Neil’s Notebook: After a Quick Break, It’s Back to Work for the Spartans

By Neil Koepke staff writer
EAST LANSING – The Christmas break was brief for Michigan State players, coaches and staff.
It lasted about a week, and now it’s back to work for the Spartans who are about to embark on a busy stretch – four games in seven days starting on Sunday against Penn State.
“It’s good to get away, and it’s more mentally than physically. You just need to check out for a little bit and reset and come back with energy,” MSU coach Danton Cole said. “The guys seem good, happy to be back. They have a lot of energy and want to play some games.
“It’s usually this way after Christmas. We don’t have classes for three weeks and we can just play hockey – practice and play games.”
The Spartans (3-3-2 overall, 2-3-1-2-0-1 Big Ten) begin the second phase of the Big Ten schedule when they face Penn State (3-5-0, 1-5-0) at 3 p.m. Sunday and 3 p.m. Monday at Munn Arena.
Then later next week, Michigan State plays a home-and-home series against Michigan – on Friday in Ann Arbor and Saturday at Munn Arena.
The Wolverines (5-5, 3-5-0-1-0-0), who last played on Dec. 9, are idle this weekend.
The Spartans, of course, won’t be focusing on Michigan until Tuesday, after they’ve dealt with a Penn State team that lost a ton of high-scoring forwards from last season, but one that hasn’t changed its philosophy of attacking offensively and putting a lot of shots on goal.
“They’re still a handful. They generate a lot of shots,” Cole said. “They started (the season) at Minnesota and that’s not an easy place to get going. But if you watch the second game, they played a really good game.”
The Nittany Lions lost their first five games – 4-1 and 3-2 at Minnesota, 6-3 and 7-3 at Wisconsin and 3-1 at home vs. Michigan. But Penn State rebounded with three straight victories – 9-5 against Michigan and two overtime, non-conference games with Arizona State, 3-2 and 5-4.
“They played Michigan tough in two games, losing the first and won 9-5 the second night, and then played Arizona State and got two overtime wins,” Cole said. “They’re kind of learning as they’re going. When you have some young guys, that happens
“But it’s the same style. You have to be vigilant with how you play defense, how you recover and how you close. It seems like a broken record – you have to do that against a lot of teams in the Big Ten.”
Last season, loaded with elite offensive weapons, the Nittany Lions had the seventh-best offense in the nation, averaging 3.56 goal a game. This year, PSU is 14th, averaging 3.38.
“Penn State’s style is very similar and it’ll give you problems if you’re not attentive to detail and if you get too loose, they’ll make you pay,” Cole said. “We’ve seen them do that this year.”
Penn State lost 10 players from last year that accounted for 81 goals and 210 points. Departed forwards include senior Nate Sucese (11 goals, 27 assists, 38 points), the team’s top scorer last year; junior Evan Barratt (12-22-34); senior Liam Folkes (11-14-25); senior Brandon Biro (10-15-25); senior Dennis Smirnov (8-11-19), and senior Nikita Pavlychev (7-7-14). Like Barrett, standout defenseman Cole Hults (8-22-30) gave up his senior year of eligibility and signed an NHL contract. Barrett signed with the Blackhawks while Hults is now part of the Kings organization.
In addition, goalie Peyton Jones graduated, leaving the Nittany Lions with two inexperienced goaltenders – junior Oskar Autio (eight career games) and freshman Liam Souliere.
The Spartans had to test negative for Covid-19 three times before going on the ice for practice. They practiced for the first time Wednesday afternoon.

“We’ll get in four practices before Penn State,” Cole said. “They’ll be a challenge. They play fast and will be coming at us. It’ll be a good way to get going in the second half.”


In MSU’s last series, the Spartans tied Notre Dame, 1-1 (losing in the shootout), and defeated the Irish 4-3 on Tommy Miller’s highlight-reel goal in overtime.


When asked during Wednesday’s media availability on Zoom what areas he’d like to see his team improve, Cole said what most coaches would say.


“Eight games in and with the spotty schedule, the answer is easy – it’s everything,” he said. “The way I’ve always approached it, you just keep getting better at all things as the season goes on.


“Overall, one thing I would want us to do is do things faster. Not necessarily skill-based things but thinking-based faster. You look at the last Notre Dame game where in the (first and second) periods we defended extremely well. We battled but we spent way too much time (defending).


“In the third period, I don’t want to say we opened up but we got things going and played faster. We moved pucks better and were harder on pucks. It’s understanding how we want to play and play fast.


“When we’ve done that, we’ve been a dangerous team. And when we haven’t, we’ve been fine but we’ve had to defend a bit too long.”

THE RIVALRY: Penn State holds a 15-11-4 edge in the series which started with a 5-3 Michigan State victory at Munn Arena on Jan. 25, 2013.


Last season, the teams split both series. The Spartans won 2-0 and lost 6-4 at Penn State in early November. Michigan State won the series opener 4-2 at Munn Arena on Jan. 24, but in the series finale, the Nittany Lions pulled out a 2-1 win in overtime to salvage a split.


Over the last five seasons, Penn State is 13-6-1 against MSU.

SCOUTING THE NITTANY LIONS: Alex Limoges returned for his senior year and leads PSU in scoring with 5 goals and 4 assists for 9 points in 8 games. Limoges, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound left wing from Winchester, Virginia, was third in team scoring last season with 11 goals and 21 assists for 32 points. In four seasons, Limoges has 46 goals and 66 assists for 112 career points.


Other top forwards include sophomore Kevin Wall (3-4-7), Tim Doherty (3-3-6), a graduate transfer from Maine, sophomore Connor MacEachern (1-5-6), junior Aarne Talvitie (3-2-5), freshman Jared Westcott (1-4-5) and sophomore Connor McMenamin (2-2-4).


Key defensemen include junior Paul DeNaples and seniors Evan Bell and Clayton Phillips.


PSU freshman defenseman Jimmy Dowd, who’s played in six games, is the son of former Lake Superior high-scoring forward Jim Dowd, who won a NCAA title with the Lakers in 1988 and played in 728 games over 16 seasons in the NHL. He played with 10 teams – the New Jersey Devils, Vancouver Canucks, New York Islanders, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild, Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche and Philadelphia Flyers.


Jim Dowd and MSU coach Danton Cole were teammates with the 1994-95 New Jersey Devils when they swept the Red Wings 4-0 to win the Stanley Cup.


Jimmy Dowd, 20, is 5-foot-9, and 161 pounds, and, like his father, shoots right. He played two seasons with the Chicago Steel of the U.S. Hockey League before enrolling at Penn State. He was born in Point Pleasant, New Jersey.


Thus far this season, Penn State’s goaltending has been shaky. Oskar Autio, a junior, has played in five games and is 2-3-0 with a 3.80 goals-against average and a .864 saves percentage. Liam Souliere, a freshman from Brampton, Ontario, has appeared in three games and is 1-2 with a 4.36 GAA and a .860 saves percentage.


Penn State’s power play is converting at 25.9 percent (7-for-27), while the penalty killing units are skating off 70.8 percent of opponents’ power plays (17-for-24).


The Nittany Lions are averaging 41.25 shots on goal per game (2nd in the nation, 1st in Big Ten) while allowing an average of 29.38 (26th, 4th).


Coach Guy Gadowsky left Princeton to start the Penn State program in 2011. He’s in his 9th season as Nittany Lions coach and has a 148-125-23 record. Gadowsky, who coached Alaska Fairbanks for five seasons, has a 21-year career coaching record of 321-323-60.


The Spartans and Nittany Lions will be seeing a lot of each other over the next two weeks. MSU plays at Penn State Jan. 15-16.

Michigan State vs. Minnesota, Dec. 3, 2020

SOLID DEFENSE: While Michigan State has struggled to score goals, defense and goaltending have been a bright spot in the team’s first eight games.


Goalie Drew DeRidder is off to an excellent start with a stellar 1.96 goals-against average and a strong .940 saves percentage. DeRidder, who’s played in every game, ranks 2nd in the Big Ten and 16th nationally in GAA. His saves percentage is 2nd in the conference and 9th nationally.


Meanwhile, MSU’s defensive corps, which includes one senior, three juniors and four freshmen, has defended well. They’ve protected DeRidder with solid defensive play, blocked shots and have moved the puck out of the zone fairly well.


The veterans – senior Tommy Miller and juniors Dennis Cesana, Cole Krygier and Christian Krygier – have led the way, but freshmen Aiden Gallacher and Nash Nienhuis have logged good minutes and contributed.


Freshman Powell Connor dressed for both games at Notre Dame and found playing time, especially when Christian Krygier was ejected for a check from behind early in the third period in the first game and after Cole Krygier was given a game misconduct for a check from behind midway through the first period in the series finale.


“I think it’s been pretty good. Gaps, defending and closing out have been pretty good,” Coach Danton Cole said of his team’s early play on defense. “I would like to be a little better on the breakout. I think that would lead back to gapping up and getting back to pucks a little quicker.


“With our neutral-zone offense, our defense has managed the puck fairly well but I think that needs to improve. We need to be closer to 100 percent on that.”


The Spartan coach credits the veteran defensemen with helping the freshmen adjust to the college game.


“They’ve done a good job with the young guys,” Cole said. “Gallacher and Nienhuis have gotten most of the time as freshmen. I think in the Minnesota series, they made a nice jump from game one to game two. They accomplished things and confidence comes from that – it’s doing a lot of small things right and they got a bit of a bump there.


Powell Connor had to get some minutes against Notre Dame, and for not playing (in a game) for 10 months, he was outstanding.”


Cole said Cesana and Miller have been impressive.


“Our top four have been solid. Dennis has logged a lot of ice time and I thought he was outstanding in the Notre Dame series,” he said. “He’s jumping into the play when he should, not taking too may chances unless it’s the right time. He’s defending really well, running the power play and killing penalties.


“And Tommy Miller has been a rock back there. I like those guys that keep getting better every year and Tommy has done that. I’ve been really impressed with him, as well.”

SPARTANS STATS: Linemates Charlie Combs and Josh Nodler share the team scoring lead with six points apiece. Combs, a graduate transfer, has three goals and three assists. Nodler, a sophomore, has six assists. Nodler centers Combs on left wing and freshman A.J. Hodges on right wing.

Mitchell Lewandowski and Nicolas Muller are tied for third with five points. Lewandowski has two goals and three assists while Muller has one goal – the overtime winner at Ohio State on Nov. 28 – and four assists.


MSU’s power play has converted on only two of 25 chances (8%). Penalty killing is at 84.8% (28-for-33).

IN THE BIG TEN: Only one other Big Ten team plays this weekend. Minnesota (8-0-0, 8-0-0-0-0-0), ranked No. 1 in both polls, plays host to Arizona State (4-6-2) in a non-conference series on Saturday and Sunday.


A full schedule resumes next weekend, highlighted by two rivalry series – Michigan State vs. Michigan and Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Spartans and Wolverines play Friday in Ann Arbor and Saturday in East Lansing. The Gophers and Badgers meet Saturday and Sunday in Madison.


Penn State plays at Ohio State on Friday and Saturday, while Notre Dame plays host to Arizona State in a non-conference series on Saturday and Sunday.