For eight games, Michigan State’s penalty kill was reeling badly.
It started Dec. 10 at Michigan then ended last Saturday at Minnesota. The Spartans surrendered a power-play goal in eight consecutive games, 12 total during that span. It coincided with MSU winning just one game and tying another (both versus Penn State) for the Spartans biggest lull of the season.
Suddenly, the Michigan State penalty kill hasn’t allowed a power-play goal in two straight games, and it played a large part in No. 17 MSU’s 3-0 win over No. 20 Notre Dame Friday night in East Lansing.
Though Notre Dame had just three power plays on the night, each one was of critical importance. One of them was a five-minute power play that could’ve buried MSU early, plus Notre Dame Head Coach Jeff Jackson pulled senior goaltender Ryan Bischel at the 14:44 mark of the third period down 2-0, essentially creating an unofficial Irish power play.
“That should help our guys build confidence,” MSU Head Coach Adam Nightingale said after the game. “We don't want to be taking penalties, but that's the nature of our game and we want to play aggressive. There's times when you're gonna go to the box and you gotta have confidence in your kill. These are moments where we can look back and have some poise on the bench to understand that we got it.”
The five-minute major penalty came early in the game when graduate student defenseman Christian Krygier checked a Notre Dame attacker from behind at 7:24 of the first period. The referees reviewed the play, but ultimately did not tack on what would’ve been a detrimental game misconduct.
Notre Dame fired seven shots on net during the elongated power play, however the Spartans were able to kill the penalty with relative ease. Very few of the scoring chances were high danger, and the Irish failed to get comfortable for long periods of time in the Michigan State zone. It was the second game in a row MSU successfully killed a major penalty, but in the moment helped bring some momentum to the Spartan bench, which had to grind its way to reach a scoreless first period.
Then with the game still 0–0 in the second period, senior forward Erik Middendorf was whistled for an elbowing minor just 17 seconds after MSU didn’t convert on its first power play of the night.
Graduate transfer forward Justin Jallen and junior forward Zach Dubinsky stood out all night defensively, but were especially effective while killing Middnedorf’s minor, even though it got cut short after a Notre Dame penalty. They are two guys who are rarely talked about and have just a combined seven points as partners on the fourth line, but are clearly trusted by Nightingale. Jallen even created a shorthanded scoring chance off the rush that was shut down by Bischel in the waning seconds of the power play.
The duo both had one block each on the night, with Jallen recording three shots on goal to Dubinsky’s one. The two of them have scraped all season long, proving as key under-the-radar additions that make an impact every weekend.
“They're team guys,” Nightingale said. “They're really reliable. Their energy level doesn't dip if they miss a shift. I think that's really important in that role because it's not easy when you're maybe going to (kill) power plays, but they do a heck of a job on the kill. They bring their work every game.”
Michigan State went on to score two goals following the kill, first on a power play tip-in by senior forward Jagger Joshua for his team-leading 12th goal of the season. Then Middendorf made it 2-0 five minutes later when a strong forechecking effort led to a Notre Dame turnover behind the net.
“I think when we play hungry hockey, like going after the puck a lot, then we play a good game,” senior forward Nicolas Müller, who assisted on both MSU goals and scored an empty-netter to seal it, said.
Michigan State’s third penalty kill came midway through the third period when graduate transfer defenseman Michael Underwood grabbed a hold of Notre Dame forward Chayse Primeau to prevent a clean breakaway chance. The Spartans blocked three shots during the two-minute advantage and Dubinsky, who is one of MSU’s more reliable faceoff takers, won two of three draws to keep Michigan State ahead 2-0.
“If you're a guy looking for ice time, typically winning faceoffs can help get you out there and those guys have been really good for us,” Nightingale said.
Notre Dame made a bold move yanking Bischel from his net with 5:16 remaining in the game during a 4-on-4 from offsetting penalties. Michigan State locked it down defensively, forcing graduate transfer goaltender Dylan St. Cyr to only one save before Müller delivered the dagger with under a minute to play.
St. Cyr was phenomenal against his former team Friday night, making 32 saves in his third shutout of the season. After allowing a nightmare five goals in his first game at Notre Dame in October, he’s allowed just one goal in the last two games against his alma mater.
“I don't think so,” St. Cyr said when asked if he’s ever had a shutout while facing that many opposing man advantages. “Yeah, obviously that's a toughy, but again, just the way that we played with a man down all night tonight, blocking shots, our 'D' getting in front of it, I think allows me to kind of play more true to the shots.”
Added Nightingale, “I thought he was seeing the puck really well. Obviously he stopped a couple breakaways. His rebound control was really good, so it seemed like anytime they had any type of pressure, he was able to kind of calm it down and that's when Dylan's playing his best.”
Michigan State’s 3-0 win brought itself to a three-way tie for third place in the Big Ten for the time being with Michigan and Ohio State, though MSU has two less remaining games on its schedule. Just four points separate second place (Penn State) from sixth place (Notre Dame).
Potent special teams and goaltending can be the difference when the margins are slim, and MSU got both on Friday night.
“We've been going back to what we've been to in the beginning,” Müller said. “So I think that's just like work hard and block shots. We had a lot of blocked shots from the guys, so I think that's the key to it.”