Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Preview: Michigan State hockey’s final stretch of the season kicks off at home against Notre Dame

February 18, 2022
<p>Jagger Joshua (23) works with Josh Nodler (20) to get the puck down to Notre Dame&#x27;s goal in the second period. The Fighting Irish shut out the Spartans, 2-0, on Feb. 27, 2021.</p>

Jagger Joshua (23) works with Josh Nodler (20) to get the puck down to Notre Dame's goal in the second period. The Fighting Irish shut out the Spartans, 2-0, on Feb. 27, 2021.

Photo by Lauren DeMay | The State News

The end of the season is rapidly approaching for Michigan State. There are just four games left on the schedule — including a series against Notre Dame, where the Spartans hope to revive their season down the stretch.

Michigan State

The Spartans are currently 11-18-1 and in the midst of a ten-game losing streak. Last weekend, the Michigan Wolverines added two losses to MSU’s resume, dominating with a 6-2 win in Ann Arbor and a 7-3 win in Detroit. 

Sophomore defenseman Nash Nienhuis was a rare beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak two-game stretch. Nienhuis was active in all five goals against Michigan, netting two himself and tacking on three assists in the series. Defensemen have been a key part of MSU’s offensive output this season — with Nienhuis’ offensive toolkit growing, the Spartans might have another blue-liner who can chip in on offense.

Senior goaltender Drew DeRidder had an uncharacteristically rough series against the Wolverines, finishing with a sub .800 save percentage in both games. However, he has a great history against Notre Dame. In six career starts against the Fighting Irish, DeRidder has a .958 save percentage and just 1.46 goals against average, or GAA.

In this weekend’s series against Notre Dame, Michigan State’s defensive play will be a deciding factor.

“We’ve gotta lock them down,” freshman forward Tanner Kelly said. “We gotta play the same way we played last time we played them, just bring a lot of energy and stick to our game plan.”

On offense, a return from senior forward Mitchell Lewandowski would do wonders. With Lewandowski in the lineup, Michigan State is 10-4-1. Without him, they are 1-14. Lewandowski was active in Tuesday’s practice, but there is still no timetable for his return.

“We’ve missed Lewie a huge amount. He’s a great player, and he scores goals,” Nienhuis said.

Notre Dame

The Spartans are no strangers to the Fighting Irish. The two faced off in South Bend, Indiana, back in December, with each team notching a win. Both games were decided by just one goal.

“They play similar to us,” Nienhuis said. “They play a hard game. ... It’s always a pretty close battle between us.”

Notre Dame has one of the toughest defenses in the nation, allowing just 2.20 goals per game, first in the Big Ten and eighth in the NCAA. The penalty kill is even better, holding opposing power plays to just a .198 conversion rate. That is the best in both the Big Ten and the nation.

“They close down their lanes real well,” Michigan State Head Coach Danton Cole said. “They’re real structured.”

Like the best of the Big Ten, Notre Dame is a team with impressive depth on offense and defense.

Offensively, the Fighting Irish are led by junior forward Max Ellis and sophomore forward Ryder Rolston. Ellis has been a goal-scoring threat all season as he leads the team with 16 goals through 29 games. However, Rolston has played a more balanced role on offense with 10 goals and 15 points in 28 games.

Senior defenseman Spencer Stastney has been an offensive menace on the blue line for the Fighting Irish. He leads the team in assists with 17 and leads the defensemen in points. Stastney was especially effective in the December series against Michigan State, notching two of Notre Dame’s three goals.

Tournament implications

With the end of the season right around the corner, the series also has series implications on the Big Ten standings. Michigan State is in last place in the conference with 14 points, but Penn State (17 points) and Wisconsin (20 points) are both within reach. The Spartans control their own destiny — if they win their last four, a tie for fifth place would lock in the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten tournament. 

Any sort of hope of an improved tournament seeding hinges on the next two series. 

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Michigan State’s home series against the Fighting Irish kicks off Friday night, with the puck dropping at 7 p.m. The game will be televised on BTN+.  

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