Lethemon stars, Spartans drop shootout to Michigan

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EAST LANSING, Mich.—It came down to a shootout Friday night in the first of back-to-back games between bitter rivals Michigan and Michigan State. After 65 minutes of closely contested play, it was the visiting Wolverines that came out with the happier bus ride from Munn Ice Arena.

In the fourth contest of the season in college hockey’s most-played rivalry, No. 19 Michigan (13-13-3 overall, 8-10-3-2 Big Ten) used a top-shelf shootout goal from Tony Calderone to snatch away the upper hand from the Spartans (10-17-2 overall, 4-13-2-1 Big Ten) after a 1-1 tie following regulation and overtime.

“I thought they battled really hard, I thought we did a lot of good things, blocked a lot of pucks,” MSU coach Danton Cole said. “It was a pretty even game.”

Early in the game, MSU’s Jake Smith went down hard after a devastating hit from UM defenseman Joseph Cecconi. Cecconi was ejected and assessed a 5-minute major for the hit. However, the Spartans couldn’t take advantage in the ensuing power play, only mustering up one shot on goal, saved by Hayden Lavigne.

“Always give credit to the other team, especially on a five-minute one where you don’t get much,” Cole said. “We were patient and we handled the puck well, but we kind of accepted being on the outside. We gotta get a few pucks on net, loosen them up and then good plays will be made.”

The rest of the period went without much action. Patrick Khodorenko missed on the Spartans’ best chance of the first 20 minutes. Outside of that shot, the Wolverines seemed a step ahead of the Spartans, controlling possession on offense and being active on every puck on defense.

Michigan opened the scoring 5:06 into the second period on Quinn Hughes’s second goal of the season. The Spartans didn’t muster many chances until 4:43 left in the period, when Carson Gatt hammered home a timely pass from Taro Hirose for a 4-on-4 goal. It was Gatt’s fourth goal of the year, and all of a sudden, the Spartans were right back in the thick of the game.

“Anytime [Hirose] has the puck in his hands, good things seem to happen,” Gatt said. “He did a fake shot and put it right on my tape. Thankfully for his sake and our team’s sake, I found it.”

The second period certainly ignited some rivalry-induced fire into both teams. Coinciding roughing penalties were called twice in the period, with the last closing out the period with 4-on-4 play.

Neither team could gain an advantage in the third period. Even as the Munn crowd of 5,917—the third-largest home crowd of the season—gained energy as the period went on, a tiebreaking score was never tallied. Lethemon withstood one final Wolverine push with four big saves in the last two minutes of regulation, forcing a five-minute overtime period.

Lethemon starred in goal all night for the Spartans, saving 37 shots against a Wolverine offense that ranks 14th in the nation in goals per game.

“He was phenomenal,” Gatt said of the sophomore goaltender. “Even on that goal, the defense didn’t do a great job, kind of left him out to dry. He was square to all the pucks, he was blocking them with his glove, his blocker. I think he blocked one off the head, too.”

Both teams had plenty of chances to win it in the overtime period, but both Lethemon and Lavigne stood strong in goal and forced a shootout.

The Spartans’ KHL line of Khodorenko, Hirose and Mitch Lewandowski was stopped on all three shootout attempts before Calderone put home a top-shelf shot over Lethemon’s head to win it for the visitors.

“It’s gonna happen, I can’t stop every single one,” a somber Lethemon said. “Hats off to him, he made a really nice shot.”

The teams traveled down the road to Detroit immediately following the game to prepare for Saturday’s Duel in the D at Little Caesars Arena. The event enters its third season and offers a rare chance for the teams to add to their trophy collection midseason.

“I think they’re fired up about tomorrow and we’ll try to take that tone going in. Hey, tonight was a tie, and if we win the game tomorrow, it’s a heck of a weekend.”

Faceoff for the teams’ last regularly scheduled matchup of the season is set for 7:00 p.m Saturday. The two teams have split the contests since the event’s creation in 2016. Michigan most recently hoisted the “Iron D” trophy after a shootout win last season at Joe Louis Arena.

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