After No. 7 Ohio State swept them last weekend, Michigan State hockey (6-7-1) fell out of the rankings and will look to bounce back this weekend against No. 19 Wisconsin (7-8-1) in a two-game series at Munn Ice Arena. The Big Ten foes will face off Friday and Saturday night, with both games starting at 7 p.m.
There is no doubt that the Spartans have been battle-tested so far this season. Four of the last five teams the green and white have faced have been ranked inside the top 20, with the other opponent being a formidable Michigan team.
“It never ends,” Head Coach Danton Cole said. “... You want to have that fine balance between too much pressure on yourself, but pressure is a good thing.”
Two losses in Columbus last weekend saw MSU drop in the Big Ten standings, now sitting in fourth place with a 4-3-1-0 record. The Badgers have struggled in conference play so far, ranking sixth with a 2-5-1-1 record after splitting a pair of games at home last weekend against Michigan.
Sophomore goaltender Drew DeRidder hasn’t played since he got pulled back on Nov. 2 against Cornell in a 6-2 loss. With the next four games coming at home, Cole might give senior goaltender John Lethemon a rest in favor of DeRidder before a two week break for the holidays. Lethemon has been a driving force in the team's success this season, leading the Big Ten in save percentage (.940), which is also good for fourth in the country among those who have played in at least ten games. He also ranks second in the conference with a 2.02 GAA.
The Badgers present a potent offense, scoring 3.3 goals per game on 31.6 shots per game. However, they will be challenged this weekend, as Michigan State is averaging 2.4 goals against per game in conference play, tied with Ohio State for the lead in the Big Ten. The Spartans also haven’t allowed more than three goals over the last six games, their first time accomplishing that feat since the 2013-14 season.
“Wisconsin presents some real different challenges,” Cole said. “They really attack, they’ve got a ton of skill. Their (defenseman), I still think (are) way underrated. I think people always talk about how much they can score ... it’s a solid group.”
An area that MSU has improved exponentially in over the course of the season is the penalty kill. Ohio State was unable to convert on any of their seven power plays against the Spartans last weekend, and the green and white haven’t allowed a goal while shorthanded in five of the last six games. Their 88% success rate on the penalty kill in Big Ten games is the best in the conference.
Wisconsin has been led by freshman forwards Alex Turcotte and Cole Caufield, both of whom were drafted in last years NHL Entry Draft. Turcotte went 5th overall to the Los Angeles Kings and the Montreal Canadiens selected Caufield with the 15th pick. Caufield leads the team with 18 points on the season as well as 10 goals and eight assists. Shutting down those two players will be a big focus for the Spartans this weekend.
“We better be on top of our game,” Cole said. “Not just physically and mentally, but emotionally.”
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