Michigan State hockey goaltender John Lethemon has been one of the most dependable players at his position across the entire country this season. As the No. 20 Spartans sit at 11-10-1 and are hovering right around the conversation for an NCAA tournament bid, Lethemon has given his team a chance to win every game he has played in, fully embracing his role as MSU’s starter.
“In terms of improvement, from the spring and the summer that he had and how he looked early on, I think we knew his numbers were going to be better this year,” coach Danton Cole said. “It’s definitely a pleasant surprise to the level that he’s playing at, (with his) confidence and (the way) he’s seeing the puck. ... It’s not a fluke, he’s doing this every weekend.”
Lethemon is currently sporting a 1.96 GAA, good for 10th-best in the nation and third in the Big Ten. His four shutouts place him at the top of the conference and tied for second nationally. In four of his last five games, he has allowed two or fewer goals and his .939 save percentage ranks him fourth in the country.
Able to train with no restrictions over the summer, Lethemon has never been healthier. His work ethic on and off the ice has kept him in the proper shape to carry the workload required of a goaltender stopping pucks for a contending team.
“Every summer you try and do the right things,” Lethemon said. “This past summer was the first summer in a couple years that I’ve been healthy for the entire thing, so I felt like I (was able) to get a lot stronger, and I think that’s helped me a lot on the ice.”
Last season, Lethemon appeared in 20 games for the Spartans, splitting time with sophomore Drew DeRidder, who appeared in 17 games. Back on Nov. 2, DeRidder got the start against then-ranked No. 4 Cornell. After allowing four goals on 13 shots, he was pulled in favor of Lethemon, who has played in every game since. The increased workload is something Lethemon was prepared for, relishing every opportunity he gets.
“It’s what you want as a goalie,” Lethemon said. “To be able to know that I’ve got the job right now and get to run with it, it gives me a little bit more confidence. It doesn’t change my mentality because things can change so quick, so every single day you have to come to the rink and earn it. You’re only as good as your last game, you're only as good as your last practice, so that’s the mentality that I have to have all year no matter what success I have.”
So what does Lethemon attribute his success to this season? To find that answer, just watch a Michigan State hockey game this year. You can sense a full buy-in from the players into the culture that Cole continues to lay the foundation of day-by-day. Everyone does their part, playing to their strengths and deferring to their teammates to make up for their weaknesses.
“My teammates and the entire coaching staff have been phenomenal,” Lethemon said. “When you’re surrounded by such good people, you’re determined to work hard and do the best that you can for them. ... Guys are out there really defending hard in front of me, blocking shots and if I can make a timely save for them to keep the game going and keep us in it, then that’s great.”
Staying calm on game days is a common theme for Lethemon. With most of the Spartan’s games coming against quality opponents, there have been plenty of high-level goal scorers that present a different challenge every night. Countless times this season, a big save from Lethemon has been just what the team needed to help swing momentum in MSU’s favor.
Now, as the second half of the season gets underway, Lethemon will be relied on more than ever. At this point last season, making a run at the NCAA tournament was a far-fetched idea and unrealistic. A year later, the Spartans have everything they hope to achieve in front of them, with Lethemon playing at an extremely high level.
“Every game is like a playoff game for us,” Lethemon said. “It’s do or die for us, and that’s just the mentality that we have to have and it can’t be any different. We have to be a desperate team every night. We have to be doing the right things during the week, preparing the right way.”
As the Spartans continue conference play, Lethemon stressed how important it will be to focus on their game and what they can control rather than scoreboard watch, and pay attention to the rest of the league.
“We have so much opportunity this year,” Lethemon said. “It’s just about us continuing to work hard, staying focused and going out there and taking it.”