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COLUMN: Halfway through the season, Michigan series marks a validation point for MSU hockey

December 12, 2022

Before Friday, the last time Michigan State hockey defeated Michigan was on Jan. 9, 2021.

With new head coaches behind both benches, the No. 12 Spartans and No. 6 Wolverines put on a show for the sold-out crowd at the recently renovated Munn Ice Arena. 

Forward TJ Hughes struck first to put Michigan up 1-0, but MSU answered with a goal of its own from fifth-year defenseman Cole Krygier before the end of period one.

Tied 1-1 heading into the second period, the Spartans were itching to steal the lead back from their archrival. 

Freshman forward Tiernan Shoudy granted MSU’s wish with what would be the game-winning goal. Shoudy slid the puck into the lower right corner of the net as Michigan goaltender Erik Portillo dove to block the shot but failed.

“It’s a dream come true, I don’t know how many nights I’ve sat up thinking about that,” Shoudy said of scoring Friday’s game-winner. “I just couldn’t miss that one, and then everything went black from there. I don’t remember what happened.”

Trailing 2-1 in the second and third period, the Wolverines kept clawing, producing a few close calls, including two back-to-back shots in the last 14 seconds of period two, but graduate goaltender Dylan St. Cyr’s perfect performance in the last two-thirds of the game prevented the tie.

The Spartans successfully broke the Wolverines’ year-long win streak in a comeback performance to remember, sending their fans home happy.

One year ago, it was a completely different story. Michigan State lost all six of its games to Michigan during the 2021-22 season, including an 8-0 shutout in the Big Ten Tournament. It put an end to the year and former head coach Danton Cole’s tenure on one of the lowest notes possible.

So what changed in a year? 

The arrival of first-year Head Coach Adam Nightingale and his staff and a rejuvenated roster of 16 returners and 12 newbies.

This isn’t the first time MSU has come from behind to clinch a victory either this season.

In the second game of the season versus Bowling Green, the Spartans pulled off a 2-1 win after trailing in the first period. Similarly, MSU came out on top 4-2 in a nail-biting matchup with Ohio State on Nov. 10 after it was down 1-0.

Michigan State moved to 12-6-1 overall after snapping its losing streak with its in-state rival. The Spartans were confident, but traveled to Yost Ice Arena for game No. 2 knowing the job was not finished.

It was a hard-fought battle, but as the clock wound down in the final period of the game, MSU trailed 2-0 and it appeared the Spartans were about to suffer their third shutout of the season to the Wolverines.

For them, that was simply unacceptable. 

With eight seconds left in the game, Wolverine forward Mark Estapa was sent to the box on a minor for roughing and a major game misconduct penalty. MSU’s Jesse Tucker was whistled on a game misconduct of his own. 

Just like that, Michigan State was back on the power play. A shot from junior defenseman Nash Nienhuis bounced off the glove of Michigan goaltender Erik Portillo allowing senior forward Jagger Joshua to tap the puck out of mid-air into the back of the net, ruining Portillo’s shutout chances with 5.1 seconds left on the clock.

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Joshua’s effort was too little, too late. The Spartans fell 2-1 – swapping final scores with their rival from the previous night – but avoided leaving Yost scoreless. 

“Obviously, when you score a goal it feels good, but I was kind of more focused on trying to get another one for our team,” Joshua said. “It definitely felt good, but I wanted to win more.”

MSU added another tally to the loss column Saturday, but Nightingale said he thought his team played better the second night.

“I’m obviously proud of our guys’ effort,” Nightingale said. “I thought as the game went on, we got better and better. I think it’s a testament to the way we practice and the way we train. I thought we had a lot left in the tank.”

Motivated by the rowdy mazie-out crowd inside their home arena, including the feisty Children of Yost, the Wolverines put up 27 shots to MSU’s 38. At the same time, they were 1-5 in power play chances while the Spartans were 1-4.

“I think they just executed their game plan,” Nienhuis said. “They shut our offense down pretty good. It was a good game overall, a hard fought game.”

As the Spartans head into a two-week break for the holidays before returning to play in the Great Lakes Invitational on Dec. 27 and 28, continuing their early season momentum is key to a successful second half of the season. 

With series at Ohio State and Minnesota and home matchups against Penn State and Notre Dame left on the schedule, it’s no secret the Spartans have their work cut out for them. 

“We’re gonna be practicing without games here,” Joshua said. “I think staying in shape is the biggest thing and just continuing to do what we do and sharpening our tools today, continue to keep working.”

Friday’s victory marked a turning point for the Michigan State hockey program. It proved the Spartans can bounce back from adversity – like 5-0 and 6-3 losses to No. 3 Minnesota – and squeak out a gritty win against a top-six team. 

Despite the final score on Saturday, the Spartans competed until the end and escaped Yost without getting shutout. 

After finishing dead last in the conference last season, sitting at 12-7-1 overall and third in the Big Ten behind Minnesota and Penn State is an achievement. 

Michigan State won a total of 12 games last year. It’s already won that many this season, and it’s only December. 

The Spartans still have 12 more matches left on their schedule, but they’ve already made one thing clear: they’ve reached a validation point.

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