Jan. 29, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
BIG RAPIDS - For Michigan State this season, it's all about the third period.
If the Spartans outplay their opponent in the final 20 minutes of regulation play, they'll usually win the game, or at least tie. If they lose the period, it means a defeat, or at best a tie, and more drama in a shootout.
In just about every game for the last two months, MSU has entered the third period either tied, up by a goal or down by a goal.
Then, it's survival of the fittest, making plays and executing.
For the second straight night against Ferris State at sold-out Ewigleben Ice Arena, the No. 16 Spartans and No. 13/14 Bulldogs started the third period deadlocked. And just like in Friday's 2-1 FSU victory, the Bulldogs won the battle of final 20 minutes - just barely - and claimed a 4-3 win and a sweep of the CCHA series.
On Friday, they Bulldogs broke the tie with 6:40 left.
On Saturday, they took the lead in first two minutes of the third period, capitalizing on a power play and then holding on for a victory that lifted FSU into first place in the CCHA by one point over Western Michigan, Miami and Ohio State.
The third period efficiency by the home skaters spoiled the Spartans' fairly solid overall effort and a second-period rally in which MSU overcame a 3-1 deficit and tied it on goals by freshman Brent Darnell and Greg Wolfe.
In 10 of the last 13 games, the Spartans went into the third period either tied, with a one-goal edge or one-goal deficit. They're 3-4-3 during this stretch which started in early December.
"We're kind of growing accustomed to it. In many regards, it's a sign that we're in every game we play and that's good,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "It's just hard to believe that scoring just over three goals a game is considered high in the game today.
In nine of their first 15 contests, the Spartans started the third period tied, with a one-goal lead or one-goal deficit.
"You can't fall too far behind. It would be nice to get further ahead, but that's the way the game is today. Teams are so close in the CCHA,'' Anastos said. "Most every game is tight.''
The Spartans (13-11-4 overall, 8-9-3-2 CCHA), still in eight place by a point over Northern Michigan, felt the sting of getting swept, not coming away with any points in the tightly contested CCHA race and falling below .500 in league play with eight games left in the regular season. MSU trails seventh-place Michigan by three points and sixth-place by Notre Dame by four.
The Bulldogs (17-8-3, 11-6-3-1) on Saturday won the special teams battle, scoring two power-play goals in eight opportunities. MSU, which ended its power-play drought on Friday, failed to convert on four chances. FSU outshot the Spartans 29-22.
"The standings are tight and we had an opportunity to move up, but we didn't take advantage of it,'' Anastos said. "Our overall effort was better tonight compared to Friday night, when I didn't think it was good.
"It was disappointing to take give up a couple power-play goals and disappointing to take some of the penalties we did, especially in the third period and tied. You're using a lot of energy and some of the same guys are doing it over and over and some guys just sit and don't get on the ice.
"There are certain penalties that you have to take and some that you don't, and we took some that we didn't have to take.''
Mike Merrifield, who gave MSU a 1-0 lead at 4:07 of the first period, was like the rest of his teammates - frustrated that a stronger performance didn't lead to a victory and instead turned into a second-straight loss.
"We have an older team and we need to figure out a way to close out games,'' he said. "We've had a few one-goal games and ended up on the short end.
"Coming in here, we knew it would be tough because Ferris is a good team. They played hard. We played much better tonight, but we took a few bad penalties and they capitalized.''
The Spartans will now turn their attention to a road series at Ohio State next Friday and Saturday. The Buckeyes are reeling even more than MSU. OSU, which lost 1-0 and tied 4-4 (losing the shootout) at Lake Superior State, are winless in eight games in January -- 0-4-4-0, all in CCHA play.
After Merrifield's goal, the Bulldogs tied it on a power-play goal by Derek Graham at 6:03 and took 2-1 lead on Corey Kane's goal off the lower left part of the net, near the post, and then off MSU goalie Drew Palmisano with 34 seconds left in the opening period - yet another goal given up by MSU in the final minute of a period.
FSU made it 3-1 just 2:49 into the second period on Jordie Johnston's goal off a faceoff.
The Spartans cut their deficit to 3-2 as freshman Brett Darnell tipped defenseman Torey Krug's shot from the left point past FSU goalie Taylor Nelson. Late in the period, MSU tied it on an alert rush and nice passing play involving forwards Daultan Leveille, Brett Perlini and Wolfe.
Leveille carried the puck into the neutral zone near the FSU blue line, tapped it over to an onrushing Wolfe in the middle. Wolfe pass to his left to Perlini, who drove to the net and let go with a wrist shot that caromed off Nelson's pads and ended up just outside the crease. Wolfe was at the right spot to flip in the rebound at 18:28 and it was a new game.
"We didn't develop many scoring chances on Friday but tonight we were more willing to pay the price to go into those areas,'' Anastos said. "With a couple of good bounces, more pucks would have gone into the net.
"We did a better job of playing to the play that we created.''
But the Spartans lost their momentum when freshman Matt Berry took a slashing penalty 23 seconds into the third period. The Bulldogs converted at 1:58 as Travis Ouelllette pounced on bouncing puck at the left of the net and beat Palmisano to the top right corner for what turned out to be the game-winner.
"We go into the third period thinking `We just have to win this period,''' Anastos said. "When you take penalties, that makes certain guys play more and more and some don't get to play. Then you give up a goal on it, and that really hurts.''
WATCHING VIDEO, LEARNING, ADJUSTING: Anastos was asked Saturday if sometimes he'd rather not watch back the video of a defeat.
"We'll watch it back. So much happens that you don't see so you try to confirm what you saw,'' he said of Saturday's game. "On Friday, we went back to the hotel, got something to eat and watched the game back.
"On Saturday morning, we watched it again, as painful as it was. You learn from it, you make some adjustments and that had some positive impact. We'll watch (Saturday's game) on Sunday and again on Monday and what we learn, we'll talk about it with the team and then focus on Ohio State.''
WALROD OUT: It wouldn't be a weekend without some injury storyline for the Spartans. Left wing Kevin Walrod, one of MSU's top goal scorers with eight, has been dealing with a nagging leg injury and while he played on Friday, he wasn't able to go on Saturday.
Daultan Leveille was back in the lineup and started the game off at left wing with Brett Perlini at center and Greg Wolfe on right wing. Leveille earned an assist on Wolfe's ninth goal of the season, in the second period.
Anastos said Walrod is considered day-to-day and questionable for next weekend at OSU.
EX-COACHES CONVENTION: Former MSU coach Rick Comley was at Saturday's game scouting free agents for the Chicago Blackhawks. Comley watched Lake Superior State's 1-0 shutout of Ohio State on Friday in Sault Ste. Marie. Former OSU coach John Markell was in Big Rapids evaluating free agents for the Dallas Stars. Markell, who coached at OSU for 15 seasons from 1995-2010, has been a frequent visitor to Munn Arena this season.
Meanwhile, Jim Nill, the Red Wings vice president and assistant general manager who oversees amateur scouting, was at both games of the series in a dual role - watching free agents and watching and supporting his son, Trevor, play for the Spartans. Trevor, a senior and assistant captain, was credited with an assist on Darnell's second-period goal.