Michigan State might not have had a publicly-stated goal of establishing itself as a national hockey power this season, but there’s no use in hiding from that reality now. The Spartans further secured itself as a rising contender for any championship that’s out there by completing a weekend sweep of No. 11 Michigan, 3-2, on Saturday night at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
Michigan State never trailed, and had leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-1 before holding off a stiff charge from the Wolverines late in the game, with freshman goaltender Trey Augustine standing strong until the final horn before a crowd of 18,410 in the annual game in Detroit, billed as “The Duel in the D.”
“It was a great weekend for our program and super proud of our guys,” said second-year head coach Adam Nightingale. “I thought the atmosphere was unbelievable. It’s one of the many reasons you come to Michigan State, is to get a chance to play in this game.
“We knew they were going to push and challenge you and our guys stuck with it and got the job done.”
WHAT IT MEANS
Michigan State hoisted the Iron D trophy, given annually to the winner of this trophy game. This marks the first year Michigan State has gained possession of the Iron D since 2016.
“We have to do our part to make it a rivalry and I think we have and it’s exciting for the future,” Nightingale said. “It’s such a great hockey state. For it to mean more is making sure the rivalry is real.”
Augustine (6-1, Fr., South Lyon, Mich.) had 36 saves on the night.
“Super-satisfying,” Augustine said. “Growing up locally, you know how intense the rivalry is. Super glad we were able to come out on top this weekend.”
No. 9 Michigan State improved to 20-7-3, and 14-4-2 in the Big Ten. Michigan State remains just five points ahead of No. 4-ranked Wisconsin (22-6-2 and 13-4-1). The Badgers finished a weekend sweep of Notre Dame on Saturday, beating the Irish 3-2.
Michigan, under second-year head coach Brandon Naurato, fell to 14-11-3 and 7-9-2 in the Big Ten.
Michigan State players celebrate with the Iron D trophy after beating Michigan, 3-2, at the Duel in the D, Saturday night at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. (Photo courtesy @MSU_Hockey)
The Spartans will be idle next weekend. Wisconsin will draw even in games played with a two-game series at Ohio State.
“We are so focused on the now,” Nightingale said. “We are going to have a great week of practice. It’s a bye week, maybe get some guys healthy and just stay with it.”
The Spartans moved up to No. 5 in the national Pairwise Rankings, which are used to determine seedings for the NCAA Tournament. Nightingale doesn’t want anyone looked ahead.
“As a coach, I don’t think you’re ever satisfied,” he said. “Back-to-back games with our rivals, that was probably about as good of 120 minutes we’ve played. There are definitely some areas to clean up, but it was a good step.”
The college hockey nation can’t help but notice. Michigan State flipped its roster in the past two years and might be in the process of flipping the Big Ten hockey conference. Michigan State skates 10 first year players in its regular 19-man playing group. Meanwhile, seniors Nicolas Müller, Jeremy Davidson, Tanner Kelly, Nash Nienhuis and junior David Gucciardi are cranking out productivity too.
“When you look at the leadership that we have and some guys who have been through some tough times here, there’s some resilience there with the group,” Nightingale said. “Long-term, our goal is we want to be the best program in college hockey and we’re not there yet. I think our guys understand that and we’re building and we definitely have taken some steps.
“When our staff took over I don’t think we ever said we want x amount of wins. We really don’t even talk about winning that much. We talk about playing our best. If you have good players like we do and you play your best you’re going to win some hockey games.
“We’re still laying the foundation of what we want this to look like. I think having poise, if you want to be an elite team, is a key characteristic.”
INSIDE THE BOX SCORE
Kelly and Shoudy play on the so-called fourth line, along with freshman Tommi Männistö. But that line started for the third straight game, and logged heavy ice time while Nightingale continually matched them up against Michigan’s top line of Frank Nazar, Rutger McGroarty and Gavin Brindley, each of whom are first- or second-round NHL Draft picks.
“They were really good and they have been for the majority of the year,” Nightingale said of the fourth line. “They each bring something different to the team and they played to their identity and it was good to see them rewarded.”
The fourth line might have been tasked with being pests against Michigan’s top line, but the Spartans’ fourth line ended up scoring two goals against the Nazar line.
“I think we were playing the right way,” Kelly said. “We were staying above them. They obviously have some really skilled players so I think just staying above those guys and making life hard on them definitely helps our team and gives us an advantage.”
“They had a little bit of a push but I think we just tried to remain calm. That was the message. Stick to our gameplan and keep playing the right way and the bounces came for us.”
Spartan players celebrate Karsen Dorwart’s goal which gave Michigan State a 3-1 lead late in the second period. (Photo courtesy @MSU_Hockey)
Michigan State had trouble recruiting against Michigan for most of this century, but that has been changing since Nightingale arrived. Starting with Augustine, Michigan State has been registering big recruiting wins, and taking the season series against Michigan will help in that area.
“For sure, we want the best kids in Michigan to come to Michigan State,” Nightingale said. “It’s a great hockey state and we have to do our part to be a good program to lean on those kids and recruit them. So far we’ve been able to do that. We have some really good guys coming in. Obviously you have to win some games for that to happen.
“It’s not always the most talented players but it’s the right players for your program. I would hope if a young hockey player was watching our team play they would see a team that plays like a team. When they score, they celebrate as a team, they don’t skate away from each other.”
Michigan State has been aided by big additions from the transfer portal in the past two years.
“I told our guys at the end of last season our job is to make this place competitive and that’s the greatest driver in development,” Nightingale said. “You have to earn everything. Give our staff a ton of credit. I’m fortunate the staff we have did a really good job of identifying guys that could come and compete for spots and that’s helped to lead to having really good depth. We roll our lines, as long as everyone is going, and keeping it five-on-five is to our advantage.”