Another weekend is another opportunity and for MSU Hockey comes another chance to put its losing skid to an end that now stands at eight games.
Standing in the Spartans' way this weekend is the school down the road, No. 4 Michigan, a two-game series that will be played in Ann Arbor Friday night and at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit for the “Duel in the D“ Saturday night.
Last weekend, Michigan State had a crack at a shorthanded Minnesota, playing without three Olympic players and goaltender Jack LaFontaine, who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes days after the two teams clashed in East Lansing earlier in the year.
MSU held a 2-0 lead for the first 30 minutes Friday night on goals from senior defenseman Christian Krygier and sophomore forward Jeremy Davidson, only to see the Gophers storm back for a 4-2 victory. Saturday night was competitive as it was a 1-1 contest with 10 minutes remaining until Minnesota scored two quick goals to take a 3-1 victory.
If you ask around the team, the overall belief is that positive strides were made. The weekend certainly wasn’t as lopsided as their first meetings in January with both contests hanging in the balance late. But again, for the eighth time in a row and 16th time this season, MSU ended up on the wrong side.
“That’s from the third period on Saturday night against a really good team on a big sheet there we did some decent stuff,” Michigan State Head Coach Danton Cole said. “We weren’t horrible over the weekend. We had moments where we weren’t great but for the most part played two solid games. That’s a hard place for teams to win there, not just us.”
Additionally, good news came out of Cole’s Monday presser that fifth-year forward Mitchell Lewandowski returned to the ice this week. He’s not expected to play this weekend, but an eight-game absence in 2022 has coincided with MSU’s losing streak. Despite playing in just 15 games this season, Lewandowski is still tied for second on the team in points.
Still with Lewandowski and junior forward Griffin Loughran out, the mentality remains the same. Moral victories aren’t good enough.
“I checked the standings today,” Cole said. “There’s no columns for trying hard. We don’t want try-hards.”
Scouting the opponent
Michigan (21-7-1) has steadily picked up conference wins to slot at second place in the Big Ten, sitting three points behind Ohio State with two games in hand.
Michigan had the last weekend off but defeated the Under-18 U.S. National Development Team in an exhibition match on Wednesday night. The Wolverines have earned points in six consecutive Big Ten competitions with sweeps over Penn State and Wisconsin and a split at Minnesota that included an overtime loss.
Similar to last week’s Gophers, Michigan will be without four of its top players due to the Winter Olympics: sophomore forwards Matty Beniers and Brendan Brisson representing the United States, and sophomore forward Kent Johnson and sophomore defensemen Owen Power representing Canada. Those four skaters top the Wolverines in points with Beniers leading the team at 36, followed by Brisson (32), Johnson (30) and Power (26).
However, Michigan is still loaded with talent that presents a terrifying threat. Sophomore forward Thomas Bordeleau and freshman defenseman Luke Hughes have 24 and 23 points respectively and the Wolverines have three other players with at least 17 points. Power, Johnson, Beniers, and Hughes were all selected in the top five of the 2021 NHL Draft. For comparison, Michigan State’s leader in points, freshman forward Jesse Tucker, has 19 points.
Minnesota appeared to be just fine without its three Olympic players, and MSU feels this weekend will be no different.
“I think they’ll play the way they play,” Cole said. “You might tweak a couple things, but really it’s the guys within the system that tend to make a big difference. I wouldn’t anticipate much of a different look from them. Maybe personnel but not stylistically.”
Michigan has MSU beat in nearly every single major team statistic except for blocks per game, likely a repercussion of the absurd amount of shots surrendered by the Spartans. Sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo has been solid in net posting a 2.20 GAA and .926 save percentage, good for 11th best in the country.
“I think this rivalry is one of the reasons I came here,” junior forward Jagger Joshua said. “Growing up watching it and every game it seems like everything means a little bit more and I am definitely excited. I like to play physical and that’ll definitely be something I look forward to bringing to the series for sure.”
The puck drops at 7:30 p.m. Friday night and 7 p.m. Saturday night. Friday’s game will be televised on BTN+ and Saturday’s will be televised on Bally Sports Detroit.
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