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Michigan State men’s ice hockey: Success hinges on being the “underdog”

Michigan State has a chance to really earn more respect this weekend.

Marvin Hall/The Only Colors

After 12 games, Michigan State men’s ice hockey sits at 8-3-1 with major wins at home against No. 10 Ohio State and No. 16 UMass-Lowell. Last weekend, Michigan State swept the Buckeyes in the program’s first sweep of a ranked team since 2019 when MSU swept No. 19 Wisconsin.

Jon Morosi, a NHL Network and MLB reporter from Michigan, tweeted on Friday night that MSU head coach Adam Nightingale is “difference-making” and that the future is bright. The present looks pretty solid, too.

After three Big Ten series, Michigan State leads the conference with 14 points. Penn State is second with 13 points and Minnesota is third with 12 points.

Michigan State’s success

What’s behind Michigan State’s success and what does it mean for the program’s future?

Let’s get one thing straight first: Michigan State is good. I wouldn’t use the term “elite” or “great” to define MSU just yet. Every year, both Michigan and Minnesota are able to attract high-level, star players and somehow convince them to stay in college prior to signing with the NHL teams that drafted them.

This year, Michigan freshman Adam Fantilli may win the Hobey Baker Award, honoring the best player in college hockey. Again, he’s a freshman who would’ve been the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft this past season if he were eligible.

The NHL requires draftees be 18-years-old by Sept. 15 of the current draft year to be eligible, and younger than 20-years-old on Dec. 31. Fantilli was born Oct. 12, 2004.

Four of the five players taken in the 2020 NHL Draft either played with Michigan in the previous season or were Michigan commits, such as Luke Hughes.

Once Michigan State starts attracting this level of talent, then we’ll talk about national titles and Frozen Four appearances. Regardless, the trajectory of MSU’s hockey program is far better than anyone could have imagined this early in Nightingale’s tenure.

How is this possible? I attribute it to a few key things.

1. Transfers and incoming freshmen

Every new player is contributing in enormous ways.

Freshman center Daniel Russell leads MSU in points (15), freshman center Karsen Dorwart is fourth (10). Both Russell and graduate transfer center Miroslav Mucha are tied for second in goals (four). Dylan St. Cyr, a graduate transfer from Quinnipiac, has been stellar in goal as the Spartans’ go-to goaltender. His save percentage is .936 and he is averaging two goals allowed per game.

Those are just the stats.

Plenty of the team’s new additions are making a difference in so many ways. Mucha started a play alongside the boards to the left of Ohio State’s goal in the last game. He found his way back toward the front of the net to score a goal.

Easily, the new additions on this team have allowed for a complete team effort. Even if Michigan State doesn’t have the star-power that Michigan or Minnesota does, MSU has four lines that are able to score.

I even asked junior center Nicolas Müller what it’s like to have a team that is constructed with less stars and more team play. He says it’s beneficial that MSU doesn’t need flashy players to score goals.

“(Our success) is playing all four lines,” he said. “That’s our success.”

It’s a stark contrast to last year’s team, which lost Mitchell Lewandowski in the middle of playing Michigan Tech in the Great Lakes Invitational. A complete lack of depth caused MSU to lose 15 of its next 16 games.

2. Adam Nightingale and his staff

A few things happened when Nightingale took over as head coach of Michigan State’s program.

MSU has completely transformed its strength and conditioning program, hiring new coach Brad Fast to focus on that. Conditioning was one of Michigan State’s biggest weaknesses. After watching this team’s third periods, that seems like a problem that is long gone.

Nightingale’s best decision in the preseason was to hire associate head coach Jared DeMichiel and assistant coach Mike Towns.

DeMichiel started as an associate coach with UMass in 2016-2017 amid a massive rebuild. Head coach Greg Carvell had just taken over a program that had one tournament appearance in its entire history. Since DeMichiel took over to his departure, UMass has become a big presence in the Hockey East conference. The Minutemen lost the national championship to Minnesota-Duluth in 2018, defeated St. Cloud State to win the tournament in 2021 and lost to Minnesota in the opening round in 2022’s tournament.

DeMichiel built a recruiting empire at UMass and there is no reason to believe he can’t replicate that at Michigan State.

Towns was previously on the coaching staffs of American International and Clarkson, both very competitive hockey programs.

3. Style of play

I firmly believe that Nightingale’s style of play resonates far more with current players than previous head coach Danton Cole’s did.

Nightingale has a quicker, more modern style whereas Cole leaned on a physical style that was popular in the 1990s. In talking with several of MSU’s players that returned this year, they all say that it’s definitely different.

Müller, who stayed with MSU through the transition, said that Nightingale was like a breath of fresh air.

“How coach Nightingale is approaching the game is really modern,” Müller said. “We have a lot of confidence in this team. And that comes from a lot of repetition and practice.”

One player who has really succeeded this year is senior forward Jagger Joshua, who was also with the team last season and really struggled. In his first three seasons with Michigan State, Joshua averaged 6.6 points per season, while playing nearly every game. In his first 12 games of this season, he has 10 points already and is on pace to earn 30.

Joshua fully moved up three lines. He was a bottom-line winger who really struggled at puck possession and battles along the boards. Now, he is on Michigan State’s top line alongside two freshman in Russell and Dorwart. That line has produced 11 total goals this season, 28 percent of the goals that MSU has scored, total.

What’s to come

For Nightingale, there are two keys to the team’s mantra: get better with every game and earn respect in the league.

This week, with Michigan State jumping into the rankings (No. 17), the Big Ten has six teams in the USCHO Top-20. Minnesota, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State are all ranked, leaving only Wisconsin without any votes at all.

It’s a tough conference, especially this season.

Michigan State hasn’t made a tournament since 2012 and hasn’t won a national title, or made the Frozen Four for that matter, since 2007. Every player on this team knows that and it is one of Nightingale’s biggest focuses, making this team earn its place in college hockey.

There will be some surprises along the way. At first, it was unclear if Michigan State could compete with UMass-Lowell, an above average team that MSU split with earlier in the season. After a road series against Notre Dame, MSU left much to be desired. But the Spartans picked things back up with a sweep of then-No. 10 Ohio State.

So is this team for real? We’ll learn more this weekend.

Michigan State takes on No. 6 Penn State on the road. A win would do a lot for MSU’s resume as the Nittany Lions are second in the Big Ten standings and are 10-2-0 with only one loss on home ice.