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Friday Night Hockey Recap: Michigan State falls to Ohio State

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MSU outplays OSU in stretches, can’t capitalize on chances. Also, looking ahead to the futures of some seniors and sophomore Mason Appleton.

MSU came into tonight with some new lines to show off in front of the home crowd in East Lansing. Sam Saliba centered Mason Appleton and Taro Hirose. Thomas Ebbing pivoted for Brennan Sanford and Joe Cox. This change seemed to do the most for Brennan Sanford, who had an awesome night. Also, John Lethemon started the night for the Spartans. He has had a great run recently and his play tonight gave MSU a great chance to win. However, State could not capitalize on their opportunities the way that the Buckeyes did.

The Spartans came out on a mission in the first period. With eight shots in the first 4 minutes, MSU was playing with a purpose. The forwards responded to the changes by playing exceptionally well in the offensive zone. The funnest part of this play was watching the team move the puck efficiently below the OSU goal line. MSU’s forecheck was fierce and persistent. When MSU surrendered the first goal of the contest, it could have been a crippling blow to what had been a phenomenal effort up til that point. However, MSU responded with a resilient effort. That would carry over for the rest of the night.

The biggest beneficiary of the line shuffles, Brennan Sanford, had a phenomenal first period. As I was watching the game, his first couple shifts were so tenacious that I looked at my line chart and just put a check mark next to his name. After an Ohio State goal, he would tuck away a rebound to tie up the game at one. When he scored, I put a “+” next to that check. The guy had a helluva period. Ohio State would reclaim the lead a few minutes later. However, the Bucks would take a late penalty and surrender a power play goal (yes you read that right) to the Spartans via a beautiful shot from Senior Villiam Haag (insert Swede pun here).

A scoreless second period was marred by missed opportunities for the Spartans. MSU out-chanced the Buckeyes and could have taken the lead on numerous opportunities. However, physical play from both squads would be the defining aspect of the period.

The final frame would prove to be similar to the second, except for an early goal from Ohio State just as MSU killed a penalty from the end of the middle period off. That would make the score 3-2, a mark that would hold for the rest of the night. The most frustrating part of the night was watching MSU play the final 1:46 on the power play. MSU would be up a man, and after pulling Lethemon with 1:25 left to play, on a 6-4 man advantage. However, MSU would not be able to formulate a good look on net with this advantage. MSU looked awful for the last two minutes. The power play has been an issue throughout Big Ten play and the last two minutes of tonight’s game epitomized that issue. OSU would cling to their 3-2 lead and win the first game of the series.

Forwards

Brennan Sanford had a great night. Villiam Haag scored as well, but he doesn’t bring quite the pace that I feel he could. He’s one of the better skaters on the team and the offensive creativity is evident. I can’t figure out exactly the player that he is. Mason Appleton had a bad third period, especially in the last two minutes. He was one of a number of forwards that found ways to turn the puck over in the offensive zone. With his talent, this is inexcusable. The talent is obviously there, but finding the right combination on a line is going to be huge for his contributions moving forward.

Defensemen

Zach Osburn looked very comfortable with the puck tonight and moved it well, especially when advancing into the offensive zone. Butrus Ghafari, once again, was a force the other team did not want to cross paths with. His physical play continues to be a spark for his teammates as well as the crowd at Munn. Having a defenseman like Ghafari patrol the neutral and defensive zones is a huge asset to any team.

Rhett Holland had a strong game as well. As usual, he was a rock in the defensive zone. He helped facilitate the offense from the point when he had to. Additionally, he made smart plays in the neutral zone. Holland shows maturity in all phases of the game and tonight was no different.

When I watch Holland, I see a future NHL defenseman. He is calm with the puck, solid in his own end and a strong leader. His all-around abilities have been evident every time I’ve seen him play. He looks to be a future bottom-pair defenseman for someone in the NHL, especially as right-handed shots are in demand right now.

Between the pipes

Freshman John Lethemon had a very solid night in net. OSU got some really clean looks on him and capitalized. As a college goalie, looks as clean as the ones that the Bucks got are pretty tough to stop. Lethemon ended up with 23 saves on 26 shots. Of those three goals, two of them were really clean, good looks on net. Lethemon had another strong night in net.

For me, the biggest thing was continuity in net. It’s tough to get good play out of goalies who are not afforded the opportunity to get into a rhythm. Lethemon probably knew he was gonna start this game all week. He played well tonight. If he plays well tomorrow night, there is zero reason to think that he does not start next weekend regardless of the result.

Continuity in net does a ton for the goalie who is playing. Furthermore, it does a lot for the players in front of the crease. If Lethemon can continue to play well for the Spartans, this could be the start of a great three more years for who I think can be a great goalie for State moving forward.

Pro aspirations

This is the time of year when college players, seniors or not, start to think about signing with their professional teams when the college season ends. I think I share the opinion of all of us that the Spartan hockey season will be over pretty early into the Big Ten tournament. It’s an ugly fact of life for MSU hockey fans lately. However, there are two players that bring some intrigue to this occurrence. Senior Rhett Holland’s rights are owned by the Arizona Coyotes. Sophomore Mason Appleton’s rights are owned by the Winnipeg Jets.

Rhett Holland is a senior, so he’s obviously not gonna throw the green and white over his head again after this season is over. The Coyotes have a choice to make here. Holland is a defenseman who could have a ton of upside. Holland was a 4th round pick of the Coyotes, which is not an insignificant spot to be taken. The Coyotes are the second-worst team in hockey, ahead of only Colorado who may go down as one of the worst single-season teams in the history of the NHL. His rights are owned by the Coyotes for now. He was drafted in 2012, so I believe he is eligible for unrestricted free agency when the deadline hits in July (I think). I think that the Coyotes will not factor him into their long term plans, as they have already got a great prospect in Florida native Jakob Chychrun (who was drafted in the spot that the Red Wings traded to shed the Datsyuk salary cap hit). Therefore, I think that Holland will hit free agency. It is worth noting that Torey Krug is in his fourth full NHL season with the Boston Bruins as an undrafted free agent. Holland has all the tools to play in the show. I am hopeful that he ends up dressing for the Coyotes this season and beyond, especially since they are a team that can use all the young, affordable talent they can get. On the other hand, I can definitely see Arizona letting him walk, unfortunately.

Mason Appleton has had a strong sophomore campaign. Appleton is in a much different spot than Holland is for a few reasons. The first being the obvious fact that Appleton is a sophomore and can continue his career at State regardless of whether he signs or not (he won’t). Appleton’s pro rights are the property of the Winnipeg Jets, who might have the best group of young forwards in the NHL, especially at center. The Jets currently have three of some of the best young players in the game under contract in Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers. If Appleton were to sign, he would be caught in a logjam that he would not be able to break through. Appleton has the talent to be a top-six forward somewhere. Winnipeg is simply not one of those places. Scheifele is an underdog to make the 2018 Canadian olympic team that is absolutely stacked. Appleton is going to have to go somewhere else in order to play the pivot spot unless he wants to play a bottom six role. I can see Appleton being an important trade chip for the Jets should they decide to make a move to make a playoff run this year or next.

Among the other seniors, I only see captain Joe Cox getting any looks at a pro contract after MSU’s season ends. Cox has been phenomenal in all zones of the game the last few years. If there is a contender looking for depth up front, especially on the penalty kill, then Cox would be a good option for a cheap price. As college hockey players become more and more prominent in the NHL, I can see Cox getting at least some consideration somewhere. Teams who could use a strong guy on the PK include, Montreal, Pittsburgh, the Islanders, the Sharks and perhaps the Maple Leafs. The Leafs, however, already have a ton of young guys ready to go in any spot of the lineup and US Junior standout (and gold medalist) Jeremy Bracco should be their first choice to dress when the playoffs come around. Unfortunately, any team is a stretch for Cox. I don’t see him going anywhere but damn, wouldn’t that be cool?

I’ll save my around the conference/country for tomorrow night. Let’s get a win tomorrow and salvage this weekend. Go Green.