Neil’s Notebook: Carson Gatt Providing Spartans Key Leadership and Production
Neil Koepke highlights the play of Carson Gatt in previewing this weekend's series at Penn State.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Carson Gatt expected to have an expanded role this season as Michigan State’s most experienced defenseman.
Gatt was ready for more playing time, more responsibility on the ice and as a leader. Well, he got his wish and then some.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior from South Lyon is playing lots of minutes in many roles. He’s taking a regular shift, killing penalties, he’s on the No. 1 power play and on the ice in critical situations. He’s also one of three assistant captains.
That’s more than Gatt expected but he’s thrilled about the opportunity.
“It’s been unbelievable,’’ Gatt said, summing up his feelings about his first two months of the season and the Spartans’ 7-5 record heading into Thanksgiving weekend. “The coaches have given me the opportunity, which you’re always thankful for, and hopefully, I’m doing the best with the opportunity.’’
Coach Danton Cole says Gatt is doing great with the opportunity.
“He’s been outstanding. He’s a leader and what you want out of your seniors,’’ Cole said. “He’s been great, from leadership, ice time and getting things done.’’
Gatt and his teammates will try to get things done this weekend when the Spartans (7-5 overall, 1-3 Big Ten) face Penn State (7-7, 2-4) in a conference series at 7 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the 5,782-seat Pegula Ice Arena.
During pre-season practice, Cole gave Gatt a chance to play on the Spartans’ top power play with forwards Patrick Khodorenko, Taro Hirose and Mitchell Lewandowski and Cody Milan. One of his roles is to bring the puck up the ice and make a decision on how to get clean entries into the offensive zone.
He can dish it off to Hirose or he can work his way into the zone. Then, it’s a matter of keeping the puck moving from the right point and setting up his talented teammates to create scoring chances.
So far so good, so very good. The power play has evolved into a dangerous weapon. MSU has scored 12 power-play goals in 53 opportunities (22.6 percent).
Gatt already has eight assists in 12 games, one fewer than he had in 31 games last season. He has one goal – scored last Saturday at Ferris State that gave MSU a 3-1 lead – and nine points.
“He’s playing in all situations, he’s hard-nosed player and he’s putting up points, but I think it’s through a meat-and-potatoes kind of things,’’ Cole said. “He finished really well last year. He was Big Ten honorable mention, and in going through the games (on video), that was warranted.
“In the second half of the season, he got some power-play time with Hirose and (Mason) Appleton and I think some good things happened.’’
Gatt, who had played in 97 games coming into this season, including all 37 in 2015-16, credits his teammates for helping him make an impact and boosting his confidence.
“Every player likes more ice, more opportunity. I’m just thankful that I have all the guys making good plays, and the coaches for giving me the opportunity,’’ he said. “I have more than 100 career games played so I thought that experience was going to be relied on this year and I was going to have to do more things.’’
One of those things turned out to be a contributor to the power play, which has turned into a major weapon.
“Those guys that I’m on the power play with sure make it fun. It’s pretty cool to be out there with those guys,’’ Gatt said. “We’ve developed a good chemistry. I know I’m there to provide them with the puck and be an outlet for them. They’re using me as an outlet to relieve pressure. They’re dynamic, fun players watch.
“I’ve never been seen as a power-play guy so to be able to do that is pretty cool. The credit for the power play (success) goes to those guys.’’
Despite last year’s disappointing and frustrating season, in which the Spartans won only seven games, Gatt got regular playing time and his confidence started to grow. And that’s continued this season.
The MSU defense is still pretty young with three sophomores and one freshman in the lineup, along with Gatt as the only senior and Zach Osburn as the only junior.
“Last year, we were kind of stung with how many goals we gave up. We left our goalies out to dry a lot,’’ Gatt said. “That was a big commitment from day one this year – that we needed to be a lot better defensively, and I think everyone has bought in – our defense and forwards.
“Guys have been defending better, working harder and blocking shots. I think our penalty kill has been structurally better than the numbers have shown. That 5-on-3 penalty kill (last Saturday) for a minute and 10 seconds that turned into a shorthanded goal by Brennan Sanford was unbelievable. Little things like that contribute to overall team defense.’’
Not only has Gatt upped his level of play and responsibility, he’s also been a mentor to rising freshman defenseman Tommy Miller, who’s 18-years-old and played for the U.S. Under-18 team last season. Gatt and Miller have been teamed together all season
“He’s probably exceeded my expectations. Being able to play with him is awesome,’’ Gatt said. “He’s always has great support for me. I think we have pretty good chemistry and we’re always talking to each other.
“I was an 18-year-old freshman so I know what’s it like, so I’ll do anything I can to help him out. But he plays like a 21-year-old freshman. He’s so calm back there. He’s good with the puck and is sound in his positioning.’’
Miller, a 6-foot-2, 183-pound, right-hand shot defenseman from West Bloomfield, says he’s learned a lot from listening to Gatt and watching him in practice and games.
“He doesn’t tell you what to do – to do this, do that. He shows you things, expects different things, and we already have a trust with each other,’’ Miller said. “I know where he’s going to be and he’s know where I’ll be.
“Right out of the get-go, it’s like he’s thinking ‘oh, I’m playing with a freshman,’ and I’m thinking, ‘oh, I’m playing with a senior.’ It’s worked great for me. In practice, I like to watch him, and you can tell that three years of playing, it shows up a lot.
“He has poise with the puck, he can see the ice and the game is really slowed down for him.’’
“I’ve been in a lot of tough situations and experienced some good and bad things, and I look back at captains like Michael Ferrantino and Joe Cox and those guys were good captains and leaders,’’ Gatt said. “I try to take stuff from then and try to keep everyone calm when things are not going good, or we’re in at tough environment.’’
With a team that includes 11 sophomores and eight freshmen, Gatt said it’s important that losses be put in the right context – you learn from them and move on quickly to the next game with an upbeat attitude.
“You almost have to have a good memory and a short-term memory,’’ he said. “You want to remember what happened before but you have to hit the re-set button. It’s a new series, a new night and even a new period and new shift.
“You can’t get down after a Friday loss and go into Saturday feeling down. That’s no way to win the second game. You have to learn, forget and work as hard as you can and play together as a team.’’
After 12 games and a lot of positive accomplishments and confidence building, Gatt is eager for the next segment of the schedule, which includes six Big Ten games before Christmas, the Great Lakes Invitational on Jan. 1-2, and then 14 more conference games.
“I don’t know if there is a ceiling for this team,’’ he said. “We just show up and play, and we’re not even close to where we want to be. We’re going to get better every week, every weekend and every game.’’
THE RIVALRY: Penn State holds a 6-9-3 edge in the series which began with a 5-3 MSU victory on Jan. 25, 2013, at Munn Arena. The Spartans went 6-2-2 in the first 10 games with the Nittany Lions, but then PSU took control, going 7-0-1 in the last eight meetings. Last season, Penn State swept Michigan State, 5-2 and 5-3, at Pegula Ice Arena and 4-2, 4-1 at Munn Arena.
SCOUTING THE NITTANY LIONS: Penn State is off to an inconsistent start with five straight series splits followed by a weekend with two losses and another with two victories, resulting in a 7-7 record overall and a 2-4 mark in the Big Ten.
The Nittany Lions have lost to American International College (AIC) and Mercyhurst, two schools that in recent seasons they would have dominated. In the Big Ten, PSU has split at Minnesota (3-1 win and a 6-3 loss), split at home vs. Michigan (5-4 OT win, 5-2 loss) and lost twice at Notre Dame 5-3 and 1-0.
Last weekend the Nittany Lions climbed back to the .500 mark with a non-conference sweep at Arizona State, 7-0 and 4-2.
What’s hurting PSU is a defense which is allowing 3.36 goals per game, which ranks 48th nationally out of 60 teams, and what’s been positive is the nation’s 6th-best offense, averaging 3.71 goals a game.
Sophomore goaltender Peyton Jones led the Nittany Lions to the Big Ten playoff title last season and their first NCAA Tournament berth with a sensational 51-save performance in a 2-1 double overtime victory over Wisconsin in the conference championship game at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
In 2016-17, Jones compiled a 23-10-2 record, a 2.60 goals-against average and a .904 saves percentage. This season, Jones and PSU’s defense have struggled. In 12 games, Jones has a 6-5 record, a 3.57 GAA and an .876 saves percentage. Backup goalie Chris Funkey has played in five games, started two and has a 1-2 record, a 2.34 GAA and a .897 saves percentage.
After last season, PSU lost two defensemen and four forwards. High-scoring d-man Vince Pedrie (8-22-30), who would have been a junior, signed as a free-agent contract with the New York Rangers, while defenseman David Thompson, who played in only 18 games, graduated, along with forwards David Goodwin (11-27-3), the team’s second-leading scorer, and Dylan Richard, Ricky DeRose and Zach Sarr.
Offensively, Penn State is doing fine this season, despite sophomore forward Denis Smirnov, last season’s top scorer, missing six games with an undisclosed injury or illness. Smirnov, who had 19 goals and 28 assists for 47 points last season, had five goals and 11 points in eight games this year before leaving the lineup.
Junior forward Andrew Sturtz is PSU’s tops scorer with seven goals and nine assists for 16 points. There’s a four-way tie for second in scoring with 11 points apiece – sophomore Brandon Biro (4-7), junior Chase Berger (3-8), freshman defenseman Cole Hults (2-9) and Smirnov.
Penn State is known for an extraordinary number of shots on goal each game and that hasn’t changed this season. The Nittany Lions are averaging a nation-leading 41.93 shots on goal. Last year, they led the nation with 44 per game.
Guy Gadowsky is in his seventh season as Penn State coach and has a record of 92-87-12 with the Nittany Lions. Gadowsky, who also coached at Alaska and Princeton, has a career record of 265-285-49 in 18 seasons.
MSU coach Danton Cole doesn’t see his team getting involved in a high-scoring series against the offensive-minded Nittany Lions.
“We’re not built to get into shootouts. You always try to take away what other teams do well,’’ he said. “If you look at Penn State’s series against Notre Dame, they had 43 and 33 shots against one of the best defensive teams in the country.
“That is their style. They put a lot of pucks on net and they’re not afraid to put a lot of shots on net from outside the blue lines and deep in the corners. It’s a mentality. Teams are searching for an offensive identity.’’
Last season against the Spartans, Penn State had 46 and 51 shots on goal at home and 39 and 35 at Munn Arena.
“We’re going to have to deal with it,’’ Cole said. “There are certain ways we can defend it. But to say, let’s keep them under 30 shots is not right. I look at the chances that are generated and how we react after that.’’
GOALTENDING DIFFERENCE: One of the reasons Michigan State’s record is improved from last season is goaltending, an area Coach Danton Cole and his assistants pinpointed before the season that needed to be vastly better if the Spartans were going to make strides in 2017-18.
So far, that’s been the case. Although senior Ed Minney has struggled in his two starts and looked good in a relief stint, sophomore John Lethemon has been consistently solid and looks more confident with each game.
“With the same guys coming back, and if you looked at their numbers and if they duplicate those numbers, we have no chance (to win),’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “With that save percentage and goals-against (averages), you’re just not going to win hockey games very often.’’
The Spartans last season averaged 3.78 goals against per game and had a .874 saves percentage. Minney played 25 games and had a 3.62 GAA and a .883 saves percentage. In 14 games, Lethemon had a 3.59 GAA and a .873 saves percentage.
“Regardless of how much firepower is on the offensive side, (goals against as a team) had to get better,’’ Cole said. “That’s all six guys, not just the goalies. We needed to defend better, contest better and stop pucks better.’’
Through 12 games, Lethemon has started 10, has 2.17 GAA and a .919 saves percentage. Minney has allowed seven goals in just under 56 minutes of action, resulting in a 7.54 GAA and a .811 saves percentage.
As a team, MSU is allowing 2.65 goals against and has a .904 saves percentage.
“Looking at it coming into (the season), Coach (Joe) Exter and Coach (Chris) Luongo and I spent a lot of time (focusing on goaltending),’’ Cole said. “We thought we had a good situation where they could get better.
“Joe and (volunteer coach) Jason Muzzatti have done a lot of work with the guys. John Lethemon has had a good start to his sophomore year. He’s done a nice job and kind of grabbed the reins right now. Ed has to do his work and push it and he’ll get his chance again.’’
Lethemon, 21, a 6-foot-2, 173-pounder from Northville, is 14th in the nation with his 2.17 GAA, and third in the Big Ten behind Ohio State junior Sean Romeo (1.73) and Notre Dame sophomore Cale Morris (1.75). Colgate sophomore Colton Point is No. 1 in the nation with a 1.46 goals-against average.
SAME OLD STORY: For the third time this season, MSU freshman right wing Mitchell Lewandowski is among the Big Ten’s Three Stars of the week. This time, he’s the No. 2 star after scoring three goals and earning one assist in the Spartans’ 3-2 (overtime) and 3-1 non-conference series sweep of Ferris State.
Last week, Lewandowski was named the Big Ten’s third star and on Oct. 24, he was selected as the No. 1 star.
This week’s first star is Notre Dame sophomore goalie Cale Morris, who led the Irish last weekend to a 4-1, 1-0 sweep at Rensselaer.
Meanwhile, Lewandowski leads the Spartans in scoring with nine goals and eight assists for 17 points, which is tied for third in the Big Ten with Minnesota’s Rem Pitlick (4-10).
The Big Ten’s top two scorers are Notre Dame senior Jake Evans (5-17-22) and Michigan junior Cooper Marody (4-16-20).
IN THE BIG TEN: In a conference series matching two teams ranked in the top six in the nation, No. 4 Notre Dame (10-3-1, 4-0 Big Ten) plays host to No. 6 Minnesota (9-4-1, 3-2-1-1) on Friday and Saturday. Last weekend, the Irish swept Rensselaer in Troy, N.Y., while the Gophers won two against Harvard in Minneapolis.
After a week off, No. 15 Ohio State (6-3-3, 1-3) is back in action with a conference series at No. 17 Michigan (6-4-2, 2-2-2-1) on Friday and Saturday. The Wolverines are coming off a loss and tie at Wisconsin.
In non-conference play, No. 9 Wisconsin (8-5-2, 3-2-1-0) is home against Mercyhurst (4-4-2, 2-2-2 AHA) on Saturday and Sunday.