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Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Ready to Resume Rivalry With Notre Dame

Nov. 30, 2017

By Neil Koepke staff writer

EAST LANSING – After a four-season hiatus, the Michigan State-Notre Dame hockey rivalry is back.

The Spartans and Irish, rivals for 10 years in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and 23 seasons in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, are back in the same conference – the Big Ten.

And they’ll face each other four times a season for the foreseeable future, starting this weekend at Munn Arena.

“Bringing Notre Dame into the Big Ten is great for our conference and awesome for Michigan State and Notre Dame,’’ said MSU sophomore center Sam Saliba, who grew up in Lincolnshire, Ill., a Chicago suburb, where’s there’s plenty of Irish flavor.

“It’s great for them, great for us, and it’s obvious they’re a great team, so we’re excited to play them.’’

The No. 4-ranked Irish (12-3-1 overall, 6-0 Big Ten) and Spartans (7-6-1, 1-4-1-1) meet for the first time since 2013 when they face off in a two-game conference series at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Munn Arena.

When the Big Ten hockey league was formed in 2013-14, the CCHA folded, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) started, and Notre Dame joined Hockey East.

The Irish had a good run, reaching the NCAA Tournament three times and reaching the Frozen Four last season, but with most of their games against New England teams, they sort of lost touch with fans in the Midwest and West.

When the Big Ten, in an effort to add more teams and league games, invited Notre Dame to join the conference in 2016, the Irish accepted, and thus rivalries were renewed with MSU, Michigan, Ohio State and even Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“When you look back at the CCHA days when these teams were playing, this was a big series,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “I think it’s a carry over from football. We need to get better to make it a really good rivalry, and I see it as that’s where it will be.’’



Two months into the season, Notre Dame has been a bit rude to some previous Big Ten members. The Irish have played six games – two each against Ohio State, Penn State and Minnesota – and have won all six. They’re coming off a 1-0, 5-2 sweep of then- No. 6 Minnesota and they’re the hottest team in the nation with a nine-game winning streak.

Notre Dame is known as a dominant defensive team and they have numbers to back it up. The Irish have allowed only three goals in their last five games, and sophomore goalie Cale Morris has posted three shutouts during this stretch.

But Notre Dame has also shown it can score goals, too, and its 3.31 goals per game average ranks 13th nationally.

Cole said the Irish are more balanced than their reputation.

“Sometimes, those things are exaggerated. I went through it as a player with New Jersey. They said all we did is play defense but we averaged five goals in the Stanley Cup Finals,’’ Cole said. “I saw Notre Dame roll up five goals on Saturday night (against Minnesota).

“They can win 1-0 or can score five or six goals. That’s a sign of a good hockey team. They can play about any way. Are they committed to defense? Absolutely. Like all good teams.

“Notre Dame is a good team and they’ll do what they do and try to make it hard on us.’’

The last time these teams met they split a series at Munn Arena on Jan. 11-12, 2013. Notre Dame won the first game 1-0 and MSU came back to win the second contest, 4-1, with Tanner Sorenson, RJ Boyd, Brent Darnell and Matt DeBlouw scoring goals for the Spartans.

THE COACHING CONNECTION: It’s not often that a college hockey player gets to coach against someone who coached him as a player. But that’s the case with MSU’s Danton Cole and Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson.

As a sophomore and junior in high school, Cole played on teams coached by Jackson, a 1978 MSU graduate, in Detroit, and that started a close bond that continues today.

They’ll be coaching against each other for the first time as members of the Big Ten and with Cole at MSU. But they’ve matched wits three times with Jackson at Notre Dame and when Cole was coaching Alabama-Huntsville and once when he guided the U.S Under-18 team and it played the Irish.

Cole is 1-2-1 coaching against an early mentor – 1-2 while at UAH and 0-0-1 at the National Team Development Program.

“During my sophomore year of high school, I played major-midget for Jeff in Detroit, and then he moved to a junior team in Fraser, so I played for him in my junior year of high school as well,’’ Cole said.

“He was outstanding. I was lucky to have him and move into Coach (Ron) Mason (at Michigan State). Six out of seven years, from my sophomore year to the end of college, I got to play for guys who were really prepared. Jeff really understands the game.

“He had a lot of people around him that came and helped him at practices and taught you how to play the game and play it the right way.’’

Jackson later served as a volunteer assistant at Michigan in 1980-81, then went back to junior hockey in Detroit, before joining Coach Frank Anzalone’s staff as an assistant at Lake Superior State in 1986, winning an NCAA title in 1988. He took over as LSSU’s head coach in 1990 and won two more NCAA titles – in 1992 and 1994.

Jackson almost worked for Ron Mason at MSU in the summer of 1990. Mason hired Jackson as an assistant, but before he could start on the job, Anzalone was fired at LSSU, and Jackson took the Lakers’ coaching job.

After six years at Lakers’ head coach, Jackson moved to Ann Arbor to start the U.S. NTDP in 1996. He moved on from there to become head coach of the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League in 2002. After two-and-a-half years in Guelph, Jackson had a two-year stint as an assistant coach with the NHL’s New York Islanders.

In June, 2005, Jackson was named coach at Notre Dame, and is now in his 13th season in South Bend.

“I loved playing for him,’’ Cole said. “He was a hard guy to play for because things had to be done right, so I appreciated that.

“He really hasn’t changed. He’s gotten better. My interaction with him was really good. We think along the same lines. My approach to the game in terms of how you prepare and the intensity and focus a team has to have is similar.’’

Jackson has guided Notre Dame to eight NCAA Tournament berths, including four in the last five seasons, and three trips to the Frozen Four.

Cole admitted the first few times of coaching against Jackson “was weird, but now I’m kind of used to it.’’

And as a competitor, Cole wants to prepare as much as he can and get his team to do everything it can to beat Jackson and the Irish.

“The challenge of where they’re at as a team and where he’s at as a coach is, well, you always want to beat guys that are your friends or have a good relationship because that’s the competitor in you,’’ Cole said.

“You want to beat them and do well. It’s like being a player. You want to compete.’’

CRADLE OF COACHES: Michigan State has more alumni as head coaches in Division I college hockey than any other school. There’s four ex-Spartans among the 60 Division I head coaches – Bob Daniels at Ferris State; Jeff Jackson, Notre Dame; Damon Whitten, Lake Superior State and Danton Cole, MSU.

Thirteen schools have two Division I coaches, including Wisconsin of the Big Ten, North Dakota, St. Cloud State and Miami of the NCHC.

THE MSU-ND RIVARLY: Michigan State holds a 61-43-11 edge in a series which started with a 3-1 Notre Dame victory on Jan. 18, 1922. After the four straight Spartans losses through 1927, the teams didn’t play again until 1970-71. MSU has never won more than five games in a row over Notre Dame, and its best stretch was going 14-0-3 from Dec. 4, 1982, to Oct. 31, 1997. The Irish’s longest win streak is also five games and their longest unbeaten streak is 11 games (8-0-3) from Jan. 13, 2008, to Feb. 24, 2012. Over the last five games, Notre Dame is 3-2, and in the last 10, the Irish are 7-2-1.

SCOUTING THE IRISH: Center Jake Evans may be the best player in the nation that many fans don’t know anything about. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior from Toronto leads the Big Ten and the nation in scoring with six goals and 19 assists for 25 points in 16 games. As a junior last season, Evans had 13 goals and 29 assists for 42 points and was second in team scoring Over the last few games, Evans has centered left wing Cam Morrison (4-6-10) and some different right wingers, including Andrew Oglevie (6-6-12), Colin Theisen (4-7-11) and Cal Burke (7-3-10). Notre Dame has received good production from its defense with senior Jordan Gross and junior Bobby Nardella the team’s second- and third-leading scorers. Gross has five goals and 10 assists for 15 points and Nardella is just a point back with four goals and 10 assists. Offensively, the Irish ranked No. 13 nationally with a goals-per-game average of 3.31. They rank No. 7 defensively with a 2.19 goals-against average. When the Irish lost standout goalie Cal Peterson (2.22 GAA, .926 saves percentage) and highly regarded forward Anders Bjork (21 goals, 31 assists, 52 points) to NHL signings last summer, Notre Dame’s expected spot among the nation’s elite teams dropped. But sophomore goalie Cale Morris has had a spectacular first two months of the season. He’s played in 13 games, has a 11-1 record, a 1.62 goals-against average and a brilliant .952 saves percentage. The only game the 6-1, 190-pounder from Larkspur, Colo., lost was against No. 1 Denver (4-2) on Oct. 14. Backup goalie Dylan St. Cyr, a freshman, played in the other two defeats – 6-4 to Sacred Heart and 6-4 to Omaha. What’s also been a big benefit to Notre Dame is playing 12 home games and only four road games – at Ohio State and Rensselaer. The Irish are 8-3-1 at home and 4-0 on the road. Meanwhile, Morris, is a former teammate of MSU defenseman Zack Osburn and goalie John Lethemon with the Chicago Steel of the U.S. Hockey League in 2014-15. Morris played in 18 games with Chicago before being traded to the Waterloo Black Hawks.

SHORT-TERM MEMORY: One night after being pulled eight minutes into the first period, after giving up three goals, Michigan State sophomore goalie John Lethemon had one of his best games of his career in last Saturday’s 2-2 tie and shootout win over Penn State. He looked sharp, played with poise and confidence and made several excellent stops among his 41 saves in a very strong outing. “I think it was about simplifying my game and worrying about what my game is, and that’s just stopping the puck,’’ Lethemon said of his strong bounce back after not being in sync in Friday’s 7-2 loss. “Coach (Joe) Exter told me Saturday morning that I was playing – that I had a simple job, just stop the puck.’’ Lethemon said he put Friday’s tough start out of his mind and focused on how he’s been playing for most of this season.

“I think to be a good goaltender you can’t have two bad games in a row,’’ he said “It was huge for me to come back and have a good game on Saturday, and I think I did that. “They made some good plays (on Friday) but as a goalie you want to stop all of those. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs during the season. You have to credit Penn State. They were ready to go Friday and we weren’t.

“As a goaltender, you have to have a short-term memory. If you let in a bad goal or have a bad game, you want to brush it off and forget about it and trust yourself, trust the process. You have to have that belief in yourself that you’re better than that and come out the next night and do it. “That’s what we did as a team. It wasn’t just me, everybody had great games. We blocked a lot of shots and that’s no fluke. We’ve been working hard on that. The guys have been really sacrificing. We’re buying into playing for each other. That’s going to be a good recipe down the road.’’

The 6-foot-2, 173-pound Lethemon has 2.36 goals-against average and a .916 saves percentage and has two shutouts.

IN THE BIG TEN: In a matchup of bitter rivals and top 15 teams, No. 7 Minnesota faces No. 14 Wisconsin on Friday and Saturday at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis. The Gophers (9-6-1, 3-4-1-1) are coming off two losses at Notre Dame, while the Badgers (9-6-2, 3-2-1-0) split a nonconference series against Mercyhurst. Last season, the teams split both series.

No. 11 Ohio State, which is 7-2-3 in its last 12 games, plays host to Penn State (8-7-1, 3-4-1) on Friday and Saturday. The Buckeyes (8-3-3, 3-3-0-0) are coming off a sweep at Michigan.

The Wolverines are in action Saturday, playing an exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 team in Plymouth.

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