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Neil’s Notebook: Despite Loss, Spartans See Plenty of Positives

Dec. 3, 2017

By Neil Koepke staff writer

EAST LANSING – Michigan State played a strong, energetic, competitive, solid defensive game against Notre Dame on Saturday night at Munn Arena.

There were a lot of positives in the Spartans’ play.

Only one thing was missing: Goals.

MSU scratched and clawed to create scoring chances and tried to solve Notre Dame’s stifling defense all game but came up short, and the Irish scored early and late and earned a 2-0 Big Ten victory in front of 5,698 fans.

The Spartans (7-8-1, 1-6-1-1) attempted 49 shots at the net, put 23 on goal but couldn’t solve sophomore goaltender Cale Morris, who skated off with his fourth shutout of the season and fourth in Notre Dame’s last seven games.

“Our team played a good hockey team in a one-goal game. We’ll take an awful lot of good out of it,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “We’ll learn and we’ll move on. The only time you lose is if you lose a lesson. We just ran out of time tonight.’’

The goal that proved to be the game-winner for the Irish (14-3-1 overall, 8-0 Big Ten) was scored on the second shift of the game. Andrew Oglevie tapped in a rebound in the slot to give his team a 1-0 lead 1:30 into the first period.

For the next 58 minutes, it was solid defense from both teams, mixed in with a few quality scoring chances, excellent goaltending and no pucks finding their way over the goal line.

Finally, with 14 seconds left, and MSU goalie John Lethemon off for a sixth attacker, Notre Dame wrapped up its 11th consecutive win with an empty-net goal by Cal Burke at 19:46.

Morris stopped 23 shots and didn’t have to make any spectacular saves. He was sharp, in position, didn’t allow rebounds, and he got some help when MSU shooters fired pucks over the net, were wide and just couldn’t get to loose pucks around the net.



Lethemon made three big saves before he gave up the first goal, and continued to make an impact with some quality saves to keep his team within striking distance through each period.

“We’ve shown we can hang in there with some of the better teams in the country and we have to get there and get over the hump and get some wins against some of the top five teams,’’ Cole said. “Our guys worked extremely hard, battled in the trenches. Notre Dame is a tough team to get through.

“Certainly, we’re not satisfied, but I don’t think we could have asked for much more out of our guys, as much as they worked and battled. We’ll continue to get better. I thought we did some things better tonight than we did last night, and we did some things better than we did last weekend (at Penn State).’’

Notre Dame came from behind to win the series opener, 3-1, on Friday, after trailing 1-0 until past the midway point in the second period. The Irish scored twice in 62 seconds to go up 2-1 and scored a late goal to avoid a potential push in the final two minutes.

Taro Hirose, who scored MSU’s only goal on Friday in the last minute of the first period, had one of his best team’s best chances on Saturday late in the first period. He got open in the slot, near the right edge of the left circle and wired a high shot that appeared targeted toward the top left corner. But the shot sailed over the net and went behind the net.

The Spartans quickly retrieved the puck and got it back to the point, where defenseman Jerad Rosburg let go with a shot that rocketed past the right corner.

So close, but not in the net.

“Any time you don’t score any goals, it’s frustrating. But we had some chances and played a strong game and battled hard,’’ MSU senior defenseman and assistant captain Carson Gatt said. “We had a couple of guys go down and had guys stepping up. We were blocking shots, we had to kill a penalty late in the (second) period and hats off to the guys who really battled.

“It was a great team effort, but we feel short with the results.’’

Gatt said Notre Dame’s plays a very structured, defensive style of game, and with its size and strength and disciple, it makes it difficult on creating dangerous scoring chances.

“They play the puck out of their zone pretty well and make it hard to get a forecheck established,’’ he said. “But with all due respect to us, I thought we did a good job on our forecheck at times. We broke out the puck really well.’’

MSU’s top scoring line – the KHL line, featuring Patrick Khodorenko, Taro Hirose and Mitchell Lewandowski, wasn’t as dangerous as it’s been in some recent games, but it still managed to put 16 shots on goal. And that’s without power-play time because MSU did not have any power plays. Khodorenko, Hirose and Lewandowski each had four shots on goal.

“We had a 2-on-1 that we executed perfectly and the puck went off (the goalie’s) pad and our guy just couldn’t get his stick on the puck,’’ Gatt said. “We had a couple other 2-on-1 with the puck at the net and we got some tips.’’

“Morris made a couple of really good saves but if we had a couple more bounces go our way, maybe we score a couple goals.’’

Despite the disappointment of back-to-back losses to the Irish and scoring only one goal, Gatt believes there’s plenty of positives to build on.

“When you’re playing against the No. 3 or 4 team in the country and you stay with them for 60 minutes, there’s a lot of positives for us to take away from that,’’ Gatt said. “We have to keep making strides and do the positive things that let us play well.

“I do like the direction of our team and the way we’re trending.’’

Still, the players thought they played well in enough areas that they should have skated off the ice with a better result – like a series split or at least a tie. “They’re disappointed and they’re ticked off, and I think a lot of teams that would get done playing two games against Notre Dame (and play this way) and be happy that they’re that close,’’ Cole said. “I love it that our guys are not happy that it was that close. They’re ticked off and think they should have gotten something better out of this weekend. That’s how I feel as well.’’

OFFENSIVE IMPROVEMENTS: Almost every team in the nation is focused on improving its offense from the start of the season to the end. But it’s not just about getting more shots, getting players to go to the net and be in position for rebounds and deflections and crashing and banging for loose pucks in the corners and behind the net.

A big part of creating offense is breakouts from the defensive zone, play through the neutral zone and entries in the offensive zone and forechecking with pressure.

“You want to work on parts of it but you focus on how you play. Breaking out has a lot to do with how much you score, coming through the neutral zone and backpressure have to do with how much you score,’’ Cole said. “There are a lot of parts that go into it and we have to get better.

“On Friday, I think we had 78 percent (success) on our zone exits, that’s probably been as good as it’s been all year and against a really good hockey team. So, you work on those parts and that’s part of the education for the players.

“They have to understand it all goes together. It’s not just ‘we’re going to do stuff about shooting and attacking the net’’ and all that, but all those things lead up to it and you have to be very proficient at all of those.’’

UPS, DOWNS, THE PROCESS: Michigan State is a young team that’s working hard in practice, playing hard in games and buying into the coaching staff’s systems and philosophies. But when you battle hard, get geared up to win and not see the results in terms of victories, it’s not easy to maintain confidence and a bright outlook.

So, how does the coaching staff deal with a group dealing with three losses and a tie in the last four games?

Coach Danton Cole and assistants Chris Luongo and Joe Exter are used to this from their days coaching the National Team Development Program’s U-17 team, which is made up of 16-year-olds most of the season.

“Every Monday you come in and try to build and move forward,’’ he said of the U-17 team, which took its lumps playing against older players from the U.S. Hockey League and North American Hockey League for a big part of the season.

“We’ve had good talks with the guys (here) and where we are with the team and how we have to keep moving. There’s tons of good things we can take out of this game. We made adjustments in game that helped. We had guys that stepped up.

“Freshman forward) Gino Esteves had to play a ton, we got Ozzie (defenseman Zach Osburn) back and he had a heckuva game. John Lethemon played a fantastic game tonight.

“There’s plenty there. That’s the important part. And we’ve set that up and that’s where we are. There’s a process we have to go through and it’s a maturity and experience thing. You can’t shortcut it and the staff has to have patience. We’ll come out Monday and work hard for the next three days and get ready for Michigan.’’

UP NEXT: For the first time this season, Michigan State is matched up against Michigan in a home-and-home series on Thursday and Friday. The Spartans and Wolverines (6-6-2, 2-4-2-1) collide at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Red Berenson Rink at Yost Arena in Ann Arbor, and at 7 p.m. Friday at Munn Arena.

Both teams are entering the series with two-game losing streaks. U-M is winless in its last five games at 0-3-2-1), while the Spartans are winless in three games at 0-2-1-1).

On Saturday, Michigan defeated the U.S. U-18 Team, 7-3, in an exhibition game at USA Arena in Plymouth.

Last weekend, the Wolverines were swept at home by Ohio State, 3-2, 5-1.

IN THE BIG TEN: No. 14 Wisconsin rebounded from Friday’s 5-4 loss at Minnesota and edged the Gophers, 3-2, on Saturday in Minneapolis. Trent Frederic’s goal at 10:40 of the third period broke a 3-2 tie and gave Wisconsin a split in the series. Sophomore goalie Jack Berry made 40 saves for the Badgers (10-7-3, 4-3-1-0). Junior goaltender Eric Shierhorn stopped 29 shots for the Gophers (10-7-1, 4-5-1-1).

Penn State increased its unbeaten streak to six games at 4-0-2 with a 4-0 victory over No. 11 Ohio State on Saturday afternoon in Columbus. Goalie Peyton Jones made 33 saves in earning his second shutout of the season. The Nittany Lions (9-2-2, 4-4-2-1) and Buckeyes (8-4-4, 3-4-1-0) tied 5-5 in the series opener on Friday. PSU tied it with 0.7 seconds left in regulation, and after a scoreless overtime, the Nittany Lions won the shootout 1-0. Next weekend, in addition to the MSU-Michigan series, Notre Dame takes its 11-game winning streak to Madison to face the Badgers and Minnesota plays at Ohio State.

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