Michigan State hockey coach Danton Cole explains why Friday night’s 5-0 win over Michigan just before the Christmas break was so important.
Graham Couch / Lansing State Journal
EAST LANSING – Michigan State’s hockey team needed this in the worst way.
All of it. Exactly how it unfolded. The who, what, when and where.
The Spartans thumped Michigan, 5-0, Friday night. That result, on any weekend, any year, will do just fine for MSU.
This wasn’t just any weekend or any year, however. MSU’s early season buzz had worn off. Danton Cole’s first season as head coach was one rough night away from heading into Christmas break with all the momentum of four straight humbling losses, including a sweep at the hands of the Wolverines, securing the Spartans’ place at the bottom of the Big Ten during a long winter of rebuilding.
At least that’s how this column might have gone.
Instead, MSU will spend the coming weeks sensing that hope has been restored, feeling like a .500 hockey team that, at 8-9-1, has now won more games before Hanukkah than it won all of last season. This was no small win, either, for a fan base that’s yearning to believe again. This was an exciting brand of hockey, a chippy game, played at Munn.
“Hey, we want validation for the players. We want it for the fans,” Cole said. “We’ve had some real good crowds here in getting up over 6,000 a couple of times the last three games. That’s important. And it’s important they see the program’s moving in the right direction and we’re getting there.”
And also important that it was the Spartans’ young, talented but slumping top line that made much of it happen Friday.
Sophomores Taro Hirose and Patrick Khodorenko and freshman Mitchell Lewandowski combined for 10 points Friday night, including three of the five goals (two by Khodorenko, one by Lewandowski). They were efficient on the power play, 3-for-4, not counting the final opportunity when Cole used his third line with the game out of reach.
This, after an eight-period scoreless streak for that line and the team, dating back to Hirose’s goal in the final minute of the first period in a 3-1 loss to Notre Dame a week earlier.
“It was good for them, they zipped it around. They were much better,” Cole said. “We rely a lot on them, and that’s a lot of pressure on two sophomores and a freshman.”
The first and third goals were examples of what makes MSU’s top group sometimes special. Both were patient and perfectly placed passes from Hirose — the first onto the stick of Khodorenko several feet from the net five seconds into a power play, the next Hirose to Lewandowski, again with a man advantage. The first goal changed the character of the game in MSU’s favor for the rest of the night.
The second goal, also Khodorenko’s second goal, came just before the horn sounded on the first period. Sophomore defenseman Jerad Rosburg’s shot from the blue line caught Khodorenko’s stick with 4.9 seconds left for a 2-0 lead.
Mitch Eliot and Logan Lambdin also scored, with Eliot’s goal late in the second period slamming the door on the Wolverines.
“Just playing to the Christmas break, guys had that in the back in their heads that it means something that we were on top of our game,” Hirose said. “It’ll give a lot of guys confidence. To see a guy like Eliot get that big goal to put the game out of reach, that’s something huge for his confidence.”
If the Spartans looked like they had confidence, Hirose gave it to them.
“When he goes and plays like that, it gives everyone confidence,” Cole said. “I’ve played with guys like that. They just make plays. They make things look easy. It gets guys up on the bench. He was OK (Thursday) night. He wasn’t bad, he wasn’t good, he was just OK. I put a little bit on that line today to lead us.”
Sophomore goaltender John Lethemon did, as well, shutting out the Wolverines and grabbing some key early whistles, a night after playing well but losing 4-0.
Christmas breaks in college hockey are long and usually welcomed in what can feel like a 14-month season. Sometimes for the wrong reasons. Last year’s loss to Northeastern at Munn just before the holiday break turned out to be the moment the season, and Tom Anastos’ tenure, were unsalvageable.
This is a considerably different vibe. Folks will look forward to the Spartans’ return in January. The Spartans will look forward to their return.
“It’s big for our group,” Cole said. “To come back and play a really good game tonight and not get anything out of it would have been tough.”
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.