At a time when sports fans in Michigan are searching for anything positive, there has been one pleasant surprise. The Michigan State University hockey team.
There is no need to point out the depths of losing fans of the Tigers, Lions, Red Wings and Pistons have endured recently. Michigan and Michigan State football have been OK but inconstant, and the Wolverines haven’t even been to a Big Ten Conference championship game yet.
Michigan State basketball? Yea, the Spartans are good, but they have failed to live up to the hype of being the pre-season No. 1. There is still hope, however. Michigan basketball? The honeymoon period with new coach Juwan Howard is over, and the rigors of Big Ten basketball – without Isaiah Livers – have been a rough road.
At the beginning of the season, nobody could have expected much or anything out of Michigan or Michigan State in hockey. The Wolverines were picked to finish sixth and the Spartans seventh in the seven-team Big Ten.
Guess who has spent the past four months going from worst to first? Yup, head coach Danton Cole’s Spartans, who upset No. 9 Penn State 4-2 on Friday night at a packed Munn Ice Arena. The word packed has not been used much with Munn Ice Arena of late, but Spartans fans are jumping on the bandwagon.
So, just how did this happen? The Spartans started 2-4 in nonconference games, and for the most part did not look very good doing it. Just twice in those six games did they score more than two goals in a game, and as the Big Ten season was about to begin, there was no reason to believe the pre-season prognosticators were wrong about the Spartans.
Fast forward to today. Michigan State is alone in first place in the Big Ten with 28 points, followed by Ohio State (26), Penn State (25) and Notre Dame (20).
How did it happen? Great goaltending, senior leadership and getting more comfortable in the system run by third-year head Danton Cole. But really, it all starts – and ends – with senior goalie John Lethemon of Northville. Last year, he had a 3.24 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage. This year: How about a 1.88 GAA and a .944 save percentage, which is second in the nation.
There have been season-turning moments as well:
Michigan State opened Big Ten play with a stunner: a 2-0 shutout victory for Lethemon over then No. 6 Penn State on the road. Penn State has been generally considered the most talented team in the Big Ten, so that had to be a huge confidence builder.
Next was a home-and-home with rival Michigan. The first came on a Thursday night at a raucous Yost Ice Arena, Michigan led 3-1 late in the second period, but Patrick Khodorenko scored with less than a minute to go to make it 3-2, and he tied it with an unassisted goal early in the third. The Spartans won it 4-3 on Logan Lambdin’s power-play goal. Two nights later, it was a rematch at Munn, and Lethemon was fantastic in a 3-0 victory for the Spartans, who suddenly were 3-1 in the conference. However, other than bragging rights, two victories of Michigan, picked for sixth place, was little to get excited about in terms of contending for the conference title.
A week later, Notre Dame, ranked No. 3, came into Munn for two games, and on Friday night the Spartans picked up a 1-1 tie and got the extra point in the shootout. Michigan State led 1-0 late in the game before Notre Dame pulled its goalie and scored the game-tying goal. The rematch one night later seemed like it would be Notre Dame’s turn, and the same scenario took place. Notre Dame led 2-1 midway through the third period before Lambdin tied it. With 70 seconds left, senior Sam Saliba gave the Spartans a 3-2 lead, and the Irish pulled their goalie. This time, Notre Dame couldn’t score, and the Spartans celebrated in a circle, did the traditional handshake with the opposition and skated over to the glass in front of the student section. The players banged their sticks on the glass as the students cheered on the Spartans.
And finally, Friday night. The fans packed had packed Munn two weeks earlier against Minnesota, and they were back for this big one against Penn State. The Spartans had a 1-0 lead after the first period, and Penn State came out and outshot Michigan State 17-2 in the second period, but Lethemon was strong and gave up just one goal. The final was 4-2 as Lethemon faced 42 shots and gave up just two goals, and one was a meaningless one in the final minutes after Notre Dame had pulled its goalie. Khodorenko, a senior, had a hat trick to “cap” the evening.
Maybe this team was different. Maybe the prognosticators were wrong. And, at least, seventh place didn’t seem like a logical destination, and that was a good start.
So what’s ahead? First is a rematch with Penn State tonight, two at Minnesota, one with Michigan at Munn Arena and another at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. Then it ends in a tough fashion with two at home against Ohio State and two on the road at Notre Dame.
It’s likely the Spartans will be in a position to win the conference if they can do well the last two weekends, but either way, Michigan State is likely to either finish first and get a bye in the first-round of the conference tournament or host a three-game series in the first round.