When looking at major Division 1 college athletics, football and basketball tend to take center stage for the common fan. They easily have the biggest following and certainly bring in the most money. But a hidden gem that doesn’t get enough love is hockey, which even amongst the pro ranks is far too underrated.
With football officially wrapped up and basketball well underway, many haven’t realized we’re two months into the college hockey season. This Michigan State hockey team is off to one of its best starts in recent memory and looks to be a real contender in the Big Ten.
As of Sunday night, the Spartans are sitting atop the Big Ten and ranked No. 8 in the Pairwise rankings, with a record of 10-4-2 and 5-1-2 in conference play. Most recently, they swept a weekend series against No. 1 Wisconsin and split their series this weekend versus Minnesota. Both of these teams are in the top half of the Big Ten and ranked in the top 12 of the Pairwise as well.
In year No. 2 under Adam Nightingale, the program has really seen a resurgence, and there were even some bright flashes of potential in year one. It’s been well over a decade of mediocrity, and the Spartans haven’t had this kind of start since the days Rick Comley was in charge in the 2000s.
The Spartans have a balanced attack led by players like sophomore forwards Joey Larson and Karson Dorwart, the team’s leaders in goals scored and total points. Freshmen Artyom Levshunov and Gavin O’Connell have also been turning heads in their first year with the program. O’Connell joined Larson and Nicolas Müller in receiving national recognition for their play at times this year.
Joining Levshunov on the first defensive line pairing is Nash Nienhuis. The senior captain has been getting it done on both ends for the Spartans. He’s one of the team leaders in blocked shots and also has the most game-winning goals with three.
In the crease, freshman Trey Augustine has been a reliable backstop, and in 15 starts has logged a 9-3-2 record. Despite a goals-against average hovering around 3.00, he’s facing a lot of shots on a nightly basis and has a respectable save percentage of around 92 percent.
The Spartans host Notre Dame next weekend and will wrap up 2023 at the Great Lakes Invitational at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids.
After the New Year, Michigan State will certainly be challenged most weekends. Still to come are two-weekend series with rival Michigan. They’ll have one more series with Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame before the Big Ten Tournament starts on March 8.
Do yourself a favor and start paying more attention to this team. It’s been so long since Michigan State has had a team that’s shown this much upside. Even though there’s still a lot of season left, these Spartans look to be Big Ten title contender and an NCAA tournament team.