Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Now ranked No. 20, Michigan State hockey faces new challenge against No. 11 Ohio State

November 29, 2019
Junior left wing Brennan Sanford (13) handles the puck during the first period of the men's hockey game against Ohio State on Jan. 5, 2018 at the Munn Ice Arena. (Nic Antaya | The State News)
Junior left wing Brennan Sanford (13) handles the puck during the first period of the men's hockey game against Ohio State on Jan. 5, 2018 at the Munn Ice Arena. (Nic Antaya | The State News) —

Spartan hockey will hit the road this weekend for a post-Thanksgiving clash with No. 11 Ohio State (7-4-1). Michigan State (6-5-1) entered the polls this week for the first time since 2012 and are now ranked No. 20 in the nation. Game one of the two-game series is set for 5 p.m. on Saturday, with the second game at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.

After a successful weekend against No. 5 Notre Dame, the green and white will look to keep things rolling against a Buckeye team that sits four points behind them in the Big Ten. 

“The most difficult part of playing against Ohio State the last few years has been Ohio State,” Head Coach Danton Cole said. “They’re a really good hockey team ... they put a lot of pressure on you and they score a decent amount of goals.”

The Spartans are 4-1-1 in their last six games and senior goaltender John Lethemon has started every one of them, putting up a .939 save percentage and 1.81 GAA (including two shutouts) over that time frame.

Lethemon's counterpart across the ice this weekend has been one of the best in the league for the past couple of years, and the story is no different this season. Reigning Big Ten Goaltender of the Year Tommy Nappier has been a fixture between the pipes for the Buckeyes, posting a 2.13 GAA to go along with a .926 save percentage.

A deciding factor in the outcomes of the games this weekend could be the penalty kills of both teams and how well they can contain the opponent’s man-advantage. MSU is converting on 28.6% (10-for-35) of their power plays this season, which is good for fifth-best in the nation.

The production has been well spread out, as sophomore defenseman Dennis Cesana, junior wing Mitch Lewandowski, and senior center Patrick Khodorenko all have a pair of power play goals, tied for best on the team. Ohio State isn’t far behind, ranked sixth nationally with a power play conversion rate of 28.1%.

Michigan State leads the all-time series against the scarlet and gray 91-45-13, and went 1-2-1-1 against them last season. In their past six games, the Buckeyes have swept Michigan at home, ceded two games on the road against No. 5 Notre Dame and, most recently, split on the road with No. 7 Penn State.

Now that Michigan State is starting to get more respect nationally, they will continue to focus on what got them to this point, the contributions from a majority of the players on the roster. This team hasn’t had to lean on one or two guys for offensive production, where as that might’ve been the case in the past. Cole stressed how critical it is that the the three freshman on the team continue to progress and take small things away from each game to build on.

“What you want to get across to your guys is that you need to play a certain way for 60 minutes,” Cole said. “You can’t get away from that and sometimes if one line thinks they have to do it, then it just puts a lot of pressure on that one line. I think our three freshman, we’ve been able to bring them along. And you’re starting to see Josh Nodler start to get on the scoreboard a little more regularly ... (Jagger Joshua) brings a certain swagger and physical presence to us ... Nico Muller is a fantastic hockey player ... he’s a smart player, he's easy to play with.”

Big Ten Honors for 3 Seniors

For the past three weeks, the Big Ten First Star of the Week has been represented by a Michigan State hockey player. Patrick Khodorenko (Nov. 12), John Lethemon (Nov. 19), and Sam Saliba (Nov. 26) have all collected recognition after helping guide the green and white through a dominant November.

“That’s kind of a hard thing to do,” Cole said. “Best thing about it for me is that it’s 3 different players.”

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