East Lansing – Taro Hirose took a seat on the Spartans bench after a recent practice at Munn Arena and talked optimistically about the future of Michigan State hockey.
The Spartans are coming off a 13-20-2 (7-14-2 Big Ten) season and were picked to finish last in the Big Ten in 2018-19, giving Hirose and his teammates extra motivation.
Hirose plays on one of the premier lines in the Big Ten, alongside fellow junior Patrick Khodorenko and sophomore Mitch Lewandowski.
Hirose is off to an outstanding start. He is among the national leaders with an average of two points a game (four goals, eight assists, 12 points) to pace the Spartans to a 4-2-0 record. Khodorenko has a team-high five goals, including a hat track in Friday’s 5-3 victory over Ferris State for their third straight win, with John Lethemon being in goal each night.
MSU second-year head coach Danton Cole gave Lethemon the night off in Saturday’s rematch with Ferris State, a 4-1 loss with freshman Drew DeRidder – from the U.S. National Development team – between the pipes.
The Spartans made a statement with a weekend sweep (5-2, 4-3) over then-No. 8 Cornell on the road Oct. 26-27 when Hirose had a goal and two assists in each game. Cornell was the No. 1 seed of the NCAA tournament Northeast Regional last season.
MSU will play at Arizona State (7-3-0) Friday and Saturday before opening the Big Ten season by hosting defending league champion Notre Dame (4-3-1) Nov. 16-17. The No. 6 Irish play at No. 14 Michigan (4-3-0) this weekend.
“I feel like for me that was sort of my first big sweep (at Cornell),” said Hirose, a 5-foot-10, 165-pounder from Calgary. “Going in as the underdog and coming out with those two wins showed the progression we’ve had since Coach Danton has been here.
“Their rink is hard to play in, so I think for our confidence, for our team to go into hostile buildings and win those games is something we’ll have to do in the Big Ten because all of those rinks are hard to play in.
The Spartans aren’t ranked in the USCHO.com poll while the Irish and Ohio State are ranked No. 6 and 7 at 4-3-1, Michigan No. 14 at 4-3-0, and Cornell No. 17 at 2-2-0.
“For sure, I think there’s a chip on our shoulder and Coach always says that’s sort of how he likes it,” said Hirose. “I think he likes that we were voted last so we’d have that extra motivation for our team.”
Hirose had a team-high 42 points (12 goals, 30 assists) last season to earn the Ron Mason Team MVP award while being named All-Big Ten second team. His 30 assists were the most by an MSU player since Jim Slater in 2004-05. He finished second in the Big Ten in points (40) and assists (28).
Hirose enjoys playing with Lewandowski and Khodorenko.
“I think that just being able to play with each other gives us the ability to make those plays that you see, where you’re sort of throwing the puck to an area when you don’t even have to look,” said Hirose. “I know where Louie is going to go, where he likes to go. I know where Pat’s going to go.
“I think I’m more of a distributor. I like to pass the puck and Pat’s the biggest guy on the line so he does a lot of the work down low. But he’s also extremely fast, so beating guys up the ice and finding him is something that I like to do. And Louie has an excellent shot so he has the ability to put the puck in the net and get it off quick, so me and Pat just try to find him in those open areas.”
Hirose is looking forward to the trip to Arizona State, playing in its cozy 700-seat arena. His parents are also making the trip from Calgary.
“My family will be there, probably more for the weather than to see me,” joked Hirose. “It’s going to be completely different from what we played in (3,800-seat Lynah Rink at Cornell), something different for sure.”