Michigan State’s top line continues to impress: ‘We seem to gel together really well’


Sarah Smith

Cole Krygier shoots the puck during Michigan State’s tie with No. 5 Penn State on January 14, 2023. Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

Jacob Stinson, Hockey Beat Writer

EAST LANSING — When putting together a top forward line, most people would expect a combination of skill and experience, pairing skilled goal-scorers with veterans that know where to find them. Most wouldn’t expect two freshmen and a senior with eight goals in his first three years to mesh well.

For Michigan State, however, it’s worked beautifully.

All three stars of the Spartans’ shootout win over No. 5 Penn State play on the top forward line: Jagger Joshua the first star, Karsen Dorwart the second and Daniel Russell the third. The trio combined for three goals, three assists and two shootout goals to earn the extra point and take both games at home Saturday night.

There are a lot of reasons why that top line has been so effective. Still, one of its biggest strengths is a mutual understanding of each player’s respective roles, which Michigan State coach Adam Nightingale says allows each player to play to their potential.

“Player development is understanding who you are and what makes you great,” Nightingale said. “You combine those three together when they’re playing their best, it looks like that.”

Joshua’s role is the most clearly defined of the bunch. Before this season, he had always fit the enforcer role above anything else. While he was 6-foot-3 and an imposing player, he only had 20 points over his first 98 games, mostly relying on his physicality instead. However, when Nightingale and his staff took over in May, they saw something different.

“I didn’t spend much time analyzing Jags’ game before,” Nightingale said. “We kind of just got here and looked at what we had. I saw a big, powerful guy that wants to play a power game and that’s maybe got better hands than people give him credit for, and maybe that he thought.” 

That powerful game was on full display Saturday. Joshua scored three goals — his second hat trick of the season — all within feet of goalie Liam Souliere’s crease. The first two came on nearly identical plays, where Joshua set up shop on the far post and tapped in two slick passes from Dorwart, tying the game at three apiece.

“Ironically, that was something that was an emphasis this week in practice,” Joshua said. “Our coaching staff did a great job of pre-scouting and putting me in the right spot, and I was just lucky to have an opening out there.”

Penn State would take the lead again on a Danny Dzhaniyev goal in the third, but it wouldn’t last for long. It took 11 seconds for Joshua to tip in the equalizer, which would ultimately send the game to overtime.

Since focusing on his hands with Nightingale, Joshua’s game has clearly reached a new level. With his frame, he’s repeatedly been able to get to the front of the net and score from tight angles, and defenses have had trouble stopping him.

“I think my body and the work I put in the gym makes it a little hard for the defending opponents too, I guess, get me out of the way,” Joshua said. “I think it just comes down to my work ethic and using my body to my advantage.”

While Joshua was the star Saturday, that’s not to say that all credit falls on him. He took the time to credit both freshmen for finding him in great spots to score.

“Playing with two great players like Russell and Dorwart has helped me out tremendously,” Joshua said. “I mean, just like you saw the first two goals, that wouldn’t happen without my linemates.”

Dorwart got the primary assist on Joshua’s first two goals, making the same pass to the same spot on the ice. As the center, he takes plenty of pride in his playmaking, which he says flourishes because of the space his line creates for him.

“Those two guys are both incredible players,” Dorwart said. “They both have a lot of speed, so when they’re flying down the wall it opens up a lot of space…So I think (I’m) just getting the puck into their hands and just letting them do their thing.”

When the game reached overtime, however, the Spartans turned to three freshmen. Nightingale started a lineup of Dorwart, Russell and defenseman Matt Basgall to set the tone.

“I think it shows the belief the coaching staff has in all of us freshmen, not just me. Then, you know, playing with Russ and Bazzy there in overtime, you have confidence playing with guys like that just because, you know, they’re so good.”

With the open ice that a 3-on-3 overtime provides, teams often opt for speed and quickness with the puck, and that’s what Russell provides. 

“Russ is so shifty,” Dorwart said. “Like, no one can hit him.”

While neither team scored, the group delivered with stout defense after a slash on Joshua gave Penn State the 4-on-3 advantage. Russell delivered with a strong forecheck that slowed down the most uptempo team in college hockey.

Russell’s two-way impact is hard to match. He and Dorwart are tied for the team lead in points (22), and he has the second-highest plus/minus rating of any Spartan (+11). For as shifty and agile as he is with the puck, Russell rarely stops moving away from it. 

“Russ really works, you know,” Nightingale said. 

While Saturday’s game would go in the record book as a tie, the shootout presented an opportunity for the Spartans to pick up an extra point in the Big Ten standings. After Tanner Kelly scored on his signature forehand-to-backhand move, Dorwart was up next.

“I can’t give away my secrets,” he said, “but, I don’t know, (I was) just trying to come in with a little speed and get a quick shot off. The ice was kind of chopped up, so I wasn’t trying to do anything too fancy.”

With a quick wrist shot and not much stickhandling, Dorwart put the Spartans up 2-0 in the shootout. Connor MacEachern would score on the Nittany Lions’ next attempt, leaving Russell with a chance to win if he scored.

He fumbled the puck slightly, but he recovered and buried it. Souliere broke his stick over the crossbar, and the Spartans walked out with both the extra point and three of four wins over Penn State. 

With that point, Michigan State now sits in a three-way tie for second place in the Big Ten, and it has the first line to thank for all but one goal and one shootout goal. 

According to them, it all comes back to each member playing well within their respective roles. 

“The biggest part is playing with two players that understand my game, and I understand theirs,” Joshua said. “We seem to gel together really well.”