This Week in Big Ten Hockey: Michigan State ‘where we wanted to be at the end of the season’

Lewandowski, Mitchell (9 - Michigan State), Khodorenko, Patrick (55 - Michigan State) (2018 Omar Phillips)
Mitchell Lewandowski and Patrick Khodorenko have 45 points between them this season for Michigan State (photo: Omar Phillips).

Mention “Michigan State” this week anywhere within 100 miles of East Lansing and everyone will offer an opinion on football coach Mark Dantonio, who’s stepping down after 13 seasons.

It’s dominating local sports talk radio and social media, and understandably so.

Respectfully, though, perhaps a story just as big is how a hockey team picked to finish last in the Big Ten has a good shot at capturing a regular-season championship.

Yes, we’re biased when it comes to our sport and – yes – football is a big deal to college fans. Yet this is still a great story, no matter how the season ends for Michigan State hockey.

“This is where we wanted to be at the end of the season,” said Spartans coach Danton Cole, “trying to play for a Big Ten championship.”

It’s been 19 years since the Spartans won a regular-season championship and 14 since Michigan State earned a playoff championship. Both of those, of course, were when the team was affiliated with the now-defunct CCHA and when the Spartans were regularly competitive in the conference and nationally. Michigan State won the regular-season CCHA title in 1998, 1999, and that last time in 2001, and the Spartans were CCHA playoff champs in 1998, 2000 and 2001.

Through the first decade of the 2000s, the Spartans played their way into the NCAA tournament seven times, with Frozen Four appearances in 1999, 2001, and 2007 – the last resulting in a surprise national championship over Boston College.

Michigan State last made the NCAA tournament in 2012.

Entering this weekend, Michigan State, Minnesota and Notre Dame are all tied with 28 points, a point behind the two teams tied for first place, Ohio State and Penn State. The weekend’s games include a series between the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions, opening up chances for the three teams right behind them. Two of those teams, Michigan State and Minnesota, face off against each other.

Both the Spartans and the Golden Gophers have two games in hand on the first-place teams, too. Notre Dame has a bye week, upping the stakes even more.

Michigan State entered last weekend in first place tied with Penn State, but the Spartans had their own bye while everyone else fought for points. Things that could have gone badly for Michigan State did not. Notre Dame took five points on the road from the Nittany Lions. Michigan split at home with Ohio State. Minnesota swept Wisconsin in Madison, setting up this weekend’s series that gives both the Gophers and Spartans a chance to create some breathing room.

“Watching the games in the rest of the Big Ten,” said Cole, “I guess it couldn’t have gone much more interestingly.”

Cole said that the Spartans used the time off from competition to rest, “to get some good workouts in,” and to “prepare for the stretch run, the last eight games in the Big Ten” and the playoffs.

“Our focus is as it’s always been, on Friday night,” said Cole. “It’s our next game and we can’t play all eight in one night.”

He admitted, though, that the possibilities haven’t been lost on the Spartans.

“I know the guys are excited and good things happened to make it even more exciting last weekend,” Cole said.

The Spartans have worked their way into this position by playing consistent hockey with very consistent defense. Michigan State is tied for 11th nationally in goals allowed per game (2.27), helped by the performance of senior goaltender John Lethemon, who enters this weekend with the best save percentage (.943) in the nation.

It’s offense that the Spartans need, and they know it.

“You look at the games we’ve had that we’ve lost in the last little bit and they’re 1-0, 2-0 games with an open net or 2-1, and just finding that little bit of extra scoring and spending some time with that, whether it’s defensemen getting pucks on net and are making the quick read, or it’s getting a guy in front of the net,” said Cole. “Really, that’s a big part, if we can find a way to manufacture another goal or two, that’s when we win hockey games and that’s what playoff hockey is.”

The Spartans play very level-headed hockey, taking few penalties. Even though neither their power play nor their penalty kill is spectacular, their combined special teams are eighth in the nation.

Michigan State’s leading scorer, Patrick Khodorenko, has 14 goals but no one else on the team has reached the 10-goal mark yet. Khodorenko’s linemates Sam Saliba and Mitchell Lewandowski have 16 between them, and many other players have chipped in but not a lot.

Still, Michigan State is steady and plays to its collective ability, and the Spartans are not at all surprised to find themselves where they are right now.

“I think one thing that helps us in that area is that I know where the other coaches picked us…but I also know where our own team did, and neither of those mesh up,” said Cole. “I think that this isn’t like, ‘Hey, it’s February and what the hell are we doing in this position?’ I think our guys last spring thought we had a chance to be here.”

Michigan State and Minnesota face off Friday and Saturday at Mariucci Arena.

A photo finish?

Minnesota brings a five-game win streak into the weekend while the Spartans have split their last three B1G series, including one against the Gophers in East Lansing Jan. 10-11.

One of the more interesting aspects of this series is that of the six teams who are still viable mathematically for the Big Ten regular-season championship, only Minnesota and Michigan State control their own destinies.

If either the Gophers or Spartans win seven of their eight remaining games, they’ll end up in first place at the end of the season. Ohio State and Penn State may be tied for first place, but each has just six games remaining. Winning out for either team doesn’t guarantee first place.

Neither Notre Dame nor Michigan has been eliminated from capturing the regular-season title. Like the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions, though, Notre Dame only has six games remaining.

Wisconsin is the only team that cannot earn a slice of first place. The highest the Badgers can finish is second – but that would take winning six remaining games and a lot of help from other teams around the conference.

A motivating snub

On Jan. 31, the NCAA published an article on its website that listed the nine of the top student sections in college hockey. Missing from that last was the Michigan student section known as “The Children of Yost.”

It wasn’t the only notable fan section snubbed in the article, but The Children of Yost may have been the only fans used to help motivate a team on to a win.

After Michigan beat Ohio State 3-2 the day the article was published, Michigan coach Mel Pearson began his post-game press conference by crediting the home crowd.

“Crowd was unbelievable tonight,” Pearson said. “I know there’s an article that came out talking about the nine best student sections in college hockey. In all fairness to the writer, I don’t know if he’s ever been to Yost Ice Arena, but if you saw that tonight and you can’t get ready to play in this game, whether you’re on the opposition or the home team, then you shouldn’t play the game.

“We all know who the best college hockey crowd is, the student section in college hockey. We know that. Just come to Yost Ice Arena and experience it.”

“We owe it to them to win every night,” added Michigan captain Will Lockwood, who had the game-winning goal late in the third period. “We try to do it for them. They were fantastic for us tonight.”