This may be one of the more compelling (in terms of closeness of competition) Great Lakes Invitational events in recent memory, with the potential for some pretty solid crowds. Geographically, this is about as good as it gets. The fourth invitee in Bowling Green State is just 82 miles down the road with a passionate fan base.
The GLI is set to take place on January 1-2 at the Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
Let’s take a look at the four teams coming in:
University of Michigan (7-7-2, 3-5-2 B1G).
FIRST GAME: Bowling Green State Falcons
Let’s get this out of the way first, Michigan is without three of their most talented four players with the World Junior Challenge on. Will Lockwood (Vancouver Canucks) Quinn Hughes (Draft Eligible) and Josh Norris (San Jose Sharks) are all gone. Hughes is the youngest player in college hockey, and the kid can flat out PLAY. Speed, hands, you name it, I’m drafting Quinn in the first round if I’m an NHL GM. Norris and Lockwood both can leave right now based on talent, but based on numbers, they should be back next year.
The cupboard is not bare though, junior Cooper Marody (Philadelphia Flyers) has a team-high 24 points and is tied second nationally at 1.50 points per game. Tony Calderone has 13 goals in 16 games after averaging 9.6 per season before that, and Dexter Dancs brings some size with newly-found finishing ability.
Once Mel Pearson develops his riches of talent and future recruiting classes, I expect him to compete for National Titles with some regularity.
What they haven’t done well in the period since Pearson went to and returned from Michigan Tech is recruit and develop top of the line goaltending. Hayden Lavigne has a .898 save percentage, and Jack LaFontaine sports a .884. Both allow more than 2.89 goals per game. Their defensive play is so-so for the most part, about halfway down in the bottom third in college hockey in team defense, but the talent is there that when it develops, should get the job done.
Their weakness is any team that can slow their roll and play physical, and their first match-up is such.
Michigan State (8-9-1, 2-7-1 B1G)
FIRST GAME: Michigan Tech Huskies
Another team that has struggled in conference play, but I will say this, they’re headed in the right direction.
Michigan State went to 14 NCAA Tournaments from 1993 to 2012. Since then? One winning season. That was enough for the Spartans to hire Danton Cole to replace Tom Anastos who won 10, 7 and 8 games respectively in his final three years. Cole has the Spartans more aggressive offensively.
The KHL line of Patrick Khodorenko, Taro Hirose, and Mitchell Lewandowski has been really good. Would I call them one of the elite lines in college hockey? Not quite, but they’re certainly right on the cusp of that right now. They’ve scored 22 of Michigan State’s 43 goals this season. And frankly, Lewandowski is a freak of nature. He has a team-best 10 goals (Yeah, that’s nearly a quarter of his team’s goals) and is tied with Hirose for a team-best 21 points, while Khodorenko has 15.
Beyond that, we run into their weakness: Offensive depth. No one else has more than four goals or 11 points. The Spartans are much improved defensively though, which accounts for their near even overall record despite their lack of scoring.
The Spartans are good in goal, John Lethemon has really stabilized the position after a rough freshman season, though backup Ed Minney has not turned around his struggles from a year ago.
Michigan Tech (9-7-5, 7-6-5 WCHA)
FIRST GAME: Michigan State Spartans
The Huskies draw the Spartans in round one and come into the holiday break really starting to find their game and most importantly, their goaltender.
Gone are the days of Phoenix Copley, Jamie Phillips and Angus “Beef” Redmond, and that was apparent early. Packy Munson has been a bit of a roller coaster in his 16 starts with a .904 save percentage, but following a rough outing a few weeks ago against Ferris State, freshman Robbie Beydoun has taken hold of the blue paint. He has a 2-0-1 record in his last three starts and a .944 save percentage to go with a shutout in that time.
The Huskies have a balanced scoring attack, eight players have double-digit points. Jake Jackson (San Jose Sharks) has wheels and has eight goals (had just 11 in 52 games before that) in 21 games this year. Mitch Reinke is dangerous on the blue line, and Mark Auk can play center and defense (he’s been effective at both).
Look out for Big Joel L’Esperance though, he’s been quiet this season with just nine points, but has all of the skill to erupt and take over a game at any point.
The Spartans will have to test Beydoun’s rebound control and beat some younger defenders with speed to move on to the GLI Championship game because when the Huskies are on, they’re a tough team to beat.
Bowling Green State (8-6-6, 7-2-5 WCHA)
FIRST GAME: University of Michigan
Bowling Green is in third place in the WCHA, and they are going to be a tough matchup for the Michigan Wolverines in round one.
First off, the Falcons have tied a lot of games (tied with Holy Cross for the most in college hockey). It’s a weird stat, but they’ve been in every game they’ve played for the most part.
This is another team with good scoring depth. Alec Rauhauser is a beast on the blue line, checking in at 6’3” and 216 pounds, he leads the Falcons in points with five goals and 11 assists. He has a big shot but can finesse them through as well, with good vision moving forward. Up front, keep an eye on Stephen Baylis, who is hot lately, and has four PPG and two SHG on the year, accounting for six of his seven goals.
The big talent here is Mitch McLain. He’s got good size and a nose for the net and is tied for a team-best seven goals this year. He’s also a bit of a known agitator, having led the Falcons in penalty minutes in back-to-back seasons while maintaining some great offensive numbers. He’s cut back a little, down to a tie for third most on the team currently.
The Falcons enter off of a Dec. 28 loss to a very strong Western Michigan team in which goaltender Ryan Bednard was chased after allowing four goals in the opening frame, but that's out of the norm for Bednard who had been pretty solid (.926 save percentage prior to that contest).
The 6’5” Bednard (Florida Panthers) has done a pretty solid job taking over for Chris Nell (New York Rangers). BGSU Director of Hockey Ops and former Falcon goaltender Jimmy Spratt has done well to develop Bednard, while freshman Eric Dop has been a bit up and down, the two have mostly split the net.