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Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Stifled in Loss

Dec. 2, 2017

By Neil Koepke staff writer

EAST LANSING – Notre Dame may not be the best team in the nation but it certainly could be the best defensive team in the country.

If not No. 1, still very close to the top.

The Irish are tough to manufacture offense against, and Michigan State found out just how difficult in a 3-1 loss to No. 4-ranked Notre Dame in front of a sellout crowd of 6,392 on Friday night at Munn Arena.

For more than half the game, the Spartans held a 1-0 lead. They were playing well and things looked promising in the opener of a two-game Big Ten series.

But the Irish struck for two goals within 62 seconds – at 11:30 and 12:32 of the second period – to go up 2-1 and then used blanket defense the rest of the period and into the third to boost its winning streak to a nation-leading 10 games.

“They sit back a lot. They have such strong defensemen and play big minutes and big roles,’’ MSU freshman right wing Mitchell Lewandowski said. “We had to dump the puck in more than we wanted. They play a different style, they’re hard to play against. Time and space is very limited.’’

Michigan State worked hard for the tying goal in the final 20 minutes, putting 12 shots on Notre Dame sophomore goalie Cale Morris, but couldn’t find a way to create dangerous, point-blank scoring chances.

The stingy Irish, the third-best defensive team in the nation with a 2.12 goals-against average, have allowed only four goals in their last six games, with three ending in shutouts.

“We’re not the only team that has had a hard time scoring against them,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “They’re good defensively. They match up well and their defensemen are older, they’re smart, they’re big, they skate well and it’s hard to get to the net on them.’’



The Spartans (7-7-1 overall, 1-5-1-1 Big Ten) had an excellent first period, outshooting the Irish (13-3-1, 7-0), 11-3, and coming away with a 1-0 lead on Taro Hirose’s goal on a rebound at with 33.4 seconds left.

Notre Dame lifted its game in the second period and MSU wasn’t as good as it was in the first 20 minutes. The Irish finally tied it at 11:30 off a scramble in front of MSU goalie John Lethemon (15 saves). Jake Evans, a senior center and the leading-scoring in the nation (7-20-27), tapped in a rebound in the crease.

Just 1 minute and 2 seconds later, Evans’ wrist shot from the left boards deflected off the stick of Cal Burke and caromed into the right corner of the net for a 2-1 Irish lead.

The Spartans worked hard to tie it, with a power play late in the second period and another early in the third, but managed only one shot on goal on the first power play and none on the second.

Notre Dame avoided a potential hectic finish when freshman right wing Colin Theisen scored off a rush down the right wing with 2:18 left in the game to hike its lead to 3-1.

“They have a sit-back style and they let you run into them and they create turnovers,’’ said Hirose, who was credited with nine of MSU’s 30 shots on goal. “Their defensemen are really good. They’re big and strong and put pressure on you on the corners to make plays quick. That’s something we have to deal with on Saturday.’’

The Spartans will try to regroup and earn a split when they face the Irish in the series finale at 7 p.m. Saturday at Munn Arena. Two times this season, MSU has lost the first game of a series and bounced back to get a split – a 3-2 win against Bowling Green, Oct. 14, and a 2-0 victory over Wisconsin, Nov. 11.

“Our guys battled hard, they skated well and did a lot of things that we talked about, particularly in the first and third periods,’’ Cole said. “I didn’t think the second period was horrible by any means.

“Obviously, we’re not satisfied with the outcome, but we battled and did some things well. We’re going to have to be better, a little more consistent and figure out a way to get a couple of pucks past their goalie.’’

Notre Dame did a good job at lining up at the blue line and keeping MSU from entering the zone with control or with speed. Most times, the Spartans had to shoot the puck into the offensive zone and go chase it. In the first period, they were winning some battles and setting up plays. In the second and third periods, the Irish cleared pucks quickly, preventing Michigan State from sustaining offensive pressure.

“On our entries, their forwards did a nice job. If you (took) a still (photo) shot of their blue line when we came through the neutral zone with the puck, they had at least three and sometimes four guys there, so it’s hard to carry it in,’’ Cole said. “

“We tried to use our defensemen quite a bit. But when you try to open things up, they pack it in, and their goalie is good. It’s more of a mental thing. They’re comfortable playing that game, whether it’s 1-0 against Minnesota (last Friday) or 5-2 (the next night).’’

The last time Notre Dame gave up more than two goals was a 5-3 win at home against Penn State on Nov. 10. In the second game of that series, the Irish won, 1-0, the start of three shutouts in four games.

“Our guys stuck with it in the third period. We kept pressuring,’’ Cole said. “We had some pucks around net. We just couldn’t get the second one.’’

The Spartans’ only goal was scored by Hirose without his normal linemates. Cole decided to send Hirose out with another forward line to alter Notre Dame’s matchups against MSU’s top unit – Patrick Khodorenko, Lewandowski and Hirose – in the last minute of the second period.

And it worked.

With Hirose on the ice with Brennan Sanford and Tommy Apap, Sanford worked the puck free behind the net, tapped it to Hirose in front and got it back on the edge of the crease. Sanford let go with a quick backhander that Morris stopped, but Hirose was there to lift the puck into the top right corner.

“Coach made the call. He wanted me out there with a different matchup and told me to go out with Sandy and Apap and it worked out,’’ Hirose said. “Sandy went in on the forecheck, pinned their d-man, who threw the puck out to their centerman. We sort of stole the puck and Sandy tried to jam it on net. It just popped out to me and I had the open net.’’

Said Cole, “Throwing Taro out there for the last 35 seconds is a pretty good idea.’’

Interestingly enough, freshman right wing David Keefer picked up an assist on Hirose’s goal even though he wasn’t on the ice when the puck went in. Keefer tipped the puck into the Notre Dame zone and left for a line change, with Hirose coming on. About 10 seconds later, the red light flashed and MSU had the lead.

GREAT FAN SUPPORT: The Spartans would have loved to win Friday’s series opener against Notre Dame for several reasons – beating the No. 4 team in the nation, a team which was on a nine-game winning streak and hadn’t yet lost in the Big Ten, boosting MSU’s league record with its second conference win and winning for the enthusiastic, sellout crowd of 6,392.

“It was great. You could hear the guys talking about it in warmups, about the energy in the building and then coming out in the first period and really seeing it,’’ Coach Danton Cole said of the large crowd. “It’s a pretty good feeling. That’s how we want this to be. That helps tremendously.’’

The crowd was the largest at Munn Arena since Jan. 21, 2017, when 6,556 jammed into the building to watch the Spartans and Michigan battle to a 2-2 tie.

“You could feel the energy and you try to build off that,’’ sophomore left wing Taro Hirose said. “We sort of let down in the second period. We have play a complete 60 minutes.’’

For freshman right wing Mitchell Lewandowski, it was the best crowd he’s seen at home in his first two months as a Spartan.

“It was awesome,’’ he said. “It’s the biggest I’ve ever seen here and it was fun to be in that atmosphere.’’

THE STAT PACK: Taro Hirose has a goal in three straight games, four goals in his last five, six goals for the season and a seven-game point streak with four goals and five assists for nine points.

Hirose, a sophomore left wing from Calgary, scored against Ferris State in a 3-2 win on Nov. 17 at Munn Arena, didn’t score the next game at FSU. He had a goal in each game last weekend at Penn State.

Hirose’s point streak started with an assist against Wisconsin on Nov. 10. After two assists the next night vs. the Badgers, Hirose had a goal and an assist in the first game against Ferris State and an assist in the series finale.

At Penn State, Hirose added two more games to the streak, followed by another point against Notre Dame.

Hirose and linemate, freshman Mitchell Lewandowski, share the MSU scoring lead with 18 points apiece. Lewandowski has nine goals and nine assists while Hirose has six goals and 12 assists.

On Friday, MSU’s KHL line – Patrick Khodorenko, Taro Hirose, Mitchell Lewandowski – accounted for 15 shots on Notre Dame goalie Cale Morris. Hirose had nine, Khodorenko five and Lewandowski one.

Through 17 games, Notre Dame is putting up some impressive numbers. The Irish have the third-best defensive record in the nation with a 2.12 goals-against average, and goalie Cale Morris’s .953 saves percentage is No. 1 and his 1.58 GAA is No. 2 overall. Notre Dame is averaging 3.29 goals per game, 14th in the nation. Notre Dame’s only three losses have come at home against Denver (4-2, Oct. 14), Sacred Heart (6-4, Oct. 19) and Omaha (6-4, Oct. 26). The Irish also have one tie – 2-2 vs. Denver on Oct. 13.

INJURIES: Junior defenseman Zach Osburn, junior forward Corey Milan and senior forward Dylan Pavelek are still recovering from injuries and sat out Friday’s game. Osburn suffered a lower-body injury at Ferris State on Nov. 18 and has missed the last three games. Milan’s upper-body injury, sustained at Penn State last Friday, has forced him to miss two games. Pavelek has a lower body injury and has been sidelined for seven contests.

IN THE BIG TEN: In the Border Battle between No. 7 Minnesota (10-6-1, 4-4-1-1) and No. 14 Wisconsin, the Gophers built a 5-2 lead late in the second period and held on for a 5-4 victory over Wisconsin (9-7-2, 3-3-1-0) on Friday at 3M Arena in Minneapolis. The Badgers outshot the Gophers, 20-13, in the second period but got outscored 4-1.

For the second straight game, Penn State rallied from a one-goal deficit and tied the game in the final minute with its goaltender pulled for a sixth attacker and earned another tie. Only this one, at Ohio State, was a little more dramatic.

The Nittany Lions tied the game 5-5 with less than a second left in the third period – with 0.7 seconds left on the clock, to be exact. The teams battled through a scoreless overtime before Penn State won the shootout, 1-0, to earn the extra point (one point for the tie and one for the shootout win) in the Big Ten standings.

Penn State (8-7-2, 3-4-2-1) held a 3-1 lead after the second period but Ohio State (8-3-4, 3-3-1-0) roared back to score three straight goals and take a 4-3 lead. PSU defenseman Trevor Hamilton tied it at 12:25, only to see Freddy Gerard give OSU a 5-4 lead at 15:35. But the Nittany Lions’ Andrew Sturtz scored his ninth goal of the season to tie it at 19:59.3 to avoid a Penn State defeat.

Michigan (6-6-2, 2-4-2-1) was off on Friday and plays the U.S Under-18 team on Saturday at USA Arena in Plymouth.

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