Dec. 30, 2011
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
It had been 18 days since Michigan State's last game.
So, Coach Tom Anastos was curious - and maybe even a little worried - about how his team would react early on and throughout the Spartans' Great Lakes Invitational opener on Thursday at Joe Louis Arena.
Would the players be skating with heavy legs? Would their game be so out of sync it would be tough to make passes, take passes and execute even the little things? And what about conditioning?
These were some of the questions dancing around Anastos' head most of the week - from practice on Monday night to the drop of the puck Thursday and then into the game.
In the first five minutes, there was one player who stood out. One player that Anastos didn't have to worry about - goalie Drew Palmisano.
The senior from Ann Arbor was sharp from the opening faceoff, making six saves in the first two minutes and before MSU even had a shot goal. Palmisano was superb with stellar 45-save effort as the No. 20 Spartans held off the Huskies, 3-1, and earned a berth in Friday's GLI championship game.
MSU (11-6-2 overall) will be seeking its 13th GLI title and second in three seasons when it collides with No. 20 Michigan (10-8-3) at 7:30 p.m. at Joe Louis Arena. The Wolverines edged No. 3 Boston College, 4-2, in Thursday's second semifinal.
"Palmy was great tonight. He gave us a chance to win,'' Anastos said. "When we came back, we didn't know what to expect because it's tougher for a goalie to get the kind of shots (he needs) during the break.
"But he had a real focus. Both of our goalies competed hard (this week), but Palmy had a noticeable focus from the night of the 26th when we had our first practice.''
Although the Huskies outshot the Spartans 46-26, many of Tech's attempts came from the perimeter and the quality scoring chances were pretty much even. Michigan Tech (9-10-1), under new coach Mel Pearson and one of the most improved teams in the nation, worked hard, played with energy and pressured MSU until the final minute. The Huskies just couldn't finish, thanks in part to an alert Palmisano.
Michigan Tech's only goal came on a 5-on-3 power play at 7:28 of the third period, cutting MSU's lead to 2-1 and setting up a hectic finish. But the Spartans, like they've done most of the season, stayed poised, played smart defensively and even created a few good chances before Brett Perlini's empty-net goal with 14 seconds left sealed the victory.
"Other than the 5-on-3, I thought I was in control and didn't waste a lot of movement,'' Palmisano said. "Our defense blocked a lot of shots which helped me out a lot.''
Palmisano is now 5-3-2 overall, with a 2.57 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage. His 45 saves is one shy of his career high of 46 against U-M in January, 2009. MSU's forwards and defense combined to block 15 shots on Thursday.
"I don't really keep track of the number of shots during a game, but they seemed to be shooting a lot and trying to get rebounds,'' Palmisano said. "Our defense did a good of holding them off and (clearing) any rebounds.''
Anastos usually doesn't announce his starting goaltender for the second game of a series until talking it over with his coaching staff, including goaltending coach Mike Gilmore. But Anastos admitted there's a good chance the red-hot Palmisano will face the Wolverines.
"We'll talk about it. But he did make a strong case,'' Anastos said.
Spartan captain and defenseman Torey Krug said Palmisano "was very efficient."
"He just looked in control. He wasn't all over in the crease or sliding past pucks,'' Krug said. "Every time Palmy's been in net, he's given us a chance to win. We've been in every game and our goaltenders have been a big part of that.
"When you have Palmy in net or Will (Yanakeff) in net, you're not afraid to take risks because you know they're behind you and they'll make big saves for you.''
UGLY IS OK SOMETIMES: Anastos labeled the game as "grunt hockey" because of ragged, scrambling stretches, but liked the way his team adapted.
"From our perspective, the puck was bouncing around, there was a lot of play along the boards and you're fighting for pucks in front of both nets,'' he said. "When you're off that long, you don't feel great. We talked about how mentally tough you have to be and you don't feel like you're in rhythm.
"Our game plan was to create a little more of a possession game in the offensive zone and we did that in spurts but not as regularly as we would have liked.''
Said Krug, "Coach told us in the locker room that good teams find a way to win ugly and we did that tonight. Going into the third periods, we're a confident group and tonight guys made little plays and blocked shots.
"As the season goes on, it's becoming apparent that we're a mentally tough team. That's what you need to close out wins.''
PLAY OF THE GAME: There was nothing ugly about the game-winning goal by Spartan senior right wing Trevor Nill, who gave his team a 2-0 lead at 5:29 of the second period.
Nill got possession along the left boards in the Huskie zone, saw an open lane and drove into the middle of the ice and turned toward the net. He looked to shoot, then spotted linemate Chris Forfar open at the left edge of the crease.
As Tech goalie Josh Robinson came out to meet him, Nill delivered a perfect pass to Forfar, who had an easy tap-in for his second goal in the last two games and third of the season.
"It was a weird play. Just before, my stick got wedged in the boards and I had to yank it out, then the puck was sitting right there,'' Nill said. "I walked out from the corner and was about to let it rip and I lifted my head to see how much room I had, thinking I might get closer shot.
"At the last second, I saw Forfar in the back in perfect position and threw it over to him and away we went.''
Anastos admitted he was hoping Nill would take the shot. But the Spartan defensive specialist looked like a savvy playmaker when he dished the puck off.
"It was a great play by Trevor,'' he said. "But I'll tell the truth. I'm standing on the bench and I see him walking out (from the corner) and on his forehand and I'm screaming `shoot, shoot.' So he passes. . . Good play. Oh what a pass that was.''
The Spartans checking line of center Anthony Hayes and wingers Forfar and Nill had another strong game.
"We had great practices all week. It's great to get that goal and chip in,'' Nill said. "We had a great team effort tonight. You have to give Palmisano a lot of credit. He made some huge saves at the end.
"The defensive corps stayed strong, the wings made sure they covered the points and the centers did a good job helping down low.''
For the record, sophomore right wing Greg Wolfe scored MSU's first goal on a power play at 5:31 of the first period. Standing on the edge of the left circle near the goal line, defenseman Matt Crandell's rebound came right to Wolfe and he quickly fired it into the open net for his sixth goal of the season. Defenseman Tim Buttery also assisted.
STREAKING: The Spartans have won three straight games at Joe Louis Arena, including two last season. MSU defeated Tech, 5-3, in the GLI third-place game on Dec. 30, 2010, and then edged the Wolverines, 2-1, on Jan. 29, 2011.
SO IT'S U-M AGAIN: For the third time in the last four games, the Spartans will be facing their pals from Ann Arbor in Friday's GLI title game. Three weeks ago, the Spartans lost to the Wolverines, 4-3, in Ann Arbor in the CCHA series opener and then the teams played to a 3-3 tie at Munn Arena, before MSU captured an extra league point with a 1-0 win in the shootout.
Since 1997, MSU has won seven GLI championships while U-M has captured three, all coming in the last four seasons. The teams have met in the finals five times since 1997, with the Spartans holding a 4-1 edge.
Krug and senior Daultan Leveille are MSU's top scorers against Michigan in the last four seasons. Krug has four goals and five assists for nine points in 12 games, while Leveille has two goals and four assists for six points in 17 games.