Michigan State Slowly Digging Out
Michigan State is still last in the Big Ten, but only eight points separate the Spartans from the No. 2 spot. Overall Michigan State already has eight wins, as much as the team had last season and more than it had in 2015-16.
Michigan State is a young team that’s been buoyed by some new faces and the emergence of goaltender John Lethemon. But at the helm of the turnaround is bench boss Danton Cole, who returned to his alma mater after coaching in the National Team Development Program. There is a long way still to go, but so far, Cole is putting the pieces he wants in place.
“What we really had looked at doing was just some of the values in some of the ways that we wanted to play, in terms of how our work ethic was, in how the guys functioned as a team, how they bought into certain things,” Cole said.
“That would probably be, I don't want to say surprise, but the happiest part about just the amount of learning that our guys have been able to do and how they've been able to apply it to games. And culture-wise how we've set some pretty good standards for how we're going to do things around here.”
Due to NCAA rules, the team couldn’t spend much time together on the ice, but Cole and his coaching staff learned to work with the team as people.
"That first month it was kind of nice," Cole said. "Yeah I wish we were on the ice a lot more but it was nice actually not being able to, being limited allowed us to spend maybe some more personal time with the guys and I think that's helped tremendously."
Cole said a team goal was to get the team’s goals allowed per game below three and goals scored per game above three. Last year the team scored 2.40 goals per game and gave up 3.83 goals per game. Both totals ranked in the bottom 10 in the country. Goaltending also struggled, with Ed Minney and Lethemon posting a .883 and .873 save percentage per game, respectively.
The numbers haven’t shifted too much; the Spartans so far are averaging 2.39 goals per game and giving up 3.14 goals per game. But the team’s improvement is there nonetheless. Freshman Mitch Lewandowski has powered the offense. Both he and Taro Hirose have 21 points, averaging 1.17 points per game. Hirose is just three points away from last season’s total and the pair are 10 points away each from matching [[Mason Appelton]]’s team-leading total of 31 points.
“Our chances and opportunities to score have been good,” Cole said. “Our next thing we need to do is capitalize more on it. One of our goals was to try and get our goals against from last year down to under three and get our goals for up over three, and the offensive end has been more of a challenge. … You can be great in the offensive zone and have a bunch of great shooters and scorers, but if you never get there you don't have that opportunity. We looked at it in a little more of a holistic approach where we've got to be better at all of these things and that'll lead to us eventually being a better offensive team."
On the other end the team is slowly lowering the amount of goals it allows per game, showing shades of the previous defense-minded Michigan State teams. Lethemon has factored into that, as he started 16 games and has a .916 save percentage.
“The work that he put in over the spring and summer getting in shape and getting the right type of mindset that he was going to be a good goalie and he was going to keep getting better, and if he has a bad game of there's a blip, which happens to every goaltender, that it wasn't going to affect him,” Cole said. “He's been able to bounce back when he's had just an average game and been really good for us the next night."