Hockey season is finally kicking off in East Lansing, as the Michigan State Spartans host the Air Force Falcons in a two-game series on Friday and Saturday.
Neither team fared well in their 2020-21 campaigns. The Spartans' 7-18-2 record landed them in a familiar position at the bottom of Big Ten standings. Subsequently, they were bounced out in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, failing to pull off an upset in overtime against Minnesota, who were the eventual tournament champs.
Air Force finished second-to-last in the Atlantic with a record of 3-10-1. The Falcons also faced a first-round exit in their tournament, as they lost 7-3 against Bently.
Both teams head into the opening series with an exhibition game under their belt. The Falcons traveled to Colorado College, securing a 2-1 victory, thanks in large part to senior goaltender Alex Schilling’s .966 save percentage. He gave up just one goal on 29 shots.
The Spartans traveled to Plymouth to face off against the U.S. Under 18 development team. Despite outshooting their opponent, 26-24, Michigan State was shut out in a 3-0 loss.
Senior Drew DeRidder started in net for Michigan State. He gave up three goals on 15 attempted shots. Sophomore Pierce Charleson took over for DeRidder in the second period and stopped all nine shots he faced. Michigan State Head Coach Danton Cole has yet to announce which goaltender will start Friday night.
Spartans face a prolific scoring team in the Falcons, who traditionally have multiple high-flying forwards to keep in check.
“One thing about the military academies is that they're gonna come out, they’re gonna be disciplined, they're gonna work hard and they’re gonna throw a lot at you,” Cole said.
Considering last year’s penalty kill performance, discipline is going to be extremely important for Air Force. The Falcons finished with the third-worst penalty kill percentage in the NCAA last season, managing to fend off only approximately 71 percent of opposing power play opportunities.
Discipline might not be a problem for Air Force, but with just two seniors on the roster, experience could be. However, the team’s two highest-scoring forwards, junior Willie Reim’s and sophomore Will Gavin, are returning. The Falcons also keep their highest-scoring defenseman, junior Brandon Koch.
Schilling is coming off of a season where he finished with a .851 save percentage in ten starts. Last season was a statistical slump from his 2019-20 campaign, where he finished with a .903 save percentage through five games. This season, a return to form for Schilling is key for the Falcons, considering that the other three goaltenders on the roster have 0 combined starts.
Michigan State has the advantage of starting the regular season at home, as the traveling Air Force will play in a "hostile" fan-filled environment for the first time in quite a while.
“I think, for sure, it'll be huge for us, especially if we get a nice crowd and have the place packed. It gives us that extra energy,” senior defenseman Dennis Cesana said.
The puck drop is set to drop at 7 p.m. at Munn Ice Arena, and the game will be televised on the Big Ten Network Plus.
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