2019 Great Lakes Invitational Preview: Michigan State Spartans

Christmas is certainly the most wonderful time of the year. Not just because of the snow, presents, or good food, but because of some of the best tournaments in hockey. Along with international tournaments such as the World Junior Championships and Spengler Cup, the Great Lakes Invitational (GLI) has become a post-holiday tradition in the world of college hockey. This year marks the 55th edition of the tournament, and it will take place once again at the Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Dec. 30 and 31.

Michigan State will once again be one of the four teams, making their 41st consecutive appearance. The Spartans have been the doormat of the Big Ten Conference since its inaugural season back in 2013, finishing in last place in every season, with the exception of the 2014-15 season.

Related: 2019 Great Lakes Invitational Preview: Michigan Wolverines

This year, Michigan State has been one of the top teams in a conference cramped with nationally-ranked competition. The Spartans themselves are ranked 18th in the country and are showing why they could contend for a conference championship.

Hanging With the Best

For the better part of a decade, Michigan State has never been a program that could hold its own against top teams in the country. Ever since winning the 2007 National Championship, the Spartans have been found towards the bottom of the standings, barely making the playoffs. Yet, third-year head coach Danton Cole seems to have found the winning formula.

The Spartans had a decent start to 2019-20 with splits against the Northern Michigan Wildcats and Colorado College Tigers. However, they were hit with a pair of losses at the hands of then-No. 4 Cornell Big Reds in the first weekend of November, and it seemed like it would be another long year for Spartans fans.

Michigan State would rally the following weekend when they traveled to Happy Valley, though, splitting with the No. 6 Penn State Nittany Lions. They would round out the first semester with big wins over the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona State, three of which being in the top-20 in the country.

The Spartans head into the GLI with a 9-8-1 record, with their 6-3-1 record in Big Ten action placing them in a tie with the Ohio State Buckeyes for second in the conference.

Khodorenko Setting the Pace

In each of his first three seasons with the Spartans, Patrick Khodorenko has finished in the top-three in scoring on the Michigan State roster. In his junior season in 2018-19, he had a career-high of 37 points, finishing second behind Taro Hirose for the team lead in scoring. This season, he has taken charge and led the Spartans through the first semester with 18 points in 18 games and is the only player to average a point-per-game.

Patrick Khodorenko Michigan State
Khodorenko has scored 105 points in 125 regular-season games with the Spartans (Credit: MSU Athletic Communications)

Khodorenko currently sits fifth in scoring in the Big Ten behind the Buckeyes’ Cole Caufield and the Nittany Lions’ Alex Limoges. He had a six-game point streak back in early November which included two-goal performances against Michigan and Penn State.

Lewandowski’s Excellent in Supporting Role

One player who made an immediate impact since stepping onto campus in East Lansing was Mitchell Lewandowski. A former member of the Chicago Steel of the United State Hockey League, Lewandowski had high hopes coming into his junior season, and deservedly so. The Clarkston, Michigan native registered back-to-back 34 point seasons, finishing second in team scoring in 2017-18 and third in 2018-19.

Mitchell Lewandowski Michigan State
Lewandowski led the NCAA in freshmen goal scoring in 2017-18 (Credit: MSU Athletic Communications)

So far in 2019-20, Lewandowski is second in scoring with Michigan State, putting up 13 points through the first three months of the season. While he had put up only one multi-point game before December, Lewandowski had a big night against Wisconsin on Dec. 7, where he scored two goals and assisted on Khodorenko’s overtime winner to help the Spartans to their sixth conference win of the season (from ‘Overtime loss at Michigan State extends Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey skid’, Wisconsin State Journal – 12/8/19).

Lethemon One of the Best Between the Pipes

Since Jeff Lerg, the Spartans had struggled to find a consistent no. 1 goaltender. John Lethemon had been mediocre through his tenure with Michigan State but seemed to have found his groove in his senior season. Through his 15 starts this season, he is 9-5-1, second in the Big Ten in wins.

John Lethemon Michigan State
Lethemon’s numbers have steadily improved over his career with MSU (Credit: MSU Athletic Communications)

Lethemon is not just one of the best in the Big Ten, but one of the best in the country. With a 2.01 goals-against average that is second in the conference, his .941 save percentage is first in the Big Ten, and tied for third in the entire NCAA. He has played in all but two games this season and will be relied upon to carry the Spartans into the postseason.

Michigan State, for the first time in years, is a favourite to take home the GLI. Defensively, they have the ability to get the job done, and if their big guns can step up, they have a chance to take home the title for the first time since 2009.

They are taking the other odds-on favourite in the GLI, the Michigan Tech Huskies. The last time the Spartans defeated the Huskies at the GLI was December of 2011, with MSU only winning one more meeting against Michigan Tech since, a 3-2 overtime win on Nov. 6, 2016.