Jan. 5, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
Two years ago, Michigan State entered the second half of the season on a roll and eager to improve on its early success.
The Spartans entered January 14-6-2 overall and 9-3-2 in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. Things looked promising for a run at the league's regular-season title and an NCAA Tournament berth.
In the end, the season was a huge disappointment as the Spartans stumbled during the second half, going 5-5-4 in CCHA play and then getting swept by Michigan at Munn Arena in the first round of the playoffs.
Depsite a 19-13-6 record and second place finish in the CCHA - soft as it was - MSU was left out of the NCAA tourney field.
This year's seniors and juniors remember the empty feeling at the end of the 2009-2010 season and determined to make sure it doesn't happen again and spoil the team's first-half success.
"We learned that you can't take a game off. Every series is so vital to improving in the standings,'' senior center Brett Perlini said. "We have to finish games. We have to keep bringing it, pushing ourselves in practice to make each other better.
"Our focus is conference play and setting us up for a crack at the CCHA championship and getting into the NCAA Tournament.''
The Spartans (11-7-2 overall, 6-5-1-1 CCHA) begin a stretch of 16 consecutive CCHA games this weekend with a home series against Miami at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Munn Arena. It's the first of six straight home games, with Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State following the next two weekends.
While the other 10 CCHA teams each have 14 league games left, MSU has 16, so the Spartans will reach the halfway point of the CCHA schedule this weekend. They have nine games left at home, six on the road and one in Detroit.
"Every time you play at Munn, you have to take advantage of it,'' senior goalie Drew Palmisano said. "We have to focus on Miami and go from there.
"Munn Arena has a lot of energy, especially in the big games. This year's student section has been unbelievable. You can hear them every minute of the game and we feed off them.''
After the six straight home games, the Spartans play two-game series at Ferris State and Ohio State, now in first place in the CCHA and ranked No. 2 in the nation. Then it's home against Michigan on Feb. 10, vs. U-M in Detroit, Feb. 11, home for two games against Alaska, Feb. 17-18 and at Notre Dame, Feb. 24-25, to close the season.
Coach Tom Anastos sees the second half of the CCHA schedule tougher than the first.
"None of our games will be easy. If we want to make a move, we have to use this home stand to our benefit,'' he said. "We're playing teams that are ranked in the top 20 in the PairWise Rankings. I think 14 of our last 16 games are against top 20 teams.''
Actually, Miami is No. 21, Pairwise comparisons behind No. 20 Ferris State. The only opponent not in the top 21 is Alaska.
The Spartans start the new year tied for sixth with Northern Michigan with 20 points. With only three league series going on this weekend, if MSU sweeps the RedHawks, they'll climb to within one point of Notre Dame and Western Michigan, tied for second place with 27 points.
"The second half is going to be tough. It won't be easy moving up,'' Anastos said. "We gave some points away early in the season. We'll have to scratch and claw to get back up there.
"For our seniors, their MSU playing careers have only so many games left. I told them that they can't leave anything here. And they don't need to wear a letter on the jersey to be a leader. They have to make sure you're supporting the guys, pushing the guys and setting a tone.''
IMPROVEMENTS: Anastos said his team has made improvements in all areas of its game since the start of the season, but it must continue to get better and be prepared for every series.
"Our defensive zone coverage has been pretty good but you can always get better. Our transition defense from offense to defense, I think we can get significantly better, especially against the teams good on the attack off the rush,'' he said.
"Our goals against is 2.60 and in the bottom third (8th). That's a good number but if we want to finish in the top third, we have to improve on that and be tougher to play against.''
One area Anastos wants his team to be more consistent in is each player's shift times. The goal for the first half is for 40-second shifts.
"It's one of our objectives every game. If you're doing something hard for 40 seconds, it's tough to do,'' he said. "We were at an average of 40.69 seconds against Michigan Tech (in the GLI opener) and for the first time this season, we did achieve our goal in the championship game. It was just over 39 seconds. I'd like to see us try to maintain that. Our team skates pretty well so it's a strength for us to play fast. We lose that strength if our shifts are too long.''
REDHAWKS' NUMBERS MISLEADING: Miami may be languishing in ninth place in the CCHA with a 5-7-2-1 record and only 9-9-2 overall, but the Spartans still consider the RedHawks a top contender.
Miami got off to a 2-6 start overall and were 0-4 in the CCHA coming out of October. The RedHawks rebounded with a strong November, going 6-0-2 overall and 4-0-2-1 in league play. Last month, Miami struggled again with a 1-3 mark overall and in CCHA play, but three games were on the road.
The RedHawks are still adjusting to the loss of several outstanding players from last year's team, which finished third in the CCHA and compiled a 23-10-6 record and played in the NCAA Tournament.
Top forwards Andy Miele, Carter Camper and Pat Cannone graduated taking away a large part of the offense. Miele was the CCHA's player of the year, a NCAA West First Team All-American and won the Hobey Baker Award. He was the nation's top scorer with 24 goals and 71 points. Camper was a second-team All-American.
Surprisingly, the RedHawks thus far this season rank low in several statistical categories. They're 6th in the CCHA in offense (2.75), 9th in defense (2.70), 8th on the power play (14.3 percent) and 9th in penalty killing (83.5).
"I don't know why that is. With their skill level and experience, you would think those numbers would be better,'' Anastos said. "Maybe they're not getting any puck luck.
"After watching them on tape, I expect them to be really good. The numbers don't support what we're seeing. They're an aggressive team, they have experience and have two good goalies with experience. They compete hard, attack on offense and are tough to play against defensively.''
In addition to senior goaltenders Cody Reichard (6-5-2, 2.52 goals-against average, .901 save percentage) and Connor Knapp (3-4-0, 2.70, .896), Miami is led by two returning All-CCHA First Team players - junior forward Reilly Smith (12 goals, 5 assists, 17 points) and senior defenseman Chris Wideman (1-8-9).
"They have a lot of skill up front and their defense can shoot the puck and be offensive,'' said MSU senior goalie Drew Palmisano. "We have to be on our game and make them work for everything they get in the offensive zone.''
Miami has made six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, compiling impressive regular-season records of: (starting in 2005-06) 26-9-4; 24-14-2; 33-8-1; 23-13-5; 29-8-7 and 23-10-6 in 2011. The RedHawks lost to Boston University in overtime in the Frozen Four title game in 2009, and also played in the Frozen Four in Detroit in 2010.
INJURY UPDATE: Senior right wing Trevor Nill suffered an arm injury in the second period of the 3-2 overtime loss to Michigan in last Friday's GLI championship game. Nill is questionable for this weekend.
Senior left wing Mike Merrifield is expected to miss the Miami series, while still recovering from a shoulder separation suffered on Dec. 10 against Michigan. It's hoped that Merrifield will return for the NMU series next weekend.
Justin Hoomaian, a freshman forward, has been cleared to practice and play after recovering from a broken knee early in the season. But Coach Tom Anastos said "he's a long way from being game ready.'' Hoomaian played in five games before getting injured.
"We're really banged up right now,'' Anastos said. "We have some nicks on guys from blocked shots to little tweaked groins. We're trying to be careful of those in practices.''
NEW GOALTENDER: The Spartans have a new No. 3 goalie, replacing senior Kyle McMahon, who left the team several weeks back. He's Nathan Phillips, 19, a 6-foot-1, 165-pounder from Jackson, who's been playing for the Winnipeg Blues of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. Phillips used to play junior hockey for the Capital Centre Pride of the Northern Lakes Hockey League.
"We get hundreds of letters from players (interested in playing at MSU) and we got one from him,'' Anastos said. "He said he was looking at next year and going to school here and wanted to know about opportunities.
"(Assistant coach) Tom Newton called him and asked if he'd be interested in coming in January. He had just gotten traded (to the Soo Thunderbirds in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario). (MSU defenseman) Branden Carney said he played with him a few years ago (with the Pride) and that he was a good kid and would fit in with our team. We checked his background and he's here.
"That third (goaltender) position is important because it allows the guys to stay after practice and shoot against a goalie.''
Said center Brett Perlini: "It's great to have someone to stay on the ice and work on shooting. It gives the other goalies a break. It's a nice addition.''