Last spring, Michigan State’s incoming group of freshmen were put in a very strange situation.
Danton Cole, the head coach that recruited them and gained their allegiance, was relieved of his duties, putting everything MSU had at the time in a blender. Some players left while others stayed, spewing out a roster that, on paper, resembled the makes of a beer league team.
Although the Spartans have played just four games (2-2-0), one thing is beginning to stand out: those freshmen.
Michigan State’s leader in goals and points? Freshman forward Daniel Russell.
And who leads the Michigan State defensmen in points? Freshman defenseman Matt Basgall.
The two of them were on hot display Friday night, nearly digging MSU all the way back from its 3-0 hole. It was a different sight compared to many winter nights of year’s past.
The second period of MSU’s 3-2 loss to No. 16 UMass Lowell was a 20-minute stretch eerily familiar to Michigan State hockey. Michigan State trailed 1-0 and began the period facing a five-minute penalty kill following a controversial major penalty committed by sophomore forward Tanner Kelly.
While the Spartans actually killed the elongated penalty with relative ease, they failed to capture any momentum from the kill. Instead, MSU played a sloppy 15 minutes while UMass Lowell kept firing.
A failed exchange between graduate defenseman Christian Krygier and sophomore forward Jesse Tucker in the MSU zone resulted in UMass Lowell’s second goal at 14:32 of the second. Shortly after, freshman forward Tiernan Shoudy committed an undisciplined cross-checking penalty in front of the Michigan State net, and the River Hawks capitalized for a 3-0 lead that sucked some life out of Munn like it has so many times before.
But, new Head Coach Adam Nightingale’s message in the second intermission was well received from the Spartans. Rather than coast through the final period and, for the most part, accept the loss, Michigan State came out with a game plan and executed it to near-perfection.
The Spartans registered a monumental 24 shots on goal in the third period, spending plenty of time in the attacking zone.
“I thought we really got to who we want to be and we want to play fast,” Nightingale said. “We want to play north. We want to play behind them and then I thought we got more competitive.”
Basgall, who wears Mitchell Lewandowski's No. 9, got the Spartans on the board with a whistling shot from just outside the circle that beat UMass Lowell’s goaltender on the high blocker side. It was Basgall’s first goal as a Spartan.
Then, with under three minutes to play and graduate goaltender Dylan St. Cyr pulled, Basgall made an equally impressive play. A loose puck nearly left the River Hawks’ zone, but Basgall made a high-effort play to keep MSU on the attack. He slid it over to junior forward Nico Müller, who played the puck back to Basgall and unleashed a shot that was deflected by Russell and into the net.
“This is a team that I really think we're learning how to win, and number one, you got to believe you can win,” Nightingale said. “You can't play the game wondering if you're gonna lose or worried about losing. You gotta play this game on your toes, and that's when we’ve played our best hockey this year.”
That’s where this team is different. Even though the Spartans came up short after a furious third period push, the effort is there. That couldn’t always be said in the previous regime. Sure, it’s been an extremely small sample size, but the early representation on the scoresheet from Basgall and Russell in particular can’t be downplayed.
“From day one, we came in and it's been hard work from every single freshman,” Basgall said. “Not every freshman is playing right now, but every guy is just putting in the work at practice, getting better every day and it's really showing in the games. We're gaining our confidence, becoming a big role in the team. ... I'm very proud of the guys we have right now.”
This team may not necessarily be as talented on an individual basis as recent teams, but Nightingale is getting the best out of them. Had it been the old days, Michigan State likely would have pouted its way to a 3-0 or 4-1 loss Friday night. But, that wasn’t the case.
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Something about that extra effort from Basgall to keep the puck in the zone, that positioning from Russell to get his stick on his third goal of the season or even the screens set by senior forward Jagger Joshua on both goals point to the attention to detail that, at times, felt like it was glossed over previously.
That’s why this team already feels special, even though it may not always show up in the win column. MSU is taking baby steps, and right now, it starts with the freshmen.
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