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Column: MSU hockey still took step forward despite season coming to abrupt end

March 12, 2020
<p>Michigan State and Notre Dame players argue following a hit at the end of regulation. The Spartans tied with the Fighting Irish, 1-1, at Munn Ice Arena on Nov. 22, 2019. </p>

Michigan State and Notre Dame players argue following a hit at the end of regulation. The Spartans tied with the Fighting Irish, 1-1, at Munn Ice Arena on Nov. 22, 2019.

Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

While the Michigan State hockey season started with cautious optimism and ended with abrupt disappointment, the team still took significant steps forward in coach Danton Cole’s third season at the helm. 

The Spartans finished with a record of 15-19-2 and, at one point, were sitting at the top of the Big Ten standings. Going 2-7-1 in their final 10 games, however, would see them plummet down to sixth place and an early exit in the Big Ten tournament, getting swept at the hands of Michigan.

“We were a goal post away from having home ice (in the Big Ten tournament), which was a goal for us this year,” Cole said. “And a couple posts away from winning the Big Ten title in the regular season. (The players) have elevated it, the relevance of our team has increased dramatically and they should be proud of what they accomplished.”

The team has improved in both total wins and points in the Big Ten since Cole arrived on campus in 2017. Expectations were tempered coming into this season, as the Spartans were coming off a 12-win campaign in 2018-19 and were facing one of the toughest schedules in the country.

As expected, the green and white struggled against some of the NCAA’s best, getting swept by then-ranked No. 4 Cornell in early November and failing to pick up a win at No. 11 Ohio State in early December. But, for every crushing loss, there came a momentum-shifting victory, and the Spartans spent most of the season hovering around .500 and ranked inside the top 20 as a result.

Several players had career years, perhaps no one more so than senior goaltender John Lethemon. His .935 save percentage is the third-best in Spartan history for a single season, only behind current Anaheim Duck Ryan Miller. Lethemon’s 2.13 GAA was the best for a Spartan since Jeff Lerg posted a 1.96 mark back in 2005-06.

The driving force of the MSU offense and defense both signed deals with NHL organizations following the conclusion of the season, and their production won’t be easy to replace. Seniors Jerad Rosburg and Patrick Khodorenko agreed to terms with the Dallas Stars and New York Rangers, respectively, this past week. Rosburg led the country with 86 blocked shots this season, and Khodorenko led the team with 16 goals and 33 points.

As a collective group, MSU did its best work defensively, leading the Big Ten with an .873 penalty kill percentage. The Spartans allowed 54 total goals this season, or 2.25 goals against per game, which was good enough to place them second in the conference.

“You can teach guys defense a heck of a lot easier than you can teach offense,” Cole said. “At the end of the day, we had nine one-goal losses and two ties, so 11 games where we could’ve gotten a little more going. I talked to the guys yesterday and I was saying, ‘Hey, 11 goals.’ If we find 11 more goals in our lineup somewhere ... I’m not having this press conference right now.”

Now it’s time to look forward, and it will be up to Cole to make sure the program doesn’t take two steps back after taking another step forward this season. When he was hired, Cole said he wanted to focus on four main aspects of the program that fell in line with his vision for restoring Michigan State hockey to national prominence.

“The first one is identifying and recruiting elite athletes to play for Spartan hockey,” Cole said. “The second one was sign, train and graduate those student athletes that we feel fit our culture.”

Let’s focus on those two. Cole has credited his current players, specifically his senior class that started out here one year before him, for helping to establish a winning culture. That culture is used as a selling point for prospective recruits, something they get to see first-hand when visiting campus.

“The recruiting had to start with those guys and them reestablishing us as a destination program and a place that young men wanted to go to,” Cole said. “Like coach (Ron) Mason used to say, ‘You go from recruiting to picking players,’ and we’re getting closer and closer to that.”

All of the seniors who have played under Cole in the past three seasons have graduated. Taro Hirose, who left MSU as a junior for the Detroit Red Wings, is on track to graduate soon as well. The final two components to Cole’s vision had to do with generating a buzz around the team and finalizing the renovation to Munn Ice Arena.

“The third thing was make Munn a snake pit again,” Cole said. “Make it a type of place that’s real hard for opponents to come into and a place that players and families want their kids to play at. The fourth thing that ties everything together is, get the renovation plan at Munn moving forward, which had stalled.”

Munn was every bit the snake pit Cole could have hoped for this season, seeing their best average home attendance since 2003-04, drawing in an average of 5,939 per game. The arena sold out six times and the Spartans finished the season with a winning record in conference games at home. As for the renovation of Munn, the budget was just recently increased and is on track to be completed in December 2020.

Next season is going to be a critical one for Cole and his players, and right now it feels as if there are more questions than answers regarding who is going to play where and how the new guys will fit in. But one thing is for sure, the upward trajectory of the program as a whole is inevitable, and doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon.

“The buzz around the program has been incredible,” Cole said. “When you go around, you talk around town ... you’re in rinks recruiting around the country, you’re talking to NHL scouts that are in our building a lot, NHL GM’s that have been calling ... you get the feeling that people understand the positivity, that things are moving forward and what our guys are accomplishing. People are taking notice.”

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