PREVIEW: MSU, U-M face off for crucial mid-conference series
The most played rivalry in college hockey continues this weekend as MSU hockey (5-17-2, 1-8-1 Big Ten) faces off against in-state rival University of Michigan (9-13-2, 2-7-1-1 Big Ten) in a two-game series.
This Friday’s “Duel in the D” contest at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit marks the 312th all-time meeting between the two heated rivals, and the 56th at Joe Louis Arena. The Wolverines lead in the all-time series with a record of 160-132-20.
“Honestly, the games are a lot of fun,” freshman forward Sam Saliba said. “I think everything gets thrown out the window when it’s Michigan State-Michigan. They’re a hard team. They play pretty fast. I think we've just got to play smart and get pucks behind them and instill a forecheck on them.”
After playing the Wolverines in three games this season, MSU currently holds a record of 1-1-1 against U-M, with two of the three games heading to overtime and beyond.
The most recent matchup came on Jan. 21 as the Spartans were defeated at home in a shootout to conclude a two-game home-and-home series, despite the game officially being declared a tie by NCAA standards.
The Spartans head into Friday’s contest coming off a weekend sweep by the then-No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers last weekend. Meanwhile, the Wolverines are coming off a weekend split with No. 12 Ohio State University at home.
Head coach Tom Anastos said for the team to get better, it has to be more efficient defensively.
“We’re giving up too many goals,” Anastos said. “Last time we played Michigan over two games we gave up two goals, which gave us a chance. But we’re just giving up too many goals, so we’ve got to do a better job. Our whole focus this week will be on that side of the puck, and I think oftentimes if you defend well, that creates offensive opportunities whether it’s an odd-man rushes or whatever. But we just haven’t been good enough, and we have to get better.”
Senior forward and team captain Joe Cox added that being able to play a full, focused 60 minutes is a necessity for MSU this weekend.
“I’d say staying focused for a full 60 minutes is crucial for our team, and I would say coming with a fast start,” Cox said. “If we’re coming off slow and start on our heels, I think that's where you see when we start to struggle in our game. I think we need to come out hard, and then we've got to stay with that intensity and focus for the whole game.”
Sophomore forward Mason Appleton continues to be the Spartans’ leader in points with 20 and goals with nine. The Green Bay, Wis. native’s seven power-play goals and 13 points on the man-advantage rank No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in the Big Ten.
U-M freshman forward Jake Slaker enters Friday’s series leading the Wolverines in points with 18 and assists with 13, while junior forward Tony Calderone leads U-M in goals with 10.
The Spartans’ freshmen have been instrumental to this year’s team as of late.
Freshman forward Taro Hirose’s 16 points ranks him second on the team, and freshman forward Patrick Khodorenko is third on the team in points with 13.
Khodorenko carries a season-best three-game point streak going into Friday’s game with three goals and one assist during the span. The 6-foot-0 forward's six goals this season are the second highest on the team.
The Wolverines this season have established a three-man rotation in the goaltender position.
Freshman Hayden Lavigne holds a season record of 5-5 when in net, posting a .915 save percentage along with a goals against average of 2.91.
Freshman Jack LaFontaine is currently posting a record of 1-5-1 this season while registering a .917 save percentage and 3.12 GAA, and senior Zach Nagelvoort currently logs a .917 save percentage and has a season record of 3-3-1.
For the Spartans, the goaltender situation for this weekend isn't certain.
After beginning the season with alternating starts in the first four games, junior goaltender Ed Minney has started 15 of the last 17 games. However, the junior from Wind Gap, Pa. was benched in the first game of the last weekend’s Wisconsin series after the first period for freshman John Lethemon.
In the succeeding game for the Spartans, Lethemon was named the starter and recorded 24 saves in the overtime loss to the Badgers.
Despite power play and penalty kill issues plaguing the team earlier in the season, the special teams unit has managed to improve as the season nears its end.
The Spartans have given up just one power-play goal in the last four games, killing 15 of 16 opposing attempts. During the span of six games, the Spartans have extinguished 21 of 25 opponent power plays, but it still ranks them in the bottom tier of the NCAA at No. 59 for the season.
The Wolverines, however, have the No. 17 power play and its penalty kill is ranked No. 39 in the nation.
The Spartans will face the Wolverines at 7:30 p.m. on Friday before heading to Ann Arbor for the second game of the series at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. Friday’s game can be viewed on Fox Sports Detroit and online at BTN2GO, while Saturday's game can be watched on BTN Plus.