Spartans enter final stretch eyeing tournament bid

John+Lethemon%2FPhoto%3A+MSU+Athletic+Communications

John Lethemon/Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

Kyle Hatty, Hockey Beat Reporter

Danton Cole and his Spartan hockey team find themselves in a position not many people thought they would be in as the second semester gets underway. The No. 20 Spartans are in a position where if they finish the season strong, they could find themselves in the 16-team NCAA tournament with a shot to play in the Frozen Four in Detroit. This is shocking after losing Taro Hirose and Zach Osburn last year and playing one of the hardest schedules in Division I hockey.

As of Sunday, the Spartans sit tied for second place in the Big Ten with Ohio State, and two points behind Penn State for first place. The remainder of Michigan State’s 12 games are conference games but only five will be at home. This could hurt the Spartans, because they are 6-4-1 at home but 4-5 on the road.

Every game remaining in the regular season is a must win. The Spartans must keep the standings close with Penn State to secure not only home ice, but a bye in the conference tournament.

Michigan State’s success will start and end with senior goalie John Lethemon. He has carried the team to where it is, and he will be the pivotal factor in all of its games. The Spartans are a much better team when they know there’s a top tier goalie in net for them who allows them to take some risks in the offensive and neutral zones.

Lethemon has put up stellar numbers this season. He ranks tenth nationally in goals allowed average, coming in at 1.96. He’s also  fifth nationally in save percentage with a 93.9% mark on the year. One of his biggest claims though, is shutouts. He is tied for second nationally in shutouts, what may be even more impressive is who they came against. He didn’t shut out just anyone, he shut out potent offenses in big games. They have come against Arizona State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. Lethemon has shown all season that when his team needs him most, he will step up and keep the Spartans  in every game.

But Lethemon needs help up front, and he is getting it from a team loaded with upperclassmen. They are helping him out as much as they can, and are doing it well—ranked 18th nationally in overall team defense.

The skaters are also thriving on special teams. The Spartans rank 26th nationally in power play, converting on 19% of their man advantage opportunities. On the penalty kill, they are just as good, ranking 27th nationally in penalty kill percentage, successfully killing 82% of their penalties.

One thing that has been evident in the Spartans’ games is them imposing their will and making the game go at the pace they want it to. They aren’t a potent offensive group like Penn State or Wisconsin but they’re showing they don’t need to be. Lethemon allows them to play a physical, defensive game like this team wants to. They are imposing their physicality on teams and making the most of their chances. So far, it has made them successful.

On that front end, they are able to roll four lines without worrying about any line being insufficient. All four lines know their role and have done it well.

They have two lines up top that are able to put the puck in the net, led by the first line of Patrick Khodorenko, who leads the team in points with 22 (11 goals, 11 assists). On his wings are junior Mitchell Lewandowski, who has been playing extremely well as of late and picked up where he left off last season. The other wing is senior captain Sam Saliba who has seemingly found his home in the lineup after multiple players have been placed on that top line to find Hirose’s replacement.

However, it appears Danton Cole has found his answer in Saliba. The other lines are centered by freshman Josh Nodler, who has already developed his game a lot in his first couple months in East Lansing, Tommy Apap, who ranks in the top 10 nationally in faceoff percentage, and leads the conference in that same category and has taken on first reps on the stellar penalty kill along with winger Brody Stevens.

The last line is centered by Calgary Flames draft pick Mitchell Mattson, who centers one of the most underrated fourth lines in the conference with Swiss freshman winger Nicolas Müller, who has shown flashes of being an incredible playmaker, enough to earn him time on the first line as well as power play minutes.

The Spartans finds themselves in a favorable position as the postseason rapidly approaches. The Spartans are the last team in the Big Ten who have never reached the championship game in the conference tournament. That could change this year thanks to all the reasons listed above, and this upperclassmen-led team who has developed a deep lineup and could make some noise this March.

Contact Kyle Hatty at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @KyleHattyIN.