Men's hockey

Badgers face tough test on road against Michigan State's 'KHL line'

Without the services of star freshman defenseman K'Andre Miller, Wisconsin's defense will have to step up against the Fighting Irish.

Without the services of star freshman defenseman K'Andre Miller, Wisconsin's defense will have to step up against the Fighting Irish.

Image By: Téalin Robinson

In basketball, it’s common knowledge that having the best player on the court can allow a team to overcome an overall talent deficit. In football, the team with the best quarterback always has a chance. In hockey, it’s the best line.

In 2019, any discussion of college hockey's top line begins and ends with Michigan State’s Patrick Khodorenko, Taro Hirose and Mitchell Lewandowski. Dubbed the “KHL Line” for the first initials of their last names, they’ve come to inspire the same fear in opposing coaches as the infamous Soviet hockey teams of the 1970s and 1980s.

The line has racked up 38 goals and 98 points in 26 games this season — both NCAA-leading marks for any trio of teammates. They back it up on the other end of the ice too; Hirose is plus-19, Khodorenko plus-14 and Lewandowski plus-11 on a team that’s been outscored by 15 goals for the season.

“They complelment each other extremely well, they know where each other are on the ice, they look like [former NHL all-stars Daniel and Henrik] Sedin out there,” said head coach Tony Granato, who faced off against the Sedin twins 14 times as head coach of the Colorado Avalanche. “They just know instinctively where their players are. So they're a special, special trio for sure.”

No team can entirely entirely erase the trio’s presence, but Wisconsin (5-5-4 Big Ten, 9-11-4 overall) got as close as any in its first matchup with Michigan State (5-8-3, 9-13-4). The Badgers held the line to just two goals — both to Khodorenko in the series opener — on the weekend and were one of just three teams to hold the trio scoreless in a game this season.

“I don't want to say we did a good job against them, but we won two games here against them,” Granato said.

Wisconsin kept Michigan State off the score sheet entirely for one hour and 49 minutes of that first series, but it’s what happened in the other 11 minutes that could give Badger fans cause for concern as the team travels to East Lansing. Wisconsin had started the series with its third line of freshmen Brock Caufield, Roman Ahcan and Dominick Mersch matched up against the Spartans’ top line.

In the middle of the second period of the season opener, Granato switched the matchups to give the freshmen a respite from the challenging assignment. He was rewarded by a 3-0 lead erased almost instantly as Khodorenko feasted on inattentive Badger forwards. Granato called the move “my mistake” after the game.

While Wisconsin was able to play the matchups it wanted for the most part at the Kohl Center, it won’t have that luxury this weekend when the Spartans will be able to make the last change during stoppages of play. If Granato and the coaching staff want to rely on a specific line to stop Hirose and Co. once again, they’ll have to get creative in how they play their forwards. But with Ahcan, Mersch and Caufield as the team’s leading scorers over the past month, the Badgers may not be able to afford to save their freshmen for defensive duty.

Despite the success of the matchup in the first series, indications are that Wisconsin won’t be relying on a single line to stifle the Spartans this time around.

“I like our combinations; I'm not gonna worry [about not having the last line change],” Granato said. “When they're on the ice, we need to be really sharp and can't give them free chances by turnovers. Make a play in the D-zone as much as you can; it's the only thing you can do against a line like that.”

Seven of Michigan State’s nine game-winning goals this season have come off the sticks of Khodorenko, Hirose and Lewandowski — and whatever defensive strategy Wisconsin adopts, its success this weekend will likely come down to how it plays against that trio in the game’s closing minutes.

Puck drop on Friday is 6 p.m., followed by a Saturday rematch at 4:30 p.m.

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