Neil’s Notebook: Lethemon, Top Line Deliver in 2-0 Shutout of No. 7 Wisconsin
Notes, quotes and analysis from Neil Koepke on Saturday's win over Wisconsin.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING – After giving up six goals in Friday’s disappointing 6-3 loss to Wisconsin, Michigan State knew it would have to do many things better on Saturday if it had any chance of coming away with a split of the Big Ten series.
The Spartans’ focus was on playing with more energy, getting better team defense and goaltending, more aggressive forechecking and playing more in the offensive zone.
MSU improved in each of those areas, got stellar performances from its top scoring threat – the so-called KHL line of Patrick Khodorenko, Taro Hirose and Mitchell Lewandowski – and goalie John Lethemon, and the combination led to a 2-0 victory over the Badgers on Saturday at Munn Arena.
The Spartans (5-5, 1-3) have won five games this season and Saturday’s has to be the most satisfying. It was MSU’s first Big Ten victory and over the No. 7-ranked team in the nation.
Lethemon stopped 38 shots and wasn’t necessarily overwhelmed but he was sharp, cool and calm and did make three or four crucial saves that could have turned the game around. The KHL line had a hand in both goals with Hirose and Khodorenko setting up Cody Milan’s power-play goal late in the first period and the same duo assisting on Lewandowski’s goal midway through the third period.
For much of the game, MSU’s forecheckers bottled up the Badgers’ breakouts and the defense defended well, retrieved pucks quickly and cleared the zone effectively.
“I’m really happy for the guys. They played hard, and we tried to take the good things from (Friday) night and build on those,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “I thought their energy and spirit were good. The third period was our best period.
“We started doing a better job through the neutral zone, and we got our forecheck going and got rewarded with the second goal, which didn’t make it easy but in the last three minutes, it was a little easier and still a little tense.
’’Our guys were a lot better physically tonight. They competed better for 50-50 pucks. Instead of the end of our sticks, we got bodies in there.’’
Wisconsin pulled goalie Kyle Hayton (15 saves) for a sixth attacker with just over three minutes left in the game and buzzed around the MSU zone, trying to cut their deficit to 2-1, and then seeking the tying goal.
Instead, Lethemon was solid, the defense and forwards worked hard to block shots and clear pucks from the slot. When the buzzer finally sounded, the Spartans eagerly celebrated their first conference win and Lethemon’s second career shutout and second in his last four starts.’’
“It just calm, composed and confident. That’s kind of the moto I had - my junior coach gave that to me,’’ Lethemon said. “It’s keeping steady, not getting too high or low. You always have to be prepared for everything. That’s your job as a goalie.’’
Lethemon made a key breakaway save late in the first period on Wisconsin senior left wing Cameron Hughes, stopped a quick shot from the right circle by sophomore center Trent Frederic in the second period, and was sharp on several close-in shots in the final 20 minutes.
“It looked like (Hughes) was going to pass and he fooled everybody (by darting in along down the middle), and I just tried to hold my ground, stay as patient as possible and make the save,’’ Lethemon said. “You have to expect stuff like that.
“It’s part of the game. You have to make timely saves for your team, to keep the game going. It’s all part of the job.’’
Lethemon did the job well Saturday and gave his team confidence with his focus and calm demeanor.
“He was really good tonight,’’ Cole said of his sophomore goaltender. “He was calm. Sometimes, when goalies are having a good game, they make it look kind of easy.
“He was square to the puck, the puck was hitting him, he wasn’t giving up rebounds and he was calm. Coaches like that. They like a calm goalie that makes a lot of saves.
“I think he calmed the guys on the team down. In your mind, you go ‘John is on,’ and that’s going to help us. You can relax and play a little better.’’
In a strange twist, the Spartans were outshot 11-3 and attempts were 21-5 in favor of the Badgers in the first period, but MSU came away with a 1-0 lead on Milan’s power-play goal at 18:07.
The Spartans carried the play for stretches in the second period, despite killing three straight penalties, and had Wisconsin in its heels. During one shift by Khodorenko, Hirose and Lewandowski, and defensemen Carson Gatt and Tommy Miller, MSU kept the puck in the offensive zone for 1 minute and 8 seconds, until the weary visitors iced the puck.
They Spartans moved the puck around quickly, retrieved it, blocked clearing attempt and put pressure on Hayton with several quality chances.
“We just kept getting shots, getting the puck back, good retrievals and they were dead and we were always able to get on the puck first,’’ Khodorenko said. “We had great support, guys were getting open and making plays and we almost had a couple of goals.’’
A few minutes later, the Badgers came to life and had the Spartans on the run late in the period, but Lethemon was solid and MSU survived the surge.
Michigan State’s best period was the third and while Wisconsin wasn’t getting many good chances, it was still a good play or bounce from tying it. The Spartans got some breathing room when the KHL line took advantage of a poor clearing attempt by the Badgers in their own zone.
Khodorenko raced into the zone to keep the puck in, on the right wing. He skated into the right circle and backhanded the puck into the slot to a wide-open Hirose, who calmly slid the puck over to Lewandowski at the left edge of the right circle.
Lewandowski reached out and one-timed it into the right corner for a 2-0 lead at 11:39. It was the perfect tic-tac-toe play and eased some pressure.
MSU was aggressive and played with confidence the rest of the way to finish off the weekend with three points in the Big Ten race.
“I think this shows the character we have in this room, the type of team we have and type of guys that try to come together and jell,’’ Lethemon said. “We weren’t too happy about Friday night, but I thought we had everyone going tonight and we made big plays, and that’s how you win hockey games.
“It was a wake-up call on Friday. I don’t think we were prepared for that game, but we were dialed in tonight, had good preparation and it showed on the ice.’’
DEFENSE REBOUNDS: Coach Danton Cole said assistant coach Chris Luongo met with the defense corps before Saturday’s game and emphasized what improvements were needed in their play, after Friday’s loss.
“We weren’t happy with the group and Louie (Luongo) talked to the eight of them,’’ Cole said, “and kind of put a little challenge into them to be harder on pucks, to move the puck better, defend better, be more in-your-face and play a harder game.’’
The six defensemen dressed Saturday – Carson Gatt and Tommy Miller, Mitch Eliot and Jerad Rosburg and Zach Osburn and Anthony Scarsella – listened, learned and responded with energy and a responsible performance.
“Carson logs a ton of ice time. He’s on the power play, he kills penalties and as a senior, he’s playing a lot,’’ Cole said. “Tommy Miller, for an 18-year-old freshman, he’s been outstanding.
“Eliot and Rosburg did a nice job and Osburn rotated in the second half of the game. That was nothing against Scarsella, but you get into a rhythm with five, and with the power play and penalty kill, Louie and I talked about it said let’s just stay with five.
“Five is OK. You can do it. That’s not too much. I thought we got stronger during the game. In the neutral zone, we did a much better with five guys working together after the second period. I thought we got too spread out and Wisconsin got downhill on us, but we did a better job in the third period.’’
KHL LINE DAZZLES: The Khodorenko, Hirose and Lewandowski line keeps getting better and better with its ability to create dangerous scoring chances, whether it’s on rushes into the offensive zone or stealing pucks and setting up each other. They’re creative, have great chemistry and they can finish, especially Lewandowski, a freshman who had two goals on Friday and one Saturday and now has six on the season.
“They all have the ability to pass and the ability to shoot, but what they really do well is, with the puck, they know what the open areas are, and without the puck, they get there,’’ Cole said. “They’re all really good pass receivers. That’s really underestimated in the game today.
“A lot of guys wait until the puck goes somewhere, then they go there. In Wayne Gretzky terms, they’re where the puck’s going, not where it’s at.
“All three of them click and they think the same way. They get a little more latitude in making plays inside the blue line. It’s like when we were here, (former MSU All-American defenseman) Jason Woolley gets to join the rush, Chris Luongo doesn’t. Same rules apply. We’re fair but not always equal.’’
Lewandowski leads MSU in scoring with six goals and seven assists for 13 points, while Hirose, with two assists Saturday, is a point back with two goals and a team-leading 10 assists for 12 points.
Cody Milan, who had a power-play goal each night against Wisconsin, is third in scoring with three goals and seven assists for 10 points. With two assists Saturday, Khodorenko has four goals and five assists for nine points.
Asked what he liked best about Saturday’s victory, besides the three points in the standings, Hirose said it was the ability to beat a good team in a close game.
“Those are the games we weren’t getting last year,’’ he said. “The ability to win those close games is somethings we have to keep up.
“I think we were a lot better defensively tonight. We gave up a lot of shots but I thought they only had a few good opportunities. It was good to see (Lethemon) get that shutout. He made that breakaway save and made a few other good saves.
“We had all four lines going, and maybe some guys didn’t get on the scoresheet, but they were doing the little things, like helping us get more (offensive) zone time.’’
UP NEXT: The Spartans take a quick break from Big Ten play with a non-conference series next week with Ferris State. MSU and the Bulldogs (5-6-1, 2-3-1 WCHA) meet at 7 p.m. at Munn Arena and at 7 p.m. Saturday in Big Rapids. FSU has won three games in a row, including a 3-2 overtime win at Michigan and a home sweep this weekend of Alaska, 3-1, 5-3. After next weekend’s series, MSU will have only two non-league games remaining – two games in the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit, Jan. 1-2.
IN THE BIG TEN: No. 6 Notre Dame completed a sweep of No. 19 Penn State with a 1-0 victory Saturday in South Bend.
Senior forward Bo Brauer scored the only goal of the game at 14:12 of the second period. It was his second goal of the season and fifth of his career.
Goalie Cale Morris made 33 saves for the Irish (8-3-1, 4-0 Big Ten), who are undefeated in Big Ten play. It was Morris’ first career shutout. Notre Dame skated to a 5-3 victory over the Nittany Lions (5-7, 2-4) on Friday. PSU has lost four of its last five games.
Michigan and No. 4 Minnesota hooked up in a bizarre series in Ann Arbor with the Gophers racing out to 3-0 leads in each game, only to see it disappear.
The Wolverines (6-3-1, 2-1-1-0) rallied for a 5-4 victory in overtime on Friday, and they overcame deficits of 3-0 and 6-3, scoring three late goals, to earn a 6-6 tie Saturday against the Gophers (7-4-1, 3-2-1-1). But Minnesota won the shootout, 2-1, to earn two points while Michigan gets one.
Gophers goalie Eric Schierhorn gave up only one goal last weekend against the Spartans but was victimized for 11 in two games at U-M.
In a non-conference series, Ohio State’s bid for a sweep of Connecticut fell short as the teams played to a 1-1 tie Saturday in Hartford. Both goals were scored in the third period.
The No. 17 Buckeyes (6-3-3, 1-3) defeated the Huskies (3-8-2, 2-4-1), 5-4, on Friday
NO. 1 ST. CLOUD STATE SWEPT: One week after being replaced as the No. 1 team in the nation, No. 3 Denver swept top-ranked St. Cloud State, 4-2 on Friday and 5-1 on Saturday in Denver, handing the Huskies their first two losses of the season.
The Pioneers (6-2-2, 2-2) on Saturday built a 3-0 lead in the second period before St. Cloud (7-2, 2-2) scored its only goal. Denver added two goals in the third period.