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Michigan hockey series preview: Michigan State

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After a pair of series splits, the Wolverines get an opponent they should have an easier time with.

Duel In The D: Michigan v Michigan State
Michigan and Michigan State face off this weekend for a two-game series.
Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

After two series that proved to be tougher than expected, the No. 3/4 Michigan Wolverines hockey team should get a reprieve this weekend in the form of an in-state rival.

Since the Big Ten began sponsoring hockey in 2013-14, Michigan State has been the weakest team in the conference. The Spartans haven’t had a winning season since 2011-12, which was also the last time they appeared in an NCAA Tournament. They’ve posted a winning record in Big Ten play just once, in 2014-15. After coach Danton Cole’s first three seasons appeared promising, MSU bottomed out last year and finished in the conference basement with a record of 7-18-2.

To be clear, Michigan State (4-3-1, 1-1 Big Ten) shouldn’t be overlooked. They’ve got what appears to be a bit more offensive talent than last season and their goaltending is by far their biggest strength — exactly what you need if you want to steal a game against a team like Michigan. There are very few truly awful teams in college hockey and the Spartans aren’t one of them. But this still is a team the Wolverines (6-2, 1-1) will want to sweep, and do so with little trouble.

Getting in the way of things will be senior Drew DeRidder, a veteran of the United States National Team Development Program and a starter of 50 games during his career. Not a very big goalie at 5-foot-11, DeRidder makes up for it with terrific positioning and mobility.

DeRidder was the youngest goalie in the nation during his freshman season, in which he started 17 games and posted a respectable .906 save percentage. He sat most of his sophomore year behind veteran John Lethemon, but resumed his starting role last season leading the Big Ten in saves while stopping 92.3% of his shots. DeRidder’s been even better as a senior, with a .942 save percentage and just 11 goals allowed in 307 minutes.

Pierce Charleson, a sophomore, is DeRidder’s backup, but his numbers indicate many teams out there would kill to have him as their No. 1. Charleson recorded a .938 save percentage in limited playing time as a freshman and has saved 83-of-89 shots he’s seen this year.

The Spartans a poor offensive team, and with the amount of shots they give up, they need DeRidder or Charleston to excel in every game to have a chance. But both of them consistently give them just that when they go between the pipes.

Fifth-year senior Mitchell Lewandowski is the leader of Michigan State’s forward corps. He was a near point-per-game scorer his first two seasons while playing on the potent “KHL” line with Taro Hirose and Patrick Khodorenko. Since the departures of those two stars, Lewandowski’s numbers have tapered off, scoring just 13 points in 27 games last year.

Lewandowski scored three goals and dished out four assists through MSU’s first five games in 2021-22. However, he suffered an undisclosed injury against UMass-Lowell on Oct. 22 and hasn’t played since then.

With or without Lewandowski, the Spartans will need offensive production from Josh Nodler (seven points this season), Griffin Loughran (six), Jeremy Davidson (six), Erik Middendorf (five) and Kristoff Papp (four). Left-winger Middendorf, center Nodler and right-winger Loughran have played together as MSU’s first line through all eight games, while Lewandowski, if healthy, plays on the second line with Papp in the center and Davidson on the right.

Nodler is a Calgary Flames draft pick and MSU’s second-highest scoring forward a year ago. Loughran is a diminutive (5-foot-6, 145 pounds) transfer who was a point-per-game scorer for Northern Michigan the last two seasons.

Michigan State v Massachusetts-Lowell
Mitchell Lewandowski
Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

The Spartans have a relatively experienced blue line, with senior Dennis Cesana, their second-leading scorer in 2020-21, leading the way. Twins Christian and Cole Krygier are both seniors and former NHL Draft picks. The defensive pairings have been very consistent this season: sophomore Nash Nienhuis and Cesana, along with freshman Dennis Gucciardi and Christian Krygier.

Between DeRidder and Charleson, Michigan State was fourth in the country in save percentage last season. But with its lack of offensive skill, the Spartans were the second-worst scoring team in the nation (40 goals in 27 games) and third-worst on the power play (just seven percent of their chances ended in a goal).

Michigan State’s improved this season, with 17 goals in eight games and a 30% scoring clip on the power play, though Air Force, Miami, UMass-Lowell and Ohio State are nobody’s idea of juggernauts. The Spartans might not be totally anemic offensively, but it will come down to defense and goaltending if they want to be competitive in the Big Ten. Their Corsi percentage should come as no surprise: at just 42.6 percent at even-strength, only four teams in the nation are worse than MSU.

Expect the Spartans to pack it in heavily around DeRidder or Charleson and try to beat Michigan 1-0 or 2-1. The question is where they’ll look for that deciding goal. Michigan State isn’t going to try to control the puck for long stretches and will need to take advantage of transition. For the Wolverines, that means eliminating sloppy skating and positioning at the back, like this Luke Hughes error that led to a goal against Wisconsin:

Another thing that would help is more creativity on the power play, where Michigan often has seemed content to simply pass the puck around until it finds Brendan Brisson at the right faceoff dot for his signature one-timer. That worked very well early in the season, but Brisson has scored just one goal over the last four games and the Wolverines have converted two of 15 power plays during that span.

Ultimately, that’s a bit of a less urgent question, as Michigan has enough offensive talent to overwhelm Michigan State at even strength. But a hot goalie changes things. One mistake can change everything, and the Wolverines have made a few too many mistakes as of late.

Puck drop for the first game is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday night at Yost Ice Arena, while Saturday’s game will be at 7:30 at Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing. Friday’s game will be televised on BTN. Saturday’s will be streamed on BTN Plus.