On September 19, 2019, the Big Ten hockey coaches’ poll ranked the Michigan State Spartans to finish seventh, dead last in the division. Now, with 10 games remaining on the schedule, all against teams they have faced previously, the Spartans sit comfortably tied in second place with Penn State, five points ahead of fourth place Notre Dame.
For a team that appeared to be trending even further downward after losing 50-point scorer Taro Hirose to the Detroit Red Wings and a recruiting class ranked dead last in the NCAA, MSU hockey’s resurgence is undoubtedly one of the surprises of the 2019-20 season. Throw into the mix the third-ranked schedule difficulty and an exceptionally talented Big Ten, the Spartans’ unlikely position comes as a surprise to all.
So how does a team with the nation’s third toughest calendar, lowest ranked recruiting class, and that just lost a player who did almost 20 percent of the teams scoring find itself second in the Big Ten and ranked No. 19 in the nation? The answer is quite simple: they are winning games.
With victories over a No. 6 Penn State, No. 3 Notre Dame, No. 19 Wisconsin, and No. 16 Arizona State, Michigan State hockey has developed quite the resume, and the answers to the offseason’s pressing questions have been the keys to its success. How does the offense replace the scoring of Hirose? The committee of upperclassmen led by top line Patrick Khodorenko, Mitch Lewandowski, and Sam Saliba has proven to be one of the strongest forward lines in the Big Ten. Who is the true number one goaltender? Before the season began, the tandem of John Lethemon and emerging freshman Drew Deridder seen last year was expected once again. Lethemon’s stellar netminding, with five shutouts and statlines good for second in save-percentage and eighth in goals-against-average in the NCAA, has been the backbone of this team’s success. How will the recruiting class fit into the lineup and what impact will they have? Watch one game and you’ll see the three freshman making an impact. Jagger Joshua and Josh Nodler have cemented themselves as top-6 forwards who can hang physically and make plays offensively. Nico Müller, while adapting to the North American game, has shown talent and contributed on the scoresheet. As the team looks towards the final stretch and a shot at a Big Ten title and tournament appearance, let’s look back at the past few seasons and unpack how they got here.
Long past the glory days of the 2007 National Championship, the Spartans have been mired in college hockey purgatory, failing to find their footing since the dissolving of the CCHA. Since the inception of the new Big Ten conference, beginning play in the 2013-14 season, MSU has only had one winning season in conference play and one season finishing higher than fifth place, coming in 2014-15. In that season they lost in the semifinal of the Big Ten Tournament. To see the progression the Spartans have made since the forming of the new Big Ten in 2013 with head coach Tom Anastos to now with Danton Cole, just look at the numbers. In the past six seasons, here is where MSU finished in goals-for out of the seven teams in the Big Ten:
2013-14: 7th (42)
2014-15: 6th (47)
2015-16: 7th (47)
2016-17: 7th (47)
2017-18: 7th (53)
2018-19: 7th (68)
Pretty striking numbers. And it doesn’t help that in those six seasons, the Spartans averaged 35 fewer goals than the highest scoring team in Big Ten play. It’s also clear how much the offense benefited from Taro Hirose’s production the last two seasons, but still did not offensively mesh as a team relative to the rest of the conference. So they’re not a team that’s going to score you out of the building. What about on defense? Here are the goals-against stats from the same time period:
2013-14: 7th (55)
2014-15: 1st (42)
2015-16: 3rd (72)
2016-17: 6th (74)
2017-18: 6th (77)
2018-19: 6th (88)
Relatively better, but not great. Even with coming first in the Big Ten in 2014-15, the team still allowed 19 more goals, on average, than the conference leaders in the past six seasons. Head coach Danton Cole’s first two seasons do not look great on paper. Of course it takes some time for coaches to get used to a program, recruit, build a coaching staff, etc. Now, in year three, Cole’s team is finding its stride. The team has the same number of conference wins as last year in 10 fewer games. The Spartans currently sit in third in goals-for and first in goals-against, a stark contrast from years prior. Offseason adjustments and coaching decisions seem to have worked. The team is scoring goals when it matters, and backed by strong defensive play and Richter-worthy goaltending from John Lethemon, the Spartans have a chance to finally break through in the Big Ten and change the state of the program.
MSU will play Penn State at Munn Ice Arena this weekend. The two are tied for second in the Big Ten with 25 points, one point behind first place Ohio State. Game times are set for 7 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday.