Spartan defense improves despite series sweep against No. 6 Denver
When the final horn blew and the play clock struck zero, the MSU hockey team headed to its locker room again, heads down in a losing effort. Against No. 6 University of Denver, it was that exact story of when the Spartans dropped both games during the weekend series.
This time the game was different than the season opening series against Lake Superior State University a week before. In the upper peninsula, the Spartans yielded a total of 13 goals between in two games against the Lakers.
Against the No. 6-ranked Pioneers and a first-round NHL draft pick in Henrik Borgström, MSU allowed only five goals in the series, and one of those came on an empty net. Defensively, it was a huge shift in just one week.
“I think we were pretty solid defensively,” redshirt-senior Rhett Holland said. “Obviously, we didn’t get the turnout we wanted, but I think we made a lot of improvements from the weekend before. We came out hard, we fought hard, we laid it all out there.”
Looking closer to their opening weekend, the Spartans had a reason for their defensive struggles. They were missing two key blueliners — junior Carson Gatt and Holland were both unavailable because of injury and disqualification, respectively.
As a result, the team was forced to play five freshmen defensemen. Redshirt-freshman Jerad Rosburg had the most experience among the five, which was only because he was on campus the year before, nursing an injury.
When Gatt and Holland came back, their impact on the game was undoubtedly felt, Rosburg said.
“(Having the two back) helps stabilize the defense,” Rosburg said. “It’s good to get some veteran guys back that have been in the system who know how to play. That definitely helped.”
Along with having the duo back, the Spartans’ penalty kill improved vastly from the week before. During the course of the weekend, the Pioneers weren’t able to capitalize on any of their five power play chances.
Head coach Tom Anastos said being able to slot in his experienced defensemen had a direct correlation to the improved special teams.
Scattered throughout the game against Denver, the Spartans were aggressive. They landed big hit after big hit, inducing a little bit of jawing from the opposition.
The Pioneers featured players on their lines who were smaller than the Spartans, Holland said. With that on their mind, Holland said being physical and imposing their presence was a key part of their game plan.
“It’s always nice to be a physical team,” Holland said. “They’re a smaller team. They’re fast, they’re quick and they like to use speed and quick plays to their advantage. So if we can use bodies on teams like that, it’ll get them off their game and get them to make turnovers.”
While MSU was a force on the boards, Anastos said he liked how the players were more active and got in the way of their opposition more. Instead of standing around, he said, the team got into position more times than not down in its own zone.
“I thought we did a decent job of making them go through us,” Anastos said. “Which is a key in this sport to playing good defensively all over the ice.”
Relying on the MSU defense and working along with it, the Spartan goaltenders stood out in their respective games. Anastos went with both options each night, starting junior Ed Minney Friday night then freshman John Lethemon the next one.
Minney, in particular, had one of his best games as a Spartan. He only allowed two goals and earned the second game star.
Then the next night, the rookie Lethemon made his home debut. Lethemon struggled to start off the game, allowing two first period goals, but the rest of the way, he denied the Pioneers the back of the net when he was on the ice.
“I thought Lethemon had a good game,” Anastos said. “Felt the start was slow, but I thought he recovered and was pretty darn good. It was nice to see our goaltending rise this week.”
As with most young teams, the Spartans showed growing pains throughout the game. The team had a fast start both on its offense and defense. In the second period of game two, MSU came out flat, being outshot 9-2, although the Pioneers were unable to capitalize and score. Compared to its opening 20 minutes, where they matched Denver in the shots on goal department, 9-9.
“I thought there were a couple pieces of the game that we need to manage better,” Anastos said. “As an example, I thought we had a good first period. I thought that was the best period that we had played of the four … after that long delay (in the first period), I don’t think we came out of that very well.”
A large chunk of the freshmen gained plenty of experience, as they doubled their games played from two to four. The young players gained the maturity from their time on the ice, but using that to their advantage and executing is key, Anastos said.
“I think a lot of experience was gained,” Anastos said. “But we have to turn that experience into productivity and results.”
While the team prefers to win its game, Holland said there were a few moral victories to be found with playing and being competitive against a top-10 team in the nation.
“(Denver’s) a really good team and I think we kept up with them,” Holland said. “We proved that we can compete with top teams in the country. So we just have to find a way to bring it every game for 60 minutes.”
MSU will get back to action Oct. 28 against Princeton University as it continues to look for its first win. The puck will drop at 7:05 p.m. and the game will be hosted at Munn Ice Arena.