The month of January did not go as planned for Michigan State.
The Spartans went winless through the month’s three Big Ten series while being outscored 25 to 11. Four of the losses came on home ice and the two others came to Wisconsin — who at the time was below MSU in the conference standings.
All six were regulation losses and in just three weeks Michigan State slid from 5th place in the Big Ten to last place. All that while playing without two of the team’s top-six forwards, fifth-year forward Mitchell Lewandowski and junior forward Griffin Loughran, who have yet to play in the New Year.
However, an odd mentality for Michigan State stems from its most recent performance. It was the team’s sixth straight loss, a 3-2 decision versus Ohio State Saturday night, but the mood from the team was completely different from the previous night. The Spartans played well, enough so to win. In fact, they outplayed the Buckeyes for nearly the entire 60 minutes.
But at the end of the day, Ohio State walked away with the game’s points and Michigan State did not. Still, there are plenty of positives from Saturday that have got MSU hockey heading into an idle week with the momentum they have not felt since the Great Lakes Invitational at the end of December.
“Power play is settling in a little bit with the absence of (Loughran) and (Mitchell Lewandowski),” Michigan State Head Coach Danton Cole said. “That’s one key guy off both power plays. They seem to have settled in. I think the lines did a little bit in the ice times. There’s a little bit of newness there, but as a staff, I think we were impressed with the level of effort, the level of compete and the speed at which we did things.”
Now faced with an off-week ahead of the final month of the regular season, a unique opportunity is available for Michigan State. Instead of the usual routine of focusing attention on the upcoming opponent, MSU can take the extra time to focus on itself. As junior forward Josh Nodler described, it presents the chance for the Spartans to regroup before the next four games away from East Lansing.
“I think you can kind of take the week as a kind of a get your peace of mind together and kind of reset,” Nodler said on Tuesday. “Obviously just watch some video and kind of get our basics back together and just take a little week to get our school work ready, get our fundamentals down and then we'll be ready for Minnesota.”
Nodler has been on the scoresheet just once since Nov. 19, but he and his “Detroit line” consisting of junior winger Jagger Joshua and freshman winger Tanner Kelly were one of the big bright spots of the weekend. Kelly scored his second and third career goals over the weekend, giving the Spartans a glimmer of hope from a singular player or line stepping up in desperate times as long as Lewandowski and Loughran remain out of the lineup.
“That’s obviously huge for his confidence scoring in both games like that in the weekend and he has progressed a lot,” Nodler said. “Tanner’s a really good player. He’s super smart and he works his butt off out there each and every shift. It’s cool to play on a line with him and Jagger and I think we have been playing pretty well so far.”
Playing with confidence has been a fluid struggle for Michigan State. At its high point, Michigan State has played sound end-to-end hockey, resulting in quality wins versus Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan Tech and a tie on the road at UMass Lowell. At its low point, goal-scoring and defensive play have dipped and that is where the losses have stacked on top of each other.
“You have to have an aggressive intolerance for anything that isn’t up to the standards,” Cole said. “There’s a couple of things we could have done better on Saturday and just coverages on their goals. All three of them had issues that if we run our D-zone the right way, if we run our recoveries the right way, that they can’t get those shots off.”
The last month of the 2020-21 season produced a similar six-game losing drought that resulted in MSU stumbling into the single-elimination Big Ten Tournament. The Spartan offense was the easy aspect to blame with a three-game scoreless streak and just two Michigan State goals in the final five games.
The hope is that Saturday’s performance can be that source of confidence that the whole team can grasp. With just two points separating fifth place from last place and a lot of hockey to be played, there is still time to turn things around, unlike last season.
“That should give you confidence,” Cole said. “Good athletes figure out ways to get confidence in situations like this and coaches help the guys do that.”
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