November 13-14, 2009.
That was the last time the Michigan State hockey team swept the University of Michigan. Fast forward ten years later, almost to the date, and they would do it again. There’s a different feel with this year's team, a cohesive group that truly feels they can compete with anyone in the country. And the results are starting to turn in the Spartans' favor.
After getting swept by No. 4 Cornell earlier this month, this team knew they were close. The effort was there, but bad breaks combined with numerous trips to the penalty box hindered the green and white’s opportunities to win. The following week, they would travel to Happy Valley and split with No. 6 Penn State, giving them much-needed confidence heading into the home-and-home series with their in-state rival.
Most recently, after sweeping the Wolverines, No. 3 Notre Dame entered East Lansing, posting another top-five matchup at home for the Spartans.
The weekend was a gut check, and MSU went 1-0-1 against the Fighting Irish, taking them to overtime on Friday night and rallying late to beat them on Saturday. The month of November has proven how far this team has come in Head Coach Danton Cole’s third season, not backing down from a tough schedule and playing the full 60 minutes every game.
“I love this bunch of guys,” Cole said. “Probably every team I’ve had I get to that point, but I see everything they do, all the work they put in, the sacrifices they make, and how hard they all want it and how much they want it for the university. They do a ton, they get along great, and they’re changing things here.”
Cole has been stressing all season how vital it is to have a player-led team and has sung the praise of his captains and seniors in guiding the team through the grind of the season. Coaches don’t skate with the team during the summer, and Cole liked how the players efficiently planned practices and took ownership of getting themselves prepared. The leadership has transitioned into the regular season, and the players have bought into the culture Cole is trying to implement.
“The culture, it’s not like ‘OK, we achieved that, now let’s move on to the other thing,’” Cole said. “That’s everyday. That’s how we live our lives, that’s how coaches show up to the rink. If you see it straining just a bit, then that’s when we have to jump in. Even better, if it strays a little bit and the older guys step in and correct the ship.”
Senior captain Sam Saliba has played in 119 games for the green and white in his collegiate career, and is coming off of a big weekend against Notre Dame, scoring two goals in the 3-2 win, including the game-winning goal with 1:10 remaining in the game. The culture of the team isn’t something that was put in place overnight, and Saliba has been an integral part of helping to build it over the course of his tenure.
“It kind of started two years ago,” Saliba said. “Like anything it takes time. Now with a lot of older guys that we have, it’s kind of just an expectation, and that expectation is winning. It really helps when you have 16-17 guys that have been here now for two-plus years with the new staff. It’s really just about passing that down to the new incoming guys and then eventually you have a culture of excellence.”
Looking ahead to a road series against No. 11 Ohio State next weekend, there is no question that Michigan State is battle tested. They have set the bar high for themselves and have generated momentum heading into the second half of the season.
“The expectations are very high,” Saliba said. “This is where we want to get our program back to be, competing for Big Ten championships and in the hunt. We think we can go into every game and we expect to win, so that’s the mindset.”
Regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, things are undoubtedly looking up for the Michigan State hockey program. With a solid initial recruiting class officially signed for next season and renovations to Munn Ice Arena in the works, there is a lot to look forward to. But for now, let’s witness what the current team is doing and watch to see just how far they can go this season.
“It’s fun at Munn,” Cole said. “It’s been a blast, the atmosphere of students has been outstanding ... they show up back-to-back nights and they’re outstanding. There’s a good buzz around here and I think the guys feed off that.”