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COLUMN: The rut was coming, but how Michigan State responds is the true measurement

January 12, 2023
<p>MSU Hockey Head Coach Adam Nightingale looks up to the scoreboard during a game at Schottenstein Center on Jan. 7, 2023. The Spartans lost to the Buckeyes with a score of 6-0.</p>

MSU Hockey Head Coach Adam Nightingale looks up to the scoreboard during a game at Schottenstein Center on Jan. 7, 2023. The Spartans lost to the Buckeyes with a score of 6-0.

When Adam Nightingale was named Michigan State’s new head coach in April, immediate expectations were not very high for year one. 

It wasn’t a knock toward Nightingale or a disbelief in the hiring – rather an indictment on the program he was inheriting. This is a Michigan State team that, under the previous regime, finished last in the conference four times in the last five seasons. Not only has MSU hockey never won a Big Ten Tournament game, the Spartans have also never hosted a Big Ten Tournament game. A slew of players left and joined via the transfer portal, leaving Nightingale and his staff a difficult task of mashing together an on-ice product that would show life in East Lansing for the first time in years. 

And MSU did just that. The Spartans bolted out to a hot start to the season. Through Thanksgiving, Michigan State was 11-4-1, losing just one game in the month of November. Then it split a December home-and-home series versus Michigan, moving all the way to No. 11 in the USCHO Poll. 

But for the first time this season, Michigan State is in a rut. The Spartans have lost seven of the last eight games, including a losing streak that’s been extended to five games. MSU’s record has slipped to 12-11-1, and now the Spartans are on the heels of a 6-0 smashing from Ohio State that was barely competitive from the start

If anything is going to indicate a macro view of progress in the program, it will be MSU’s response at home this weekend versus No. 5 Penn State – a team the Spartans nearly swept on the road in November. It’s a test of whether Nightingale can rally this group of Spartans through adversity or whether he’ll allow them to fall down the slippery slope that has too often victimized MSU teams of the past.  

“I'm excited about this for our team because I think if we want to be a great program, and we're going to be a great program, you got to handle these moments and you got to get through it,” Nightingale said on Tuesday. “You got to be convicted in the way we do things. We have a group of guys that are, and we're gonna stick together and we’re gonna get through it.”

Special teams has been an issue as of late for the Spartans. Coinciding with the five-game losing streak is a penalty kill that has surrendered a power-play goal in five consecutive games, seven total during that span. It was particularly sloppy during the Great Lakes Invitational, when MSU gave up two power-play goals in each of their two losses. The Spartan power play has been grotesque too, scoring just once in the last 17 tries. 

It’s all helped spit out an offense that scored one goal over the weekend and hasn’t scored more than two goals in a game since a 6-3 thumping by Minnesota in the first week of December. 

“I'm a big believer, like, we play our best when we're able to break the puck out,” Nightingale said. “And if you want to play less D-zone, be great at breaking the puck out. Our defensemen's gaps need to be better than they were this weekend. Again, I go back to when we played our best, I think we were on top of teams.”

Michigan State believes the path toward getting back on track starts with rediscovering its identity of the season’s first two months. It was a formula that found success from great goaltending, a sound defensive effort and goal scoring that came up and down the lineup – a commonly absent trait of year’s past. 

“We got to focus on the process of being a great hockey team, not focus on the results,” Nightingale said. “I think that's probably happened a little bit to the group. All the sudden, people are starting talk pair-wise and to where you’re ranked ... and the reality is, one of the things we did really well as a team early on is we didn't focus on any of that; we focused on things we can control, and that's bringing energy to practice, bringing an effort to practice, going to bed at the right time, eating the right way, being a great teammate if you're in the lineup, being a great teammate if you're not in the lineup. All those things I think are important to a team's chemistry.”

MSU has won more than 12 games in a season just once since 2014-15. The Spartans matched that win total already on Dec. 9 and have 10 more games to beat it. In a sense, that’s a win for the program. But, it certainly won’t be viewed that way if this team falls down the same tracks that last year’s did. 

“I think it's just a different mindset right now,” sophomore forward Jesse Tucker said. “We faced the problem -- obviously we figured it out -- and that's why we're practicing so hard, getting back after it and figuring things out. And hopefully that kind of gets us out of that slump that we had in the past.”

So when this season eventually comes to an end, don’t just look at the record or which specific weekend ended the Spartans’ season. Come back to this week that precedes a home meeting with Penn State and a road series at Minnesota. 

If the Spartans respond well to the worst loss of the season, then there’s going to be real progress in this program.

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