Spartans ‘goon it up’ in emotional loss to Michigan


Jack Moreland

Karsen Dorwart gets the puck past a Wolverine defender during Michigan State’s 4-2 loss to Michigan on February 10, 2023. Photo Credit: Jack Moreland/WDBM

Jacob Stinson, Hockey Beat Reporter

EAST LANSING — As Adam Fantilli skated to the Michigan locker room, the crowd at Munn Ice Arena showered him with boos. He had just been ejected for fighting with Michigan State’s Nash Nienhuis, so his night was over.

Instead of taking a straight line to the bench, Fantilli veered towards the student section, raised his hands and encouraged fans to boo him even louder.

They gladly obliged. 

On a night where the list of penalties was as long as a drugstore receipt, the brawl between Fantilli, Nienhuis and every other skater on the ice was the most potent memory of the Wolverines’ 4-2 win Friday night.

While tensions had been rising for the entire game, they boiled over when Fantilli cross-checked Nienhuis from behind after a stoppage. Other Spartans, including freshman Tiernan Shoudy, took issue and came to Nienhuis’ defense.

“We just had a little bit of grabbing,” Shoudy said. “And then I saw their two D coming down. I don’t know what happened from there. Everyone was just a mosh pit.”

That “mosh pit” resulted in 38 total penalty minutes and ejections to both Fantilli and Nienhuis.

Michigan State coach Adam Nightingale didn’t think much of the ordeal. Rather, he praised his team for playing with zeal while not losing its composure.

“I have a hard time calling any of that fighting,” Nightingale said. “I know they called it fighting, but there were scrums. There was emotion, right? That’s good, I think you’ve got to play the game with emotion.”

His squad had plenty of reasons to be emotional early. Michigan scored three goals — including one from Fantilli — in the first 12 minutes. Viktor Hurtig had one called back for goaltender interference. Referees intervened in scrums after nearly every whistle.

The first period made it clear the upstart Spartans were never going to be competitive in a track meet. They simply could not match the speed of a more talented team. They would need to be aggressive on the puck if they wanted a chance, so that’s what they did.

“Any time you give skillful players time and space, they’re going to make plays,” Nightingale said. “I thought we did that in the first, and then I thought in the second and third we did a better job of eliminating time and space.”

Michigan State would start a run of its own in the second. Shoudy would get the home team on the board, and the physicality forced the Wolverines to play on their heels for large swaths. 

After Shoudy’s goal, things hit the fan. Michigan’s Ethan Edwards was ejected for a hit to Matt Basgall’s head. Then came the Fantilli-Nienhuis fight. Countless other scrums ensued throughout the game.

Michigan interim coach Brandon Naurato didn’t take kindly to the change of pace.

“They can’t play with us,” Naurato said. “They can’t play with us unless they goon it up, so we got the bad end of the deal there.”

While Naurato’s comment can seem abrasive, he’s not completely wrong. 

The Wolverines are chock-full of NHL-ready talent. They dressed eight draftees Friday, including three first-round picks. Fantilli is a consensus top prospect in the upcoming draft. The Spartans’ highest draft pick, Hurtig, was picked in the sixth round. There simply aren’t enough skaters in green and white sweaters that can match Michigan’s pace, so playing the body becomes the only option. 

Senior forward Nicolas Müller scored in the third period, cutting the deficit to one. While the Spartans had their chances, they couldn’t get another past goalie Erik Portillo, who stopped 30 of 32 shots on goal.

With Dylan St. Cyr on the bench, Michigan State made one last-ditch effort to tie the game with an extra attacker. However, forward Gavin Brindley would send one into the empty net and seal the Wolverines win.

To no one’s surprise, there were more fights. A frustrated David Gucciardi and Cole Krygier would both go after Brindley and earn game misconducts with 1:01 left. If it wasn’t clear before, that moment proved just how deeply these two teams despised one another.

“You can ask any guy in that room…we hate these guys,” Michigan captain Nolan Moyle said. “And we always say, you can’t beat these guys enough.”

Overall, the in-state rivals would combine for 105 penalty minutes. Only an Oct. 23 game between Alaska and Omaha had more this season (143). The Spartans would account for 57 of those minutes, the most by any team not in the aforementioned Alaska-Omaha contest. 

After the game, Nightingale emphasized his team’s need to balance aggression and discipline, playing physically without taking unnecessary penalties.

“I thought our guys did a great job of not running their mouths,” Nightingale said. “We want to play between the whistles, and emotions boil over at times in scrums, and that’s part of our game.”

Shoudy shared the same sentiment.

“We just want to play between the whistles,” he said. “Like, we don’t want to be taking penalties there…I think we can play that style if that’s what they want to play, but I mean, that’s not necessarily what we always want to do.”

These two teams face off again Saturday night at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. Neither Fantilli nor Nienhuis will be allowed to play. The Spartans will need a short memory, but more importantly, they’ll need to avoid falling into the same traps that gave them almost an hour’s worth of penalties. Under the bright lights and larger crowd of an NHL rink, that challenge will only get more difficult.

Unlike the NHL, however, fighting leads to more than a five-minute trip to the penalty box. In college hockey, it could prove costly in an important late-season rivalry game.