minutes into the game on a pair of goals within 11 seconds.

The Spartans’ poor start, costly penalties in the second period and two early goals against in the third period led to a 5-1 loss to the Huskies and a split in the series.

Michigan State actually got back into the game with a strong second half of the opening period and a power-play goal by freshman left wing Taro Hirose to cut the visitors’ lead to 2-1.

The Spartans were building momentum in the second period before Michigan Tech capitalized on a 5-on-3 power play, adding to MSU’s frustrations.

“We learned what it takes to sweep a weekend. You win that first game and that team is going to come at you with everything they’ve got in the next game,” MSU senior right wing and captain Joe Cox said. “We talked about how they were going to come out and yet I don’t think we did a good job of matching their intensity at the start and it put us down.



“Maybe we got a little complacent and they came out and took it to us.’’

The Spartans were outshot 8-1 in the first 10 minutes of the game. They woke up and carried the play the rest of the period, with a 7-2 edge in shots, including Hirose’s power-play goal with 4:19 left in the first period.

“We did a good job of rebounding later in the period and I thought we were on a bit of a roll in the second period,” Cox said. “But penalties starting getting racked up, and then they scored that 5-on-3 goal and that kind of took some of our momentum away.’’

Cox said there were many lessons to be learned from the series split with the Huskies, especially in his young team’s approach and reaction in the pursuit of a series sweep.

“I thought we took a step up from last weekend (a 6-2 win over Princeton) and we got a little bit of confidence,’’ he said. “I think it’s a learning experience on how hard a team is going to come at you if you win that first game.

“You can win 6-0 the first night but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to lose 6-0 the next night.’’

Despite trailing 3-1 entering the third period, Coach Tom Anastos felt his team was in good position to get back in the game – if it could get the first goal to trim the deficit to one goal.

The Spartans created a quality scoring chance early in the first minute of the third period, but MSU’s fate was quickly sealed when the Huskies scored twice in less than four minutes to take a 5-1 lead.

And any chance that the two teams were going to play into overtime for a seventh straight game ended right there.

Tech’s fourth goal, 59 seconds into the period, was set up off a fluke mishap by Spartan freshman defenseman Butrus Ghafari. He was carrying the puck and coming out from behind the net when the puck’s path was altered by some standing water on the ice. The puck came off his stick and slid out front at the right edge of the crease.

Tech’s Reid Sturos was right there for the opportunistic, easy tap-in past stunned MSU goalie John Lethemon. Chris Leibinger closed out the scoring at 4:28 with a shot from inside the right circle.

What made things even more difficult for MSU was an apparent shoulder injury in the first few minutes of the game to the Spartans’ top offensive weapon – sophomore right wing Mason Appleton, who was checked hard in the corner in the Tech zone. Appleton went off the ice and never returned. The seriousness of the injury was not known as of late Saturday.

“With some pain and suffering comes growth,” Anastos said of the Spartans disappointing night. “It’s hard winning two nights in a row. You have to learn what it takes. Every single guy knew in his mind that there was going to be harder push from Michigan Tech.

“We didn’t measure up in those first 10 minutes. Fortunately, we still had 50 minutes to respond. The good news was that once we came out of the first 10 minutes, I thought our second 10 minutes were pretty good. In the second period, I thought we were in a good place. We were building a game and I liked it.

“But then having Mason Appleton go down, that really shortened our bench because we already had one less forward because we dressed seven defensemen.

“I give lots of credit to Michigan Tech. They have a good team and played well. Our guys competed hard, but it’s hard to play that game at that speed and with that physicality with three lines for 60 minutes.’’

MSU’s power play, which scored twice in Friday’s 3-2 win, was 0-for-5. Hirose’s goal late in the second period came 12 seconds after a Spartan power play ended. Michigan Tech was 2-for-4 on the power play, and its first goal came with each team one-man short.

Lethemon made 23 saves while Huskies goalie Angus Redmond stopped 17 shots, only four in the final period.’

“For sure, I don’t find losing 5-1 acceptable, and yet when I walked away from the game, if you look at some of the pieces, there were some encouraging things,’’ Anastos said.

“You look at a kid like Hirose, he played a heck of a game. He’s a difference maker. I thought (Patrick) Khodorenko continues to raise his level of game. Logan Lambdin showed some positive signs, a couple of our freshmen defensemen showed some good things and Sam Saliba looked good on our power play.’’

Saliba, a freshman center, set up Hirose for MSU’s only goal, earning his first collegiate point late in the first period.

MAKING AN IMPACT: Freshman left wing Taro Hirose has been overshadowed early this season by linemate Mason Appleton, who went into Saturday’s game as the Spartans’ leading scorer with three goals and five assists for eight points.

But Hirose’s adjustment from junior hockey to the college game, his impact on a line with Patrick Khodorenko and Appleton and his play on special teams hasn’t gone unnoticed by his coaches and teammates.

“I thought he played with a lot of poise,’’ Coach Tom Anastos said of Hirose’s play against Michigan Tech “He’s gaining confidence. We brought him here because he’s the type of player that can run a power play and make guys around him better. We see that.

“He’s just scratching the surface and he’ll get better and better. That was a very physical game tonight and he’s not a very big guy, but you can see his intelligence. I think he slips most checks. He’s a tough kid.’’

Even with Appleton missing most of the game with a shoulder injury, MSU moved the puck around well on some power plays, but just couldn’t find an open man for a quality shot. In 8 minutes and 51 seconds of power-play time, the Spartans managed only three shots on goal.

Hirose was running the power play from the left point late in the second period and MSU had the Huskies hemmed in their zone. The Spartans continued to control the puck even after the penalty expired, and Hirose took a pass from freshman center Sam Saliba, moved into the slot near the left circle and fired a high shot that eluded goalie Angus Redmond.

Hirose, a 5-foot-10, 160-pounder from Calgary, and Redmond, who’s from Langley, British Columbia, were teammates for the last two seasons with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the British Columbia Hockey League.

After Saturday’s game, Hirose and Redmond talked briefly in the handshake line.

“He said I got a lucky one. I’ll make sure to tell him that this wasn’t lucky,’’ Hirose said with a laugh. “He was probably our best player every year. He got the MVP (award). He earned it. He kept us in a lot of games.’’

But Hirose said knowing Redmond’s tendencies helped him in setting up his shot.

“I know that when there is a bit of traffic, he likes to go down low, instead of standing up,’’ Hirose said. “I wanted to get it up high and through the traffic.’’

Hirose is MSU’s second-leading scorer with two goals and four assists for six points in seven games.

“That was great that I could score, but it would have been nice to get the W,’’ he said. “Maybe it’ll give me some momentum going into next week.’’

TOUGH NIGHT IN GOAL: Freshman goalie John Lethemon made his third start of the season on Saturday, and he had to battle to stay focused after Michigan Tech scored two goals within 11 seconds to take a 2-0 lead just over five minutes into the game.

Defenseman Mark Auk was wide open in the right circle and he converted a pass at 4:55 with the teams playing 4-on-4 and one second before a Tech penalty was set to expire.

After the ensuing faceoff, Joe L’Esperance broke in on a breakaway to beat Lethemon for a power-play goal, and things were looking pretty bleak for the Spartans.

“I liked the way Lethemon fought through the first two goals. We didn’t give him a chance to stop either one and yet he battled back,’’ Anastos said. “That’s a tough situation for a freshman to be in.’’

UP NEXT: The Spartans play a home-and-home series next week against Ferris State of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The teams meet at 7 p.m. on Thursday at Munn Arena and at 7 p.m. on Saturday in Big Rapids.

The Bulldogs (2-8-1 overall, 2-5-1 WCHA) have struggled early this season, losing their first six games. They were 0-7-1 before defeating Minnesota State on the road for their first win of the season. FSU is coming off a WCHA series split at Bowling Green – a 4-1 loss on Friday and a 3-1 win on Saturday. FSU has won two of its last three games, both on the road.

IN THE BIG TEN: After No. 13 Minnesota and No. 3 North Dakota hooked up in a thrill-a-minute 5-5 tie on Friday, things were a lot more defensive in the series finale Saturday, and the Gophers posted a 2-0 victory at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.

Wisconsin rebounded from Friday’s 5-2 home loss to Northern Michigan and pulled out a 2-0 win on Saturday to earn a series split. Freshman goalie Jack Berry earned the shutout in his first career start.

No. 11 Ohio State saw a 4-3 lead disappear late in the third period and had to settle for a 4-4 tie against Robert Morris on Saturday in Pittsburgh. In the series opener on Friday in Columbus, Robert Morris handed the Buckeyes their first loss with a stunning 6-2 victory.

Next weekend, No. 17 Michigan plays host to No. 4 Boston University, No. 14 Penn State is home against Alaska Anchorage and Connecticut plays at Ohio State. Minnesota and Wisconsin are off.

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