March 11, 2012
by Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
The effort was much better. The compete level was much higher. And no one gave up, fighting to the end against a team that might be playing as well as any in the country.
Michigan State seemed to be "all in" on Saturday in an effort to stay alive in the CCHA quarterfinals, but the end result was a second-straight loss to Miami and elimination from the conference tournament.
For the second-straight night, the No. 11-ranked RedHawks broke open a close game with a strong surge in the second period and went to a 4-1 victory over the No. 15 Spartans in front of 2,764 fans at Steve Cady Arena.
The victory gave Miami a 2-0 sweep of the best-of-three quarterfinal series and berth in the CCHA Championship next weekend in Detroit. The RedHawks (23-13-2), who dominated MSU 6-0 on in the series opener on Friday, are the defending playoff champs.
"Tonight was a different game. We played hard and I couldn't ask for more of an effort from our guys,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "Many of the penalties we took were the result of them being such a good team and being strong and aggressive.''
For the Spartans (19-14-5), the defeat capped a frustrating weekend in which they scored only one goal against Miami senior goalie Connor Knapp and saw their dream of playing in the CCHA's final four come to a halt.
"We've played a lot of good teams this season but by far Miami is the best,'' Anastos said. "They have size, strength, speed, defense, they're dynamic offensively and they're in position to make a good run in the CCHA Tournament.''
The RedHawks, who have won eight games in a row, also look like a strong contender for the NCAA title.
"We came out a lot stronger tonight,'' MSU junior left wing Kevin Walrod said. "We did a lot of good things and competed hard. We had a poor effort (on Friday) but we showed up tonight and gave it our all.''
MSU senior goalie Drew Palmisano, making his first start in four games and only his second in the last 10 contests, delivered a strong performance while making 38 saves.
Defenseman Torey Krug scored the Spartans' only goal - on a power play at 12:04 of the first period, tying the game 1-1.
It was the second goal MSU scored on Knapp in four games against Miami. The Spartans scored in the second period of a 2-1 overtime loss on Jan. 6 at Munn Arena, then got shut out by Knapp 4-0 on Jan. 7 and on Friday (6-0) in the series opener. Knapp made 21 saves on Saturday.
While the Spartans are out of the CCHA playoffs, their season may not be over, and nine seniors may get to put on their uniforms at least one more time. MSU appears to still be in the running for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The Spartans are definitely on the bubble. They're in a three-way tie with Western Michigan and Merrimack for No. 14 in the updated PairWise Rankings. But 10 deciding conference playoff games on Sunday and the results of next weekend's conference finals will determine MSU's fate.
MSU has to be ranked among the top 15 in the PWR to earn a tournament berth.
"I think we're a longshot at this stage at getting in the NCAA Tournament but we'll have to wait and see,'' Anastos said. "If things fall into place and we see there might be a shot, we'll continue to practice and be hopeful.''
On Saturday, MSU and Miami were locked up in a well-played, exciting and physically demanding contest at 1-1 midway through the second period. But the RedHawks broke loose for three goals in 3 minutes and 22 seconds and took control.
The first goal came on a deflection off a Spartan in front after a shot by defenseman Chris Wideman on a power play at 9:49 to give Miami a 2-1 lead. MSU had an opportunity to pull even with a power play less than a minute later, but the RedHawks not only killed it but scored seven seconds after the penalty expired.
Just as Matt Tomassoni came out of the penalty box, Miami's Reilly Smith took the puck away from MSU in his defensive zone and lifted it high into the air toward the MSU zone. It landed in front of Tomassoni in the middle and he raced in on a breakaway and scored at 12:30.
Just 41 seconds later, Alden Hirschfeld found himself open in front and he beat Palmisano to give Miami a 4-1 lead.
"Miami did a good job at building momentum off (their goals). The scored on the power play and then that flip pass right to the guy coming out of the box,'' Anastos said. "And our inability to score on our power plays is the result of playing a very good team.''
Miami junior left wing Reilly Smith, a CCHA Player-of-the=Year finalist along with Krug and Ferris State defenseman Chad Billins, gave his team a 1-0 lead with a power-play goal early in the first period. It was his 27th goal of the season. He also had two assists.
Anastos said it was difficult to balance the positives concerning his team's improved work ethic and intensity with the negatives of not accomplishing the mission of winning and playing a deciding Game 3 on Sunday.
"It's difficult because I'm sick about losing, I sick for the seniors and I'm sick for our team. And yet we're going to deal with the loss because losing is not something we want to accept,'' the first-year Spartan coach said.
"At the same time, we're building fundamental building blocks to get back to the level we expect to be at.
"The messages were multiple. We'd like to honor the seniors and pay the appropriate respect to them and I told them we'd to that at an appropriate time. But tonight, we'll deal with losing the game, the series and the disappointment that goes with it and learn from it.''
Palmisano kept his team in the game for almost 30 minutes before Miami struck for three quick goals to take control. But Palmisano, who gave up a power-play goal six minutes into the first period, had a strong outing, making 38 saves in what could be his final game of his college career.
"I thought that as a senior he might be able to give us an emotional lift, and it was different tonight, for whatever reason,'' Anastos said. "He played confidently. He competed hard.''
MSU junior center Anthony Hayes said "it was a big performance by him, but unfortunately, like on Friday night when we didn't stand up in front of Yanakeff, we didn't give Drew much help.''
"I can't speak enough about Drew. He's been great all season, through all the ups and downs. He's been a steadfast guy in the locker room,'' Hayes said. "He always comes in with a smile. It doesn't matter if he's played one game in three weeks for four of the last five games, we know he's going to give 100 percent every night.''
"It's really important. After our team dinner on Thursday, I dismissed the seniors and talked to the juniors and the classes below about how important it is that when you're young, you're just trying to establish yourself, but for these seniors this is it,'' he said. "We said you have to make sure you're all in and give it up for those guys and play with a level of desperation.
"We're trying to learn lessons every day we play and every day in practice. It's to build the foundation we need to be champions. We have a ways to go to get there.
"But we don't want to lose the impact of the lessons we're going through. We want to make sure we recognize it and deal with it as we go through it.''
So, it's "here we go again" for the seniors and juniors who will be playing the waiting game through next Saturday to see if their season is continuing.
"When I was a freshman, we ended up a tie or a win short,'' junior center Anthony Hayes said. "I'm sure it'll be close again, but that's the situation we put ourselves in. It's nobody's fault besides us. We'll take the responsibility.''
The Spartans this year appear to have a better chance at getting into the NCAAs than in 2009-2010 because so many of the teams right behind them in the PairWise Rankings - No. 17 Northern Michigan, No 18, Notre Dame and No. 19 Ohio State and LSSU and No. 22 Colorado College - are no longer playing.
For sure, the most worrisome team at the moment is Merrimack of Hockey East. The Warriors are tied with MSU and Western Michigan at No. 14 with 18 PWR comparisons apiece. Merrimack plays Maine in the third and deciding game of their best-of-three quarterfinal series on Sunday in Orono, Maine. If Merrimack loses, it might drop below MSU and WMU in the PWR.
The Broncos have a good chance to finish ahead of MSU in the PWR because they're still playing. They swept Lake Superior State in the quarterfinals and will face either Michigan or Miami in the CCHA semifinals on Friday, depending on the outcome of Sunday's Ferris State-Bowling Green series finale.
MSU also can't afford have huge underdogs win conference tournaments in the WCHA (like St. Cloud or Michigan Tech), Hockey East (Merrimack, New Hampshire) or ECAC (Harvard, Yale, Colgate or Quinnipiac).
The PWR can change will every game played - Sunday and from next Thursday to Saturday.
"You never know. Maybe we'll get a lucky break so we're just going to keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best outcome,'' junior left wing Kevin Walrod said. "Until it's officially written in stone, it's not over.''
The PairWise Rankings, which can be accessed on uscho.com and collegehockeynews.com, will be finalized after the last game is complete late next Saturday - or early Sunday if there's a long overtime somewhere.
The NCAA Selection Show is at noon next Sunday on ESPNU.