Neil's Notebook: New Chapter in Rivalry Begins Thursday
Neil Koepke previews this week's home-and-home series vs. Michigan.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING -- There's something strange going on in the Michigan State-Michigan hockey rivalry.
Playing at home is supposed to be a big advantage and playing on enemy ice is supposed to make things more difficult.
But that hasn't been the case with the Spartans and Wolverines over the last few seasons.
MSU won both games in Ann Arbor last season - 3-0 and 4-1 -- and has won three of the last four battles at Yost Arena over the last three seasons.
Michigan has had good success against the Spartans at Munn Arena, compiling a 3-0-1 record in the past three seasons.
"It is kind of odd but sometimes you go in and use the energy in the building to your advantage,'' MSU senior defenseman Carson Gatt said. "For us, there's something to be said by scoring a goal and hearing Yost go completely silent.
"And all you hear are your parents behind our bench and Spartan fans cheering. So that pulls you up and you want to hear that silence again and not hear their crowd erupt.''
And of course, it's worked that way for Michigan coming into Munn Arena and exiting with a victory. The last time the Spartans defeated the Wolverines at Munn was four seasons ago when they won 4-3 on March 8, 2014.
A year ago, U-M and MSU played to a 2-2 tie at Munn Arena, with the Wolverines winning the shootout, 1-0.
"With such a big rivalry, you would think home ice would kind of be a big advantage," Gatt said "I'm hoping we keep one of the streaks going and change the other this weekend.''
For the first time this season -- and the first in the new coaching era at both schools -- the Spartans (7-8-1, 1-6-1-1) and Wolverines (6-6-2, 2-4-2-1) collide in a Big Ten series at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Ann Arbor and at 7 p.m. Friday at Munn Arena.
It's first time MSU's Danton Cole and U-M's Mel Pearson will be facing each other since being named head coaches of their respective schools last April.
Cole is hoping he's as successful coaching against Michigan as he was playing against them as a Spartan from 1985-89. His teams were 14-6 against the Wolverines -- 10-2 at home and 4-4 in Ann Arbor. Cole never played U-M in the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit.
"Growing up as a MSU fan and with the rest of my family having gone here, I was deeply engrained with the competition and what the rivalry meant,'' Cole said. "When we were playing here, these were the games that we really looked forward to. The GLI was huge, so were the Michigan games and then NCAAs after that.
"Intensity was always ramped up, the emotions were ramped up. It was an awful lot of fun to play in.''
It's been 28 years since Cole played at MSU but not much has changed with the importance of the rivalry.
"It's going to be two hard-fought games. There will be some chippiness,'' Gatt said. "The atmosphere will be great and they should be great games.
"I'm excited for our freshmen to get a good taste of this. You can talk about it a lot but you really don't know what it's like until you go out and experience it.''
Michigan State's sophomores are 2-0 vs. U-M at Yost Arena, ,0-0-1 at home, and 0-1-1 at Joe Louis Arena, thus winning the season series 2-1-2 and the Big Ten series, 2-0-2.
The Spartans' only loss to the Wolverines last season was in the GLI's third-place game -- a 5-4 defeat in overtime.
Then, MSU won 3-0 in Ann Arbor on Jan. 20, with goalie Ed Minney getting the shutout, tied 2-2 at Munn Arena on Jan. 21, tied 4-4 in a Big Ten game on Feb. 10 in Detroit, and won 4-1 at Yost Arena on Feb. 11, with goalie John Lethemon recording his first career victory and coming within 10 seconds of a shutout.
Sophomores Sam Saliba and Taro Hirose, after just one season, are already MSU's active career leading scorers against Michigan. In five games, Saliba has three goals and three assists for six points and Hirose also has six points, with two goals and four assists.
"Having a winning record against Michigan is something you really want. We had a good year against them and we're looking to build on that,'' Saliba said. "As far as individual success, you always want to contribute and I was able to do that. Hopefully, I can keep it going.''
Michigan State and Michigan will have lots of incentives coming into this series. In addition to being eager to present the home fans with a victory, they're both aiming to end losing and winless streaks and climb back up the Big Ten standings.
The Spartans are 0-3-1 in their last four games and are coming off two close losses against Notre Dame, 3-1 and 2-0, last weekend.
The Wolverines are 0-3-2 in their last five games and got swept in their last series -- 3-2 and 5-1 at home against Ohio State - two weeks ago.
"We'll go into Thursday knowing we can win in that building, but we have to play a good 200-foot game, defend well and capitalize on our chances,'' Saliba said.
"With Michigan, you don't want to get into a run-and-gun type game, a transition game. They have good offensive players and they feed off chances. If we can play our structured game and stick to getting pucks behind them and getting pucks out (of our zone) and take advantage of our chances, that'll put us in good position.''
THE RIVARLY: Michigan holds a 160-133-21 edge in a series that started with a 5-1 Wolverine victory on Jan. 11, 1922. The early era of the rivalry lasted until Feb. 6, 1930, with U-M building a 14-2 edge. The series resumed in February, 1950. Over the last five seasons, the Spartans are 8-15-2 against Michigan -- 2-4-1 at home, 3-4 on the road and 2-6-1 at Joe Louis Arena, 1-0 at Comerica Park and 0-1 at Soldier Field in Chicago.
MSU and U-M have met 314 times, that's six more than the Denver-Colorado College series, which is the next closest rivalry by games played.
SCOUTING THE WOLVERINES: Despite scoring only three goals in two losses at home against Ohio State two weeks ago, offense has not been a problem for the Wolverines, who are averaging 3.5 goals per game, which is fifth best in the nation. The reason U-M is 6-6-2 overall and 2-4-2 in the Big Ten is because of defense. The Wolverines rank 53rd defensively among 60 NCAA Division I teams with a 3.43 goals-against average. They've allowed four or more goals in six games, including a 7-3 loss at Wisconsin and a 6-6 tie (and shootout loss) at home against Minnesota.
Sophomore goalies Jack LaFontaine and Hayden Lavigne have played in eight games and have save percentages less than .900. LaFontaine, who's started eight games, has a 4-3 record, a 3.61 goals-against average and a .899 saves percentage. Lavigne, who has started six games, is 2-3-2, has a 3.02 GAA and a .884 saves percentage.
Offensively, U-M has seven players with 10 points or more.
Junior Cooper Marody leads in points with 21 on four goals and 17 assists. Senior Tony Calderone is the top goal scorer with 10, and with five assists for 15 points, he's second in team scoring.
Other key forwards include senior Dexter Dancs (5-6-11), sophomore Will Lockwood (4-7-11), sophomore Jake Slaker (7-3-10), freshman Josh Norris (3-5-8) and senior Alex Roos (3-3-6), a graduate transfer from Colorado College.
The Wolverines have three defensemen who are very involved in the offense -- standout freshman Quinn Hughes (1-9-10), junior Joseph Cecconi (3-7-10) and senior Sam Piazza (1-4-5).
The stay-at-home blue liners include sophomore Luke Martin and Griffin Luce and junior Nick Boka.
With Mel Pearson taking over as coach from Red Berenson, who retired in April after 33 seasons at U-M, there's probably some minor changes to the Wolverines' game, but this is a team that still plays an aggressive, puck-possession game based on speed and skill.
"They're still an extremely fast team, they transition really well and have some dangerous forwards," Cole said. "We'll have to be able to deal with that. "Whether it's Mel or Red (coaching), they'll get up and down the ice, and it'll be up to us to handle that and limit their opportunities in those situations.''
FAMILIAR FACES: When Danton Cole looks over at the Michigan bench this weekend, he'll see a lot of familiar faces from his days coaching the U.S. National Team Development Program's U-17 and U-18 teams.
The Wolverines have 10 players who played for the U.S. program on their roster -- junior defenseman Nick Boka, junior forward Brendan Warren, sophomore forwards Will Lockwood, James Sanchez and Nick Pastujov, sophomore defensemen Luke Martin and Griffin Luce, freshmen forwards Josh Norris and Michael Pastujov and freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes.
Cole coached the sophomores -- Lockwood, Sanchez, Nick Pastuojov, Martin and Luce - with the U-17 and 18 teams from 2014-16 and was with opposite teams when Boka and Warren and this year's rookies -- Norris, Michael Pastujov and Hughes -- went through the program.
"We've done it a lot this season, and when I was with the U.S. team we'd play a lot of college teams with a lot of players from the program on it, so I've been through it a bit,'' Cole said of coaching against players he had a hand in developing during his stay with the NTDP.
"There's like five or six of my guys (on Michigan) and another four or five on the team that played with the other age group, so about half of that team I know pretty well.''
Cole has already run into his former players while playing Minnesota, Wisconsin and Notre Dame.
"It's neat to see where they're at, to see them continue to compete,'' he said. "It's one of the better rewards you get as a coach to see guys who have played for you and see what they're doing. And not just about playing but what they're doing in life.''
Michigan State has four players who played for the NTDP's U-17 and U-18 teams. Senior goalie Ed Minney and senior forward Dylan Pavelek played for Cole from 2012-14. Sophomore center Patrick Khodorenko was coached by Cole from 2013-15, while freshman defenseman Tommy Miller played part of the 2015-16 season with the U-17 team spend all of last season with the U-18s but was not coached by Cole.
INJURY UPDATE: Freshman center Tommy Apap's injury, suffered last Saturday against Notre Dame, wasn't as serious as first feared, and even though he's doubtful for the Michigan series, he's not expected to be out of action for a long time. Meanwhile, Coach Danton Cole said two other injured players -- forwards Cody Milan and Dylan Pavelek -- are "doing better" and could return to the lineup very soon.
"We had pretty good news on Apap. He won't be out very long,'' Cole said.
Pavelek hasn't played since early November, while Milan has missed the last three games after getting hurt in the first game of the Penn State series, Nov. 24.
SPARTAN POTPOURRI: Freshman right wing Mitchell Lewandowski continues to lead the nation in freshmen scoring with 18 points -- nine goals and nine assists. He leads all Big Ten rookies in goals. . . . Lewandowski and KHL linemates Taro Hirose and Patrick Khodorenko are MSU's top three scorers. Lewandowski and Hirose (6-12-18) are tied with 18 points apiece while Khodorenko is third with four goals and nine assists for 13 points. In the Big Ten, Lewandowski is tied for third in goals while Hirose is tied for sixth in assists and is in a three-way tie for power-play points with nine (1-8).
Freshman defenseman Tommy Miller is tied for fifth in the Big Ten in blocked shots with 34. Senior Carson Gatt, Miller's defense partner, is tied for eight with 33. The leader is Wisconsin defenseman Peter Tischke with 45, but he's played in 19 games, three more than Miller and Gatt. Meanwhile, Gatt leads MSU defensemen in scoring with two goals and eight assists for 10 points, two points shy of his career high of 12 (3-9) set last season. Gatt has six points (2-4) in his last eight games. . . .
Sophomore goalie John Lethemon ranks No. 3 in the Big Ten in both goals against (2.32) and saves percentage (.916). Lethemon has allowed two or fewer goals in eight of his 14 starts.
IN THE BIG TEN: It's the final weekend of Big Ten play until January with three conference series set.
In addition to the MSU-Michigan games, No. 4 Notre Dame plays at No. 12. Wisconsin and No. 15 Ohio State plays host to No. 7 Minnesota on Friday and Saturday.
The first-place Irish (14-3-1 overall, 8-0-0 Big Ten) have won 11 straight and sophomore goalie Cale Morris has four shutouts in his last seven games. He ranks No. 2 nationally with a 1.47 goals-against average. The Badgers (10-7-2, 4-3-1), coming off a split at Minnesota (5-4 loss, 3-2 win), are 4-5-2 in their last 11 games.
The Buckeyes (8-4-4, 3-4-1) saw their five-game unbeaten streak (3-0-2) come to an end last Saturday when they were shut out by Penn State, 4-0. The Gophers (9-7-2, 4-4-1) were on a 6-1-1 run the week before Thanksgiving but now are 1-3 in their last four.
Penn State (9-7-2, 4-4-2), back in the USCHO poll at No. 18, plays a non-conference series against Robert Morris of Atlantic Hockey. The teams play at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh on Friday and at Penn State on Saturday.