Jan. 4, 2013
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - The biggest reason for Michigan State's lack of success over the last nine games is fairly simple:
Not enough goals.
For sure, a few untimely defensive miscues are an added factor in the Spartans' 1-6-2 run since mid-November.
But it's the lack of offense that has prevented MSU (5-11-3 overall, 4-8-1-0 CCHA) from taking advantage of the stellar goaltending provided by freshman Jake Hildebrand and turning close, competitive games into victories.
As the Spartans skate into the second half of the season - 17 games remain, 15 to go in CCHA play - their focus is clearly on more goals and more victories.
One way to boost offensive production is a more effective power play, and that's a must if MSU hopes to climb out of ninth place in the CCHA and compete for a spot in the middle of the 11-team league.
After some early-season success, the Spartan power play has gone ice cold. MSU has scored only one power-play goal in its last 28 opportunities through eight games.
The Spartans went 0-for-3 last Saturday in a 1-1 tie (and 1-0 shootout loss) against Western Michigan in the Great Lakes Invitational semifinals in Detroit. In the third-place game against Michigan, a 5-2 loss on Sunday, MSU was 0-for-4 on the power play.
From late October until mid-November, the Spartan power play was a formidable weapon. During a seven-game stretch, MSU scored 11 goals in 35 power-play chances and compiled a record of 3-3-1.
"I think any time you have success, it's easy to kind of sit back and wait because you think you're going to get the puck,'' Spartan senior forward and captain Greg Wolfe said. "We need to be a little quicker on any loose puck - in the corner or in our zone. We need to come back faster, have a little more jump at both ends of the ice.
"Over the last few weeks, we've been getting a little frustrated with not getting the production we had been getting.''
MSU has not scored on its last 16 power-play chances, going back to the Notre Dame game on Dec. 7, when sophomore forward Brent Darnell scored the team's last goal with a man advantage.
The Spartans will try to end the drought on Saturday when they face sixth-place Ferris State (8-8-3, 7-7-0-0) at 5 p.m. in Big Rapids - MSU's only game of the weekend and the only CCHA contest on Friday or Saturday.
"Guys sometimes might be trying to do too much instead of keeping it simple and getting the puck to the net or moving the puck around and tiring out their guys,'' Wolfe said. "We need to focus on outworking the other team all over the ice, working to get the puck to the net with guys in front and apply pressure on their goalie.''
Surprisingly, MSU's power play statistics aren't too bad as compared to other CCHA teams.
In 19 overall games MSU has converted on 13 of 75 power-play chances for 17.3 percent efficiency, which ranks No. 5 in the league. In CCHA games, MSU is 12-for-56 for 21.4 percent in 13 games, which is tied with Lake Superior State for fourth.
To add some perspective, those numbers are better than first-place Miami (14.9 percent in overall games, ranked No. 6; 16.2 percent in CCHA play, No. 6) and Michigan (14.3 percent, No. 7 overall; 13.0 percent, CCHA, 7th).
MSU coach Tom Anastos said his team works on the power play just about every day in practice. And he's been trying different players in different spots to try to come up with the most effective units.
"We have to continue to evolve and keep working to find the right people, put them in the right positions and find some chemistry in guys playing off each other,'' Anastos said.
"Part of it is the offensive abilities as individuals and to bring them together collectively. It's about guys seeing plays before or as they happen and players finding the right guys at the right time. Those are skill sets we have to keep working on.''
The Spartans' main power-play performers include their top six scorers - forwards Matt Berry (11-7-18), Brent Darnell (5-9-14), Matt DeBlouw (4-9-13), Lee Reimer (2-8-10), Tanner Sorenson (5-4-9) and Wolfe (2-5-7). Defensemen seeing most duty on the power play include Jake Chelios (2-3-5), John Draeger (1-4-5) and Travis Walsh (0-3-3).
"We know some of the limitations we have,'' Anastos said. "One is inexperience and one is that our team isn't comprised of a lot of offensive skill guys. We knew those things coming in.
"We're hoping that people emerge as they gain experience and opportunity.'''
The Spartans have scored 40 goals in 19 games (2.11 average), 13 goals coming on the power play. Berry has eight power-play points (four goals, four assists), while five players are tied for second with four points - Sorenson (2-2), Darnell (2-2), Wolfe (1-3), Reimer (1-3) and DeBlouw (0-4).
MSU has scored at least one power-play goal in seven games. The Spartans scored four goals on the power play at Bowling Green on Nov. 3 and three at Lake Superior State on Oct. 27.
In several games, the Spartans have looked good on some power plays with good puck movement setting up quality chances, but then on the next few power plays, they'll have trouble setting up the offensive zone.
"Inconsistency is definitely hurting us,'' Wolfe said. "Any time you can get a full possession in their zone off a faceoff, it makes the power play so much easier. Winning the faceoff is key.
"We need to get possession, move the puck around, get people in front and make good decisions. It's five guys outworking their four.''
Ferris State's penalty killing ranks 29th in the nation at 83.0 percent efficiency. The Bulldogs have allowed 15 power-play goals in 75 shorthanded situations, ranking 8th in the CCHA in overall games.
Three weeks ago, the Spartans edged FSU, 3-1, at Munn Arena and neither team converted on the power play. MSU went 0-for-3, while FSU failed to score in four chances.
"We expect they'll be better than they were here. They'll have the emotional level of being at home,'' Anastos said of the sixth-place Bulldogs (8-8-3, 6-6-1-0).
"Like our team, they have less experience than they did a year ago. So, their team is trying to get better as the season goes on.''
Last weekend, Ferris State split two games in the Florida College Classic in Estero, Fla., near Fort Myers. FSU lost in the semifinals to Cornell, 5-3, but bounced back in the third-place game to defeat Minnesota-Duluth, 6-2.
After Saturday, the Spartans won't have to wait long until they see the Bulldogs again. The two teams meet in two weeks - at MSU on Jan. 18 and in Big Rapids on Jan. 19.
BERRY STREAKING: Sophomore right wing Matt Berry has scored one goal in each of his last four games - against Notre Dame, Ferris State, Western Michigan and Michigan. He's also scored a point in five straight contests. Berry has 11 goals and seven assists for 18 points in 19 games to share third-place in the CCHA in overall scoring.
Berry's shares the overall goal-scoring lead with Anders Lee (11-6-17) of Notre Dame. In CCHA play, Berry tops the league in goals with eight, and he's third in scoring with 15 points (8-7).
"He has a goal-scorer's knack,'' Anastos said. "We need that type of game from him for 60 minutes. When's he's on his game, he's attacking the net. We talk about that with our whole team.
"If you want to score goals, you have to go to the tough, scoring areas. Matt has emerged as our most consistent offensive player. I'm interested in seeing him reach his potential by pushing himself outside his comfort zone.''
In CCHA games, Hildebrand's 1.77 GAA ranks third, while his saves percentage of .942 is No. 2, behind Ohio State's Brady Hjelle `s .972.
Hildebrand gave up only one goal to Michigan through two periods, but the Wolverines scored three goals on the MSU goaltender in the final period, and added an empty-netter in the 5-2 victory.
In Hildebrand's previous 10 starts, the most goals he had allowed were three against Notre Dame.
Hildebrand made several dazzling saves in both games of the GLI, especially against WMU, which held a 1-0 lead throughout most of the contest.
Before the Irish visit East Lansing, they'll face No. 1 Minnesota on Tuesday in a nonconference game in Minneapolis.