The No. 18 Michigan State hockey team (9-8-1) doesn’t play again until Dec. 30, so now seems like a good time to take a step back and assess how the team has fared halfway through the season.
12 of the Spartans' 18 games this season have come against ranked opponents, good for the eighth-toughest schedule in the country. They’ve had some success against the nation’s best, sweeping Wisconsin at home and splitting games with Arizona State, Notre Dame and Penn State. However, they were unable to pick up a win in series against two teams currently ranked in the top six, Cornell and Ohio State.
If the green and white want to make a meaningful run in this years NCAA tournament, and they’ve showed at times they’re capable of doing so, they’re going to have to prove they can skate with teams as talented as the Big Red and the Buckeyes. They will get another shot at Ohio State at Munn Ice Arena in late February, while also playing the Badgers, Nittany Lions, and Fighting Irish again in the coming months.
“I think the guys are squeezing everything they can out of their abilities,” coach Danton Cole said. “They’re giving us what they got, they practice real well. It’s a great (locker) room, there’s a lot of love in the room. We can’t ask much more out of them.”
There have been few goaltenders across the NCAA this season better than senior John Lethemon. After replacing sophomore Drew DeRidder in net during MSU’s 6-2 loss to Cornell back on Nov. 2, Lethemon has played in every game since for the Spartans. He currently leads the Big Ten with a 1.79 GAA and a .949 save percentage. Add 4 shutouts on top of that and Michigan State can go into any game knowing their opponent will have to earn every goal they get, if any, on that given night.
“He’s been unbelievable,” junior forward Mitchell Lewandowski said regarding Lethemon. “He’s been an absolute rock back there. (DeRidder) too, in practice he’s awesome. Either guy can be in net and you just have a lot of confidence in them.”
Needless to say, the Spartan’s goaltending situation is as good as it’s ever been and will be a strength of the team come playoff time.
The top line so far this season has been a trio consisting of senior Patrick Khodorenko centering Lewandowski and a rotation of several different forwards at the right wing spot. Khodorenko leads the team with 17 points (9g, 8a), and Lewandowski checks in not far behind with 13 points (6g, 7a). MSU has relied on their top two forwards for timely scoring, and they haven’t disappointed.
In the Spartan’s win against Wisconsin Dec. 7, the Badgers had tied things up late in the third period to send the game to overtime. The team had beaten the Badgers 3-0 the night before, and was running out of gas as extra time was put on the clock in game two. Halfway through overtime, Khodorenko sealed the deal, scoring to give Michigan State the elusive series sweep.
In the green and white’s most recent game, Lewandowski would prove to be the hero. As the team looked to split a weekend series against Arizona State Dec. 15, no one from either team could find the net after 60 minutes of play. It was a defensive battle, with both teams eager to get some time off for the holidays. Lewandowski sent the Spartans into Christmas on a high note, sending a backhanded shot past the ASU goaltender to secure a 1-0 win over the Sun Devils.
Coming into the series against Arizona State, MSU hadn’t allowed a power play goal in seven of their last eight games. Wisconsin had seven man-advantage opportunities against the green and white back in early December, and were unable to capitalize on any of them. Michigan State currently leads the Big Ten with a .906 penalty kill percentage.
As successful as they have been killing penalties, staying out of the box will be an area of focus moving forward. Sophomore defenseman Christian Krygier currently leads the team with 15 penalties.
Never out of it
One of the best qualities of this year’s team is their resiliency and finding different ways to win games. Getting off to better starts and not having to rely on coming back from behind will certainly help them moving forward, but their success in the second and third periods of games so far can’t go overlooked. Before the series against Arizona State, the Spartans were outscoring their opponents at a 23-15 clip in the second and third periods over their last ten games.
It has definitely been a rollercoaster first part of the season for the green and white, and the second half of the season should prove to be no different. If this team can find a way to put it all together, there isn’t anyone in the country they can’t compete with and will be a force to be reckoned with come playoff time.
“We’d love to be 18-0 right now like everybody else (would),” Cole said. “But you know what, we’ve done a lot of good things. I think the best thing about (this team) is they’re pretty grounded and they understand how hard we have to work to win games.”