EAST LANSING, Mich. — Two former CCHA rivals, a back and forth contest and a loud Munn Arena. This was a game that Ron Mason would be proud of.
Michigan State edged Bowling Green 3-2 Saturday at Munn Arena in what was their first win of the season and the first victory of the Danton Cole era.
“I like winning, I don’t care if I’m playing my daughters in checkers I like winning,” Cole said.
After dropping their season opener to the Falcons 4-1, Michigan State came out with sophomore John Lethemon between the pipes and a renewed emphasis on limiting mental lapses.
Both teams traded power plays within the first few minutes and played each other evenly through the first period. A little over thirteen minutes in though, freshman Tommy Apap found himself alone in front for the net un-covered. When a quick shot by Zach Osburn produced a rebound, Apap made no mistake in flipping the puck up over the outstretched pad of BG netminder Ryan Bednard and into the back of the net.
“It was right spot, right time I was lucky,” Apap said.
The Bloomfield Hills native’s first collegiate goal gave Michigan State the 1-0 lead.
Two minutes later, Bowling Green would even the score after forward Brandon Kruse sent a hard low shot on the ice that Lethemon couldn’t pick up. Kruse’s power-play goal marked his first of his career as the Spartans and Falcons entered the locker room deadlocked in almost every category.
The second period was mostly the same as the first, only this time it was Bowling Green getting the lead after a breakdown in defensive coverage allowed junior Shane Bednard to get the puck wide open and flip it up over the shoulder of Lethemon. Bednard’s first career goal gave BG the 2-1 lead and momentum.
Not two minutes later though, the Spartans would respond on the power play. This time from sophomore Patrick Khodorenko, who scored an NHL quality goal from below the right hand circle.
“I just caught him sleeping a little bit and picked the corner,” Khodorenko said. “Usually, even on the power play, you usually don’t go for those.”
The Spartans took the 2-2 tie into the second intermission, deadlocked in score and in shots at 19 a piece.
Last year, the Spartans would normally come out in the third period flat, playing on their heels. Too many times last season they would give up the go-ahead goal early and be playing from behind.
Not so on Saturday.
Led by the first line of Khodorenko, Taro Hirose and Mitchell Lewandowski, the Spartans dominated the play and put the Falcons under siege.
“There is a fun way to play hockey and that’s with smart players and you throw three of the guys out there and they fill lanes,” Cole said. “Their offensive theory, or understanding of how to come through the zones and fill the right areas, not everyone has that.”
Several good opportunities were had in the third period including a breakaway for Hirose, who made a good move but was stoned by Bednard.
“It was a little frustrating, didn’t end up how I wanted it,” Hirose said.
After two failed power play attempts, it seemed to the 4,276 fans at Munn that this game might be heading into overtime.
But Hirose had other ideas.
With under a minute to play, Hirose took a pass from Lewandowski near the top of the right circle with a Falcon defender coming right at him.
“Lewie [Lewandowski] passed me the puck in the middle, I was gonna take the shot but the guy came up a little fast on me so I thought I could get by him,” Hirose said. “Got by him and I was on my backhand so I just tried to get it to my forehand and get something on net.”
Not only did Hirose get “something” on net, but he sent a wicked wrister into the top shelf to give the Spartans the lead with 40 seconds remaining. Munn erupted in pandemonium.
“The crowd was great tonight, the students were outstanding, there was a good buzz,” Cole said. “It was like every period there’s more people there. By the last period, I went to [assistant coach]Joe [Exter] I go ‘I think our guesses on the attendance were way off.’”
Aided by the crowd, the Spartans held on for a hard fought 3-2 victory against a Bowling Green squad that should be a factor in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The win not only marked the first home win for MSU in 2017, but a big momentum boost going forward.
“These games are huge for us, for our confidence,” said Khodorenko. “Last year we started 0-4 and that didn’t really help our confidence at all.”
The Spartans finished the game with 35 shots on goal to Bowling Green’s 24. Michigan State was also 1-for-5 on the power play and are 22 percent on the man advantage so far this season. The test now is to build off this confidence and be ready to play a feisty Western Michigan squad next weekend.
But for right now, Cole believes that despite the many challenges, and the struggles this team has yet to face, this team is a group that has great chemistry.
“There’s a lot of challenges and a lot of miles to go in the process but I like what they’re doing. They’re maximizing, I think, some of the things that we have and you know what, their youth and inexperience is great,” Cole said. “They just keep working. Even the four guys that didn’t play today were right in the middle of the mix. It’s a good group of 25 guys and they’re gonna be a lot of fun.”