There was something familiar about Michigan State’s 3-2 home win over Bowling Green last Saturday.
It couldn’t have been the win itself, as it was the first time the Spartans had registered a home win since Nov. 4, 2016 and the first time Michigan State won its home opener since the start of the 2014-2015 season.
It was also Danton Cole’s first win as Michigan State’s new head coach.
“I like winning,” said Cole. “I don’t care if I’m playing my daughters in checkers, I like winning. It was good.”
It was good – for Michigan State fans, for the Big Ten, for college hockey.
And it was a night full of hockey déjà vu.
Maybe it was because Cole was a starting forward for Michigan State from 1985 to 1989.
Maybe it was because the win came against Bowling Green, a team that Ron Mason coached from 1973 to 1979 before establishing himself as a legend at Michigan State from ’79 to 2002.
Maybe it was watching the Falcons playing in Munn Arena for the first time since the CCHA was dissolved, their Tootsie-roll road uniforms contrasted against the super-bright ice surface in the recently remodeled rink.
Maybe it was saying hello to BGSU fans and personnel I haven’t seen in a while, especially coach Chris Bergeron, who played for Miami from 1989 to 1993 and served as an assistant coach there from 2000 to 2010.
Maybe it was hearing Cole talk about catching a glimpse of the photo of Ron Mason that hangs in Chris Bergeron’s office.
Whatever it was, there was a sense of returning to something essential for Michigan State hockey, the kind of tradition that has felt absent for some time – and I say that with all respect to Rick Comley and Tom Anastos, who were earnest and dedicated in their very different tenures in East Lansing.
Whatever it was, it didn’t reveal itself to me alone. Saturday’s win gave the Spartans a nonconference split with the Falcons, who’d won in their own rink, 4-1, the night before.
After Saturday’s win, Cole talked about his return to the BGSU Ice Arena – I mean, the Slater Family Ice Arena – and the memories that trip evoked, particularly during his conversation with Iain Duncan, a left winger with Bowling Green from 1983 to 1987.
“Iain Duncan was at the game last night, stopped down,” said Cole. “We were talking about back in the mid-80s playing games and how big a rivalry that was and how fun that arena was last night. This arena was equally fun tonight.”
Old friends, new era – at least that’s the hope of Michigan State as Cole’s first season begins, hope being a tangible commodity in Munn Arena as October unfolds. After the win, Cole talked about what’s been “a pretty good evolution” since he’s returned to Michigan State.
He chronicled “the first little bit” in early September, the “eight hours a week and then the 20 hours a week when we finally got on the ice.”
He talked about the Green and White game, the team’s exhibition against the University of Toronto, the whole arc of months that led the Spartans to Saturday’s 3-2 win, a last-minute win on Taro Hirose’s second goal of the season at 19:20 in the third.
“These guys are going to work hard, they’re going to do some good stuff and we’re going to have to win games like that,” said Cole. “That’s the way it’s going to be.”
The Spartans are young, with 19 freshmen and sophomores, including Hirose, who has two goals in two games after scoring six in 34 his rookie year.
Then there’s John Lethemon, who replaced senior Ed Minney in net Friday and earned a .929 save percentage in the 110 minutes he played. Lethemon saw limited action during his rookie season and his numbers were mediocre, but he looked poised and ready against the Falcons.
Cole is very enthusiastic about the young team he’s inherited.
“I enjoy these guys,” said Cole. “There’s a decent understanding [that] there’s a lot of challenges, a lot of miles to go in the process, but I like what they’re doing. They’re maximizing, I think, some of the things that we have, and you know what? Their youth and inexperience is great. It’s been infectious. They just keep working. Even the four guys that didn’t play, they were right in the middle of the mix.
“It’s a good group of 25 guys and they’re going to be a lot of fun, but there’s still going to be some pain. They’re going to need some that camaraderie to get through some of the stuff this year.”
For the next two weeks, the Spartans have a chance to continue to build while reconnecting with old CCHA rivals. Next weekend, Michigan State has a home-and-home series against Western Michigan, hosting the Broncos Oct. 20 and traveling to Kalamazoo the next day. The weekend after that, Michigan State hosts Lake Superior State (Oct. 27-28) before traveling to Minnesota (Nov. 3-4) for the Spartans’ first Big Ten games of the season.
A good trip East
The Big Ten improved to 9-5-3 in nonconference play for a Division-I leading .618 nonleague win percentage. While Michigan State did its part Saturday, Wisconsin brought two wins back from a trip east.
Friday night, the Badgers beat Boston College, 5-2, and Saturday Wisconsin beat Merrimack, 4-1, and after the first period each night, the Badgers seemed to be in complete control. Part of that is owed to the play of All-American goaltender Kyle Hayton, who transferred to Wisconsin from St. Lawrence after earning his bachelor’s degree. After graduating from SLU, Hayton had a year of NCAA eligibility remaining. He’s enrolled in the MBA program at Wisconsin.
“I think we were pretty optimistic about Kyle coming in and doing what he’s doing,” said Wisconsin assistant coach Mark Osiecki. “He’s a calming factor certainly in our locker room and on the bench and during timeouts. The way he’s been playing I think allows us to be a little bit more aggressive and our guys know it. They can play on their toes and not have to play on their heels knowing that he’s back there.”
The Badgers are allowing just two goals a game in the early going, a big improvement over the 3.28 goals allowed on average per game last season.
“It’s not just Kyle,” said Osiecki. “I think it’s a group effort right now and I think we’re getting better in that area.
“This past weekend, I thought we hunted and tracked pucks probably as well as we have in a long time. It was by far the best weekend that way for us and I know it’s early, but even last year toward the end of the year, this past weekend was much, much better.”
Wisconsin will play Northern Michigan this Friday and Saturday in the Resch Center in Green Bay. The Resch Center is the home of the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL, a team that Osiecki coached from 1997 to 2004.
“It feels like a home series for me,” said Osiecki. “I think our guys will be pretty excited about playing in state and in Green Bay. Many of our players, probably 85 percent of our kids have played in that building at some point, so there’s some familiarity there.”
A good showing on national television
The much-anticipated series in South Bend between No. 1 Denver and then-No. 4 Notre Dame did not disappoint.
Friday’s game ended in a 2-2 tie and Saturday’s resulted in a 4-2 Denver win with some exciting goal-scoring to cap it off late in the third. Denver led that one 2-0 until Notre Dame’s Cam Morrison scored at 14:44 in the third and Jordan Gross tied the game for the Fighting Irish at 15:08. Denver’s Liam Finlay scored the game-winning goal at 15:32, though, and Dylan Gambrell had an empty-netter for the Pioneers at 18:40.
Coach Jeff Jackson was happy with the weekend. “I saw positive things from all three positions,” said Jackson. “I thought both of our goalies played well. I thought our defense for the most part did a good job against a very talented offensive team. Our forward depth right now is not where it needs to be from an offensive perspective, but I thought we showed signs of potential to be able to generate offense from our cycle.”
Both games were televised by NBC Sports, with color commentary from Michigan State alum Anson Carter. It was a big stage for the sport we love, and Denver and Notre Dame delivered.
The Fighting Irish host Sacred Heart for a Thursday-Friday series this week.
A pretty good third period
Minnesota freshman forward Brannon McManus made his collegiate scoring debut count. McManus scored at 1:43 in the third period of Minnesota’s 6-3 win over Penn State Saturday, his first collegiate goal and the marker that held up to be the game winner, giving the Golden Gophers a split on the weekend after Penn State won 3-1 Friday.
But McManus wasn’t done. He scored again at 8:12 and then again on the power play at 16:09, giving him his first collegiate hat trick, too. McManus had 12 goals and 13 assists in 36 games last season for the USHL champion Chicago Steel.
That split in Minneapolis created a four-way tie for first place in the Big Ten standings, with Ohio State and Wisconsin having split a pair in Madison the weekend before.
Three stars of the week
Two first-timers and a very familiar name.
First star – Wisconsin senior goaltender Kyle Hayton
Hayton (Denver, Colo.) led all B1G goaltenders with a .959 save percentage in two wins over Boston College and Merrimack, allowing just three goals in the two games. Hayton has been the only goalie of record this season as the Badgers improve to 4-1-0, their best start since the start of the 2004-2005 season (5-0-0). This is Hayton’s first career weekly Big Ten award.
Second star – Penn State sophomore forward Denis Smirnov
Smirnov (Moscow, Russia) had two goals and an assist in Penn State’s split with Minnesota, and his goal Friday was his second game-winning goal of the season. With a goal in Saturday’s game, Smirnov extends his goal-scoring streak to three games. This is Smirnov’s fifth career weekly Big Ten award and his first this season.
Third star – Minnesota freshman forward Brannon McManus
McManus (Newport Beach, Calif.) registered his first collegiate goal – the game-winner for Minnesota Saturday – and tallied his first career hat trick in the third period of that win over Penn State. His three goals were the most for Big Ten freshmen this weekend. This is McManus’s first career weekly Big Ten award.
2. St. Cloud
3. Notre Dame
6. North Dakota
7. Boston University
10. New Hampshire
11. Penn State
12. Minnesota Duluth
13. Minnesota State
14. Boston College
16. Michigan Tech
19. Air Force