Despite the hard effort, missed opportunities doom Spartans against Notre Dame

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EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State hockey fell to No. 8 Notre Dame 2-1 Saturday night at Munn Ice Arena, dropping both weekend games against the Irish and opening Big Ten play winless in two attempts. The Spartans played a complete game, exercising their best effort, but many missed chances turned out to be the difference.

“I don’t want our guys to lose confidence from something like that (dropping the series), they did a lot of things right, and that’s what you need to focus on moving forward,” MSU head coach Danton Cole said following the game. “That was a good hockey team that we played right with for 120 minutes this weekend, we’ll take that out of it and move forward.”

MSU set the tone early, getting pucks on net and generating quality chances in their attempt to salvage the series. The “KHL” line led this charge, with Patrick Khodorenko and Taro Hirose each firing off three shots and playing aggressively in the offensive zone. The Spartans’ best chance came at 10:59, when Khodorenko pounded a shot from the slot directly into the pads of Irish goaltender Cale Morris.

Despite 12 first-period shots, two power-play opportunities and a bevy of great chances, the scoreboard read 0-0 when the Spartans hit the dressing room for the first intermission.

“We’re making plays, in the first period we were buzzing, we had a lot of chances to put the puck in the net,” Khodorenko admitted. “We’re finding room out there to get the puck to the net and get rebounds. I wouldn’t say it’s just unlucky, we just have to find a way to get it in the net.”

Just into the second period, MSU would finally get the goal they worked so hard to earn. Seconds after the Irish killed off another Spartan power play, Hirose took a shot from the point, the puck rebounding off the pad of Morris right to Khodorenko who hammered home a well-deserved goal.

With a lead in hand, the Spartans took control, not allowing a Notre Dame shot until well into the second. But the first shot would be all the Irish needed. Colin Theisen generated a one-on-one against MSU goaltender John Lethemon. His first shot missed but Lethemon surrendered a juicy rebound, which Theisen promptly buried to even the score at 7:34.

Momentum changed in favor of the Irish, who began to control the puck and go to work in the Spartan defensive zone. This spurt came to fruition when Dylan Malmquist zipped a nice pass to Cal Burke in the slot, who put it past Lethemon for a power-play goal to give his team a 2-1 advantage with 5:45 remaining in the second. The score would remain that way heading into the final period of play.

“I thought we played really well,” Cole said. “There was a little lull but I thought at the end of the second period we got it back. The third was a little cat-and-mouse for the first 10 (minutes), but we had seven shots the last seven minutes, which is a good pace. I thought the guys battled to the end.”

Entering crucial minutes, the Spartans nearly gave up another goal early in the third when Lethemon strayed from the crease, allowing Notre Dame multiple shots at an open net. MSU bodies in front kept the puck out, and the teams settled in, playing evenly matched hockey in the first 10 minutes of the third period.

Michigan State played with a bit more added emphasis when the clock dipped below five minutes to go. There was an uptick in offensive chances, and at 18:46 the Spartans were presented a golden opportunity shortly after pulling the goaltender. Graham Slaggert had a shot at the empty net, but when Jerad Rosburg caught up to him and stole the puck, Slaggert tripped  Rosberg and sent MSU on the power play.

With Lethemon still pulled, the Spartans gained a 6-on-4 advantage for the final minute and change. The rest of the contest would be spent in the offensive zone, where MSU generated six shots and applied heavy pressure on Morris and the Irish. Lewandowski would have the best shot at the tie with 10.9 seconds to go, when he squandered a redirect chance on a wide-open net.

The Spartans had one more chance at the tie, as Khodorenko took one last shot off the draw that was blocked by Notre Dame to seal the game. Despite back-to-back great efforts, MSU dropped both weekend matchups with the No. 8 Irish.

“There’s going to be ebbs and flows of the game, they kind of had us on our heels, but I thought for the most part that we played a great 60 minutes,” said Khodorenko. “We had a lot of chances, especially at the end there.”

The loss drops the Spartans’ overall record to 4-6-0 and 0-2-0 in Big Ten play. Notre Dame now improves to 7-4-1 on the year and 4-2-0 in conference play. MSU outshot the Irish 29-22 while also gaining the edge in power play tries, 4-2. Khodorenko’s goal was assisted on by Hirose and Cody Milan.

John Lethemon took the loss, letting bad rebounds hurt him and falling to 4-3 on the year. Cale Morris had a stout night in net for the Irish with 28 saves, repeatedly fending off Spartan charges.

Four power-play opportunities were amongst the many chances MSU had all night long. They would go to waste though, as the Spartans went 0-for-4 with the man advantage. Nevertheless, freshman defenseman Dennis Cesana made some nice plays as the point guard of his power play unit. Cole quickly pointed this out during his postgame remarks.

“Dennis has done a good job, he’s going to be very good,” he said. “He’s a freshman, he understands that we haven’t gotten a power play goal in a couple games so he probably put some pressure on himself. He made some nice plays, he sees the ice tremendously well, he has a lot of confidence.”

This weekend’s results were not what the Spartans hoped for to open the Big Ten season, but positive takeaways can be made. MSU played a strong 120 minutes of hockey, going toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the nation. Experience from this test and confidence from the effort will serve as building blocks for a team who looks to compete in a tough Big Ten conference.

“To be honest, I think we should gain confidence from that (playing Notre Dame tough), I thought we played well,” Khodorenko said. “They’re a defensive team, and the Big Ten is a tough conference. We’ll keep getting better.”

Michigan State now looks to continue this confidence into their next series, when they visit No. 19 Minnesota this upcoming Friday and Saturday.

“We defended very well,” said Cole. “We just have to figure out a way to get a couple goals and take a little pressure off ourselves.”

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