There was a noticeable difference in the sentiment in the Spartan hockey locker room Jan. 20.
Completing a sweep for the first time since Oct. 27, the Spartans took two games against second-place Minnesota, another rare feat that hadn’t been accomplished since 1976.
The attitude among the men behind the effort was of course a satisfied one, but the second win of the weekend signified more than a jump in the conference standings for coach Danton Cole’s group.
Rather, the players exuded an assurance that the program has lacked in recent years.
“You learn to win and you learn to have a little bit of a swagger. So even when you don't, it's that expectation to win,” Cole said postgame on Sunday. “We're certainly not there but, it's better than it was and that's a cultural thing.”
That “swagger” and cultural change in the locker room at Munn is in part due to the Spartans’ most outstanding player through this point in the season.
Taro Hirose, averaging 1.67 points per game and sitting atop the nation’s scoring leaders, has been the catalyst behind MSU’s mid-season surge.
“I think for me and my line, now, things are going pretty well so I think it's pretty easy,” Hirose said. “It's a lot easier when things are going well to speak up and help the team have that swagger. I think if we keep playing like we're going to keep playing then it just helps the team build confidence and that swagger.”
While Hirose embodies MSU’s newfound swagger on the ice, quietly and confidently snapping perfect passes to teammates, you wouldn’t know it by talking to him, as he is always quick to give his teammates credit over himself.
When talking about his status as the nation’s point-leader, he addressed it with his usual modesty.
“It's sort of cool, but I'm definitely more worried about how the team's doing and making sure we're making progress every weekend,” Hirose said.
One of the left wing’s main concerns coming into last season was his adjustment to playing without and filling the shoes of the team’s point leader Mason Appleton. Unsurprisingly, he pointed to a collective effort in stepping up to fill the void left by Appleton’s departure.
“It's been not just me, but a lot of guys stepping into that (role). My line especially, I think we're trying to be one of the best lines in the country, obviously, and as good as we can be to help the team win,” Hirose said. “I think if we play as good as we can, we're going to give the team a chance to win every night and that's what we want to do.”
Simply put, Hirose is a leader by example, a trait that a team captain would consider invaluable.
“He's a big leader in our room and it's not always necessarily saying something, but just going about things in the right way and his business-like approach,” junior captain Sam Saliba said. “That's an emphasis that we wanted to change this year. Coming to the rink every day, this is what we're doing every day. This is our job. This is a business type mentality, and he's done an excellent job for us in that category.”
But as of late, as Hirose himself acknowledged his intention to be more aggressive in shooting the puck, and as the casual fan has started to take notice, the quiet confidence through which Hirose carries himself is something Cole and the team rallies around.
“We talked over the summer about some different goals, and that was one thing that he wanted to add to his game. He wanted to drive the net more and you saw that the other night,” Cole said. “A big part of that is that you have to do the work in the weight room and you have to be a little more durable and stronger, and he did a great job over the spring and the summer.”
In short, Danton Cole described the forward’s presence as the team’s reserved but assured leader.
“For me, he's a quiet guy, but he's very assertive.”
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