Last week was a big opportunity for Michigan State hockey to set the tone on the final month and a half of the season.
Hitting the road to face a Wisconsin team that has regressed since last year’s Big Ten Regular Season Championship and sat just beneath them in the standings, a win or two could have firmly established the Spartans in the middle tier of the conference and away from the way too familiar Big Ten cellar. Instead, Michigan State got swept by the Badgers, did not pick up a single point and got leapfrogged in the standings.
The problem is the Big Ten schedule only gets more difficult. MSU’s next four opponents are all top-four teams in the conference. Four games are at home, three on the road and one at a neutral site at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. Next on the docket is No. 15 Ohio State in East Lansing on Friday and Saturday night.
It has been nearly three months since the Buckeyes and Spartans met in Columbus, a split series to start Big Ten play. The Spartans took the first victory with a 2-1 decision, but Ohio State dominated Saturday night with a 5-1 win.
Since then, Ohio State has continued to play a high level of hockey just one year after finishing tied for fifth in the Big Ten and five points ahead of Michigan State. OSU (16-7-1) has yet to be swept this season including singular wins over Minnesota, Michigan and Notre Dame and a sweep versus Penn State.
The addition of freshman forward Georgii Merkulov to the already talented Buckeye roster has done wonders for the OSU offense. Merkulov’s 12 goals and 12 assists have propelled Ohio State to the sixth most goals scored in the country at 87, which is good for second in the Big Ten. Freshman goaltender Jakub Dobes has also been lights out between the pipes with a 2.12 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
“They are a well coached team and they stick to what they are doing,” Michigan State Head Coach Danton Cole said. “They don’t get away from it too much and they’ve been that way since the first weekend of the year.”
Junior forward Josh Nodler was the offensive star for Michigan State the last time the two foes met, scoring two of MSU’s three weekend goals and assisting on the other. Since the end of November, Nodler has been extremely quiet on the scoresheet with just one goal and zero assists in the last two months.
Cole has taken notice, shuffling Nodler up, down, left and right in the lineup. Last weekend, he was kicked out to right-wing on the second line with fellow juniors Jagger Joshua and Nicolas Müller. The weekend before he was dropped from the top of the lineup all the way to the fourth-line center.
“All of his characteristics are, ‘Hey if you wanna marry my daughter, I want that young man to have all those characteristics,’” Cole said before the Wisconsin series. “But, you gotta sometimes be a little bit of a gunslinger and have that real short memory as a big time player. He’ll get through it. I’ve been through this with other guys and he works so hard and cares so much that it’ll come around.”
Staying out of the penalty box has been a problem for MSU during the losing streak and it is paying dividends on the scoreboard. Over the past four games, the Spartans have committed 23 penalties, but the timing of them have been the killer.
Last week, Wisconsin scored four power-play goals, all of which came in the third period. The week before, Minnesota scored just one power-play goal, but 11 penalties across two games kept MSU at an uphill battle all weekend.
“It ruins the flow of the game,” Cole said. “You rely on not enough guys over a short period of time in order to have that energy and that jump. And sometimes you lose energy from not playing. Again, you can’t kill off 14 to 16 minutes of a game. That’s a period of a game and it’s just not a productive way to win a hockey game.”
Despite the slip in the standings, the team agrees that a new sense of urgency is not needed. Rather, a more consistent 60-minute urgency and effort is needed from whistle to whistle. It has bitten Michigan State offensively as the team continues to limp without fifth-year forward Mitchell Lewandowski.
“It shouldn’t matter who you are playing if you are playing the best team in the country or the worst team in the country,” Cole said. “What you want to see out of really good hockey teams is that consistency of that urgency. But after a couple weekends like that, I certainly hope that we have their attention.”
Puck drop is at 7 p.m. Friday night and 6 p.m. Saturday night. Both games will be broadcasted on BTN+.
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