In the first game at Munn Ice Arena, MSU took a 3-1 loss. The Spartans completely turned it around on Saturday night at Slater Family Arena in Bowling Green, Ohio, dominating in both the shots column and on the scoreboard for a 2-1 victory.
Here is an analysis of where things currently stand for the Spartans.
Last year, the program was in a spiral, a familiar place that it had been for the last several years. Michigan State last won the national championship in 2007; last made the NCAA Tournament in 2012.
What new head coach Adam Nightingale is putting together looks promising. Most new additions to the squad were recruited in the Danton Cole era. These pieces include freshman Tiernan Shoudy and freshman Daniel Russell.
Here's a look at Russell's first collegiate goal that put Michigan State on the board. pic.twitter.com/qWruDO0b8p— Brad LaPlante (@bradlaplante) October 8, 2022
Against Bowling Green, Shoudy and Russell were the only ones scoring goals. Shoudy and Russell both made their commitments in 2017, five years ago. That could be how long it takes MSU to put together an elite squad.
Despite these good recruiting additions, MSU has been headed south since Cole took over. Nightingale is in to clean up the mess and we saw a glimpse of what that will entail over the weekend. For your benefit, I will break these down into three parts: what I liked and what I didn’t. Then, I’ll adjust our expectations for MSU and bring them back to reality.
What I witnessed Friday against Bowling Green was mostly good. Aside from the turnovers, Michigan State was a relatively scrappy team.
For reference, BGSU is where MSU is: reworking the roster. Last year, Bowling Green finished sixth in the CCHA and had 33 points. That’s half of what division leader Minnesota State had. On the other hand, Michigan State finished last in the Big Ten and had only 15 points, compared with Big Ten champion Minnesota’s 53.
Most notably, every time I’ve seen Michigan State play this season (three times, counting an exhibition game), the squad has adjusted to film. It’s clear that the team is aware of any weaknesses it might have and that it tries to exploit its own strengths.
For example, in the exhibition game against Team USA’s Under-18 squad, Michigan State was sloppy during the second period. In the locker room, Nightingale must have fired someone up because MSU almost rallied from a 4-1 deficit.
Friday at home against Bowling Green, turnovers plagued the team. On Saturday, MSU played much cleaner and it showed. The Spartans dominated in shots and won 2-1.
Young players are also stepping up in magnificent ways.
The more I watch freshman Karen Dorwart, the more I like him. He didn’t score against Bowling Green but he had a really nice feed from Russell against Team USA for a goal. Russell, by the way, is also a stud. He had one goal in each of MSU’s first two games. Plus, he had that nice assist in Michigan State’s exhibition game.
This still isn’t a complete team by any means.
On Thursday (Oct. 13) and Friday (Oct. 14), Michigan State will play UMass-Lowell, which is ranked No. 16 in this week’s USCHO.com top-20 poll. Last season, the River Hawks were eliminated in the first round against eventual champion Denver.
ICYMI: @USCHO DI Men's Ice Hockey Poll has a few new names in the rankings— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) October 10, 2022
6️⃣-2⃣0⃣ https://t.co/sON3wJ6osE#NCAAHockey pic.twitter.com/sMa7xahQpe
UMass-Lowell has a complete team.
Imagine, in football, if you have a defensive squad with an awesome defensive line. But your linebackers are pretty average and you only have one defensive back who you trust. Your program is still building. That is sort of where Michigan State’s hockey team is.
This is a really nice team with a promising future. But Michigan State will need to get really lucky if it is going to compete with the best of the Big Ten this season.
All of UMass-Lowell’s players are capable of contributing. It’s not a complete powerhouse like Michigan is, but only one player on that team has a plus-minus (+/-) rating that is negative so far. Every player can contribute and this may just be Michigan State’s first real test.
I remember reading a tweet in a reply somewhere arguing that Nightingale’s loss to the Team USA Under-18 squad is not “inspiring” for the future of the hockey program.
Like those who are complaining about Mel Tucker’s contract, let me explain why that premise is wrong.
First, Team USA has been playing for a long time. That team is basically a collection of U.S.-born hockey all-stars. Sure, the players are in high school, but they are all really good.
Second, it’s one game. This isn’t football where a loss is far more determining. Teams lose games all of the time. Sometimes you lose even when you are the better team on the ice. That is just how hockey is. Nightingale even said that himself.
Like I said, this is a rebuild and will be a tough road for Michigan State. However, in talking with the coaching staff, this program is headed in the right direction. Nightingale’s most useful weapon is his two coaches under him: Associate head coach Jared DeMichiel and assistant coach Mike Towns.
DeMichiel is responsible for building a recruiting empire at UMass, which lost in overtime to Minnesota in the NCAA Tournament in 2022.
For these reasons, I am very optimistic about the future of Michigan State's hockey program. All you can do is believe me at this point, so I advise you to do so. It’s unclear if MSU can compete with the best of the best right now, though. It will become more clear this week.