Wednesday, August 5, 2020

COLUMN: Spartan hockey on the cusp of revival as a Big Ten contender

February 14, 2019
The Spartans celebrate a goal during the Duel in the D at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Feb. 9, 2019. Michigan defeated Michigan State 5-2. Nic Antaya/The State News
The Spartans celebrate a goal during the Duel in the D at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Feb. 9, 2019. Michigan defeated Michigan State 5-2. Nic Antaya/The State News —
Photo by Nic Antaya | The State News

Michigan State hockey (10-15-5, 6-10-4 Big Ten) is having ceded each of its last two games in the midst of a 0-2-1 stretch, still stands in relatively uncharted territory at this point in the season.

The Spartans, totaling just seven wins overall in the year preceding the start of Danton Cole’s tenure, went on to improve to 13-20-2 in 2017-18. 

The up-trending Spartan program failed to capitalize on a prime opportunity to assert their reemergence in the conference, however, posting consecutive lackluster performances against their rival Wolverines last weekend.

“Until this weekend we've been having some pretty good first periods. The game is 60 minutes and I think the urgency - it needs to be there,” MSU coach Danton Cole said. “And the things that we've mentioned to our guys is that we need to have that right from the get-go. We don't have that margin of error that we can feel our way through a game for 20 or 30 minutes. We've got to be on and pushing and aggressive from the opening drop.”

The lack of urgency alluded to in the pair of slow starts against Michigan effectively eliminated the Spartans’ chances to move into a tie for 2nd place in the Big Ten standings, despite the respective 3-5 and 2-5 score lines suggesting two close games.

Still sitting at six wins in Big Ten play, MSU now finds itself back at the bottom half of a tight conference race, as six points separates them with 2nd place Michigan. 

But the fact of the matter remains that, until the Spartans consistently perform in decisive matchups like those last weekend, the program will continue to finish just short of the Big Ten’s coveted top half. 

“I think so far, this season hasn't been a success in our minds, but we've been playing some good hockey lately,” junior forward Taro Hirose said. “Every night in the Big Ten anybody can win. Right now, from second to seventh everyone's a couple points away. The competition right now is pretty high. Going into every weekend, just picking up points is huge for us.”

The back-to-back losses recalled the margin that continues to separate MSU from their rivals, whose current 2nd place standing more importantly represents the conference’s top contenders. Despite the disappointing performances in the all-important rivalry games, it is important to look at both sides of the proverbial coin that has been the team this season. 

The Spartans still have an opportunity, albeit a diminished one, to claw into 4th place or better and claim home ice in the conference tournament, as four regular season games remain on the schedule.

“Looking back on my freshman year, we won seven games. So to be going into a weekend like that in February, it just speaks to where we've been in the past and where we've gotten to now,” sophomore forward and captain Sam Saliba said as he put the Spartans’ status in perspective. “It also reminds us that we're not there yet. You just come in and you stay with it and you get back at it and you just keep getting better.”

As puck drop is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, the Spartans, having split with the Nittany Lions at University Park earlier this year, will look to complete a sweep, as points will be hard to come by in the final weekend in Columbus against a Buckeye team that has been nothing short of dominant this season.

But just as it may seem that MSU has lost the momentum that propelled them into the top half of the standings not three weeks ago, this team has responded and re-channeled their explosive nature when they’ve needed it most this season.

“We still have a chance to do some really good things. If you look at a where were picked at the beginning of the year and where people thought would be right now, we wouldn't be in this conversation or have a chance to still host the first round of the playoffs,” Cole said. “So, we've put ourselves in a good position and let's play some good hockey the rest of the way out.”

Only time will tell if they able to resurge once again.

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