Back on home ice, No. 17 Spartans hope to return to ‘the best version of us’ vs. No. 5 Penn State


MSU forwards Karsen Dorwart and Nico Muller celebrate a goal together. / Photo Credit: Sarah Smith

Jacob Stinson, Hockey Beat Reporter

EAST LANSING — In a recent interview with the Pucks In Deep podcast, Penn State junior defenseman Jimmy Dowd Jr. was asked about the strength of the Big Ten, and he responded with a question of his own.

“Can I get a hot take here?” Dowd said. “I think Michigan State’s the best team we’ve played in the Big Ten so far.”

The podcast episode aired Monday, so it’s easy to laugh at Dowd for putting Michigan State, who have now lost seven of its last eight games, ahead of top-ten teams like Minnesota, Michigan or Ohio State.

Naturally, the hosts pressed him on what made Michigan State better than the rest.

“Everything,” Dowd said. “Their forecheck, their discipline defensively, and then just their ability to create on the line rush. At least that weekend, they were on.”

If his answer alone didn’t prove that his interview was dated, Dowd went on to mention an upcoming series with RIT. That series was played Dec. 30-31, meaning that Dowd hadn’t gotten to see MSU since then.

From the time that interview was recorded, the Spartans went on a lengthy road trip, and the results weren’t great. After two losses in the Great Lakes Invitational,  they resumed their conference schedule traveling to Ohio State, where they were humbled with 3-1 and 6-0 defeats. 

The latter was Michigan State’s most lopsided loss of the season. The things that Dowd highlighted as strengths — forechecking, discipline and breakouts — all became weaknesses the Buckeyes exploited.

Spartans coach Adam Nightingale attributed the performance to his team straying from its identity.

“It was the first time I really felt like we got away from being us,” he said. “And that’s our focus now. We’ve got to go and continue to be us and be the best version of us.”

Nightingale described that “best version” similarly to Dowd, focusing on his team’s high-tempo, aggressive style of play.

“We play fast, we play physical, we play in teams’ faces,” Nightingale said. “When we have the puck, we’re fast and attacking, and when we don’t have it, we’re closing and playing fast.”

Following a five-game road trip, the Spartans hope they can rediscover that identity on home ice. This weekend marks the first game at Munn Ice Arena since Dec. 9, a win over in-state rival Michigan. With another sold-out crowd, the team is hoping for a similar energy level in the rink this weekend.

“It’s always a little difficult playing on the road,” sophomore forward Jesse Tucker said. “Playing on our home turf here is obviously something that we always want to do. It’s going to be special to come back and get all the Munnsters riled up.”

Michigan State will need all the support it can get with Penn State in town. The Nittany Lions possess the most aggressive offense in the country, averaging the most shots on goal (39.9) and shot attempts (73.3) per game in the NCAA. With that pace of play, opponents cannot afford to get trapped in the defensive zone for long, which the Spartans have taken to heart.

“We know that they like taking a lot of pucks to the net,” freshman defenseman Viktor Hurtig said. “We’ve got…three good goalies, so we’ve just got to help them do their job.” 

Michigan State played a series at Penn State in November, where the road team took one of two contests. After a last-minute goal gave the Nittany Lions a 4-3 win, MSU responded with a dominant 7-3 victory the following night. After only scoring 1.4 goals per game since the start of December, the Spartans believe this matchup is just what they need to get back on track.

“We want to sweep again,” Hurtig said. “We played good against them when we were on the road. We could have won both games…I think we’ve got a lot of revenge on our team from the last couple of games we played.”

For Hurtig’s wish to come true, both him and Tucker emphasized the need to play smart team defense. They said that the team had been practicing defensive angling and stick work — things that were issues in Columbus.

“We’ve faced the problem,” Tucker said. “Obviously, we figured it out, and that’s why we’re practicing so hard to get back after figuring things out. Hopefully that kinda gets us out of that slump that we had in the past.”

Despite the recent struggles, the Spartans aren’t worried that it will become a trend.

“I feel like all teams have a dip sometime,” Hurtig said. “I guess ours is right now, which I feel like could be pretty good so we can get back up on a winning streak when we get to the playoffs later this year.”

Players to watch

Karsen Dorwart, F, Michigan State: Dorwart, much like the rest of Michigan State’s offense, has gone quiet, with only three points in his last eight games. For him to return to form, Penn State would be a great team to do it against. Last time in State College, Dorwart posted two goals and two assists, earning him Big Ten’s Second Star of the Week.

Dylan St. Cyr, G, Michigan State: St. Cyr got pulled for junior backup Pierce Charleson for the first time this season at Ohio State. Although he’s been remarkably consistent all year, a three-goal first period landed him a seat on the bench Saturday. Expect him to be eager to bounce back, but he’ll have his work cut out for him against Penn State’s uptempo offense.

Kevin Wall, F, Penn State: Wall leads the charge for Penn State on both sides of the puck. He leads the team in goals (11), points (20), plus/minus rating (+18), and he has blocked the most shots of any PSU forward (21). No matter where he’s at on the ice, count on Wall to make his presence felt.

Impact staff predictions

Stinson: Both teams split. Home ice advantage is critical this weekend with Michigan State coming off a five-game road trip. I think that a full Munn will give the Spartans the jolt they need, but Penn State is too good to drop both games on the road. Expect another high-scoring series.

Jacob Phillips, Hockey Beat Reporter: Both teams split. Penn State has been on a roll the entire season, and don’t expect that to change this weekend. But even with MSU losing their momentum from November, their first series back at home in a month will make a big difference. If they can clean up the mistakes seen against Ohio State, expect a one-goal win late on Saturday to split the series.

Ryan Radosevich, Hockey Beat Reporter: Penn State sweeps. It’s hard to imagine MSU will lose seven in a row, but with how solid PSU has looked over the course of the season paired with MSU’s shaky team defense and lack of goal scoring, the Spartans would need to play a nearly flawless game to pull out some wins. It’s the first time MSU has played on home ice since Dec. 9, and that will help, but will it be enough? I’m not convinced. This series will be a battle in both games for the full 60 minutes.