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East Lansing — It’s been a long time since Michigan State has sat near the top of the Big Ten standings in hockey, but that’s where the No. 20 Spartans are at heading into this weekend’s league series with Minnesota beginning Friday night at Munn Arena.

The Spartans (10-9-1, 6-3-1 Big Ten) have been led by the outstanding play of senior John Lethemon, who has made the most of his opportunity as the team’s No. 1 goalie this season.

Lethemon, who had a 3.24 goals-against average with a .905 save percentage in 19 starts last season, has developed into the premier goaltender in the Big Ten. He ranks seventh nationally in save percentage (.938) and has a 2.06 GAA.

In Big Ten play, Lethemon is 6-3-1 with a 1.79 GAA, owning three shutouts with a .949 save percentage.

Lethemon is posting Ryan Miller-like numbers so far in Big Ten play, a reason for optimism heading into the second half of the season, when games become bigger with more at stake every weekend, not only regarding the conference championship but also an NCAA Tournament bid.

The NCAA Tournament’s 16-team field will be announced after the Big Ten tournament, which gets underway at campus sites in best-of-three quarterfinal series March 6-8 before moving to semifinals March 14 and the title game March 21.

The Frozen Four will be at Little Caesars Arena April 9 and 11. The Spartans, who last won the national championship in 2007 under Rick Comley, will be trying to earn their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2012, Tom Anastos’ first year as head coach of MSU and star defenseman Torey Krug’s final year with the program.

It didn’t take Lethemon long to make a statement, turning aside all 48 shots he faced in a 2-0 win over Penn State in the Big Ten opener at Happy Valley on Nov. 8.

Lethemon stopped 73 of 76 shots in a sweep of Michigan Nov. 14 and 16, including 35 saves in a 3-0 shutout of the Wolverines in the finale at Munn.

No. 6 Penn State (15-6, 8-4) sits atop the Big Ten standings, holding a five-point lead over the Spartans and No. 8 Ohio State (13-5-2, 6-3-1) after 10 conference games. This is MSU’s best 10-game start in the seven-year history of Big Ten hockey.

Despite his great start, Lethemon stays humble and is just looking forward to every practice, every game to help keep the Spartans playing at a high level.

“I’m just focused on getting better every time we’re on the ice and helping my team win games. I think that’s the mindset we’ve all had and that’s why we’ve been able to have a little bit of success here,” said Lethemon, who went to Farmington High School. “We just have to make sure that we continue to have the mindset that we’re going to keep getting better all year.

“We know we have to be locked in every practice, every single game, be a desperate team or we won’t be at our best and if we’re not at our best we won’t have success.”

MSU sophomore defenseman Dennis Cesana, who earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team last season and patterns his game after Krug’s, feels more comfortable as a sophomore.

“Coming in I definitely felt I had the swing of things, knew what to expect coming in,” said the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Cesana, who has four goals, 14 points and a plus-2 rating. “I knew how hard to work and how hard you have to play every game, just try to win every shift, so I came in with more confidence. It also helps to have my 'D' partner, Jerad Rosburg, returning.

 “We were put together early last year, and it’s never really changed. He’s bigger and stronger (6-2, 205 pounds) and plays more of the physical game and I’m kind of using my legs, using my body position more, relying on that and skill-wise.”

Cesana said the Spartans are a lot more experienced this season, not just him.

“Last year, we only had three seniors, so we have a lot of upperclassmen this season,” Cesana said. “We had three freshmen last year on 'D' so getting that full season of experience and coming back is huge. Overall, just being older and playing better team defense has led to our success. We know every night is a battle and we kind of treat it like a playoff game. It makes it more enjoyable and it kind of makes every shift count that much more.”

Cesana has high praise for Lethemon.

“He trained harder over the summer, wanted to get stronger and I think that’s shown for sure,” Cesana said. “He’s played a lot more confident. He’s a lot more powerful with his pushes. I think just challenging guys more and being more comfortable and relaxed, playing the puck has helped him a lot and it has helped our team break out way more with him being able to play the puck to us.”

The Spartans have also done a good job of killing penalties and winning faceoffs, leading the Big Ten in penalty kill (29-of-32, 90.6 percent) while winning 53.4 percent of faceoffs to rank seventh nationally.

Senior center Patrick Khodorenko has 10 goals and 19 points with a plus-6 rating, scoring seven of the goals in Big Ten play. Khodorenko has been teamed up with junior Mitchell Lewandowski (Clarkston) in past years with senior Sam Saliba recently joining the line and scoring three goals in the last five games.

Lethemon is looking forward to starting the second half of the season.

“I can’t wait to play Minnesota here on our home ice; Munn is one of the best rinks in college hockey,” he said. “I have no doubt that our guys will match their intensity and surpass it to dictate the game, so I’m really looking forward to Friday night.

“This group of guys know we have a pretty solid team and we can do something special here,” Lethemon added. “It’s not just for the seniors, but for the whole program. It’s not been in the place that we want it to be in the past, so we’ve been trying to work hard every day to get it back to where it needs to be. We want to make everybody who has believed in us over the years proud.”

dgoricki@detroitnews.com

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