Neil’s Notebook: Appleton Leads Spartans in Trip to Wisconsin
Neil Koepke previews the Spartans’ trip to Wisconsin.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
MADISON, Wis. – Mason Appleton, Michigan State’s standout sophomore right wing, is still looking for his first goal against his home-state team – the Wisconsin Badgers.
But Appleton is fairly content with the way his first four games against the Badgers have gone. The Spartans won three of the four contests played last season, with the Green Bay native collecting an assist in the first meeting.
This weekend, Appleton would love to boost his goals and points totals but not as much as he’d like to see a pair of Big Ten victories over Wisconsin at the Kohl Center in Madison.
“It’s always fun to play those guys in front of a lot of family, and we need to get two victories there like we did last season,’’ Appleton said. “Two of my high school teammates are at Wisconsin. I’m excited to play them.’’
As a high school sophomore at Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay, Appleton won the boys state high school championship with Badgers junior defenseman Tim Davison and sophomore forward Zack Zirbel. In fact, Appleton scored the winning goal overtime to give Notre Dame a 3-2 victory over Wausau West at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison in March, 2012.
The Spartans (4-11-1 overall, 0-2 Big Ten) and Badgers (8-7-1, 1-1) meet at 9 p.m. ET on Friday and 8 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Appleton, MSU’s leading scorer with eight goals and eight assists for 16 points in 16 games, says he regularly keeps in touch with hometown pals, Davison and Zirbel.
“We text back and forth. Over Christmas break, we skated together and had a little fun together,’’ Appleton said. “We all lived 10 minutes from each other. I remember last year, me, Timmy (Davison) and (Mackenzie) MacEachern and (Thomas) Ebbing got together and hung out. Mac and Ebbing and Timmy played (junior hockey) together with the Chicago Steel.’’
Appleton could have been teammates again with Davison and Zirbel, wearing the Cardinal Red and White of the Badgers. Instead, he picked the Green and White over the team he grew up following.
“It came down to here or Wisconsin. Both are big schools, big campuses and very similar in a lot of ways,’’ he said. “I think I felt a little more wanted (at MSU). Coach (Tom) Anastos laid out what he wanted me to do as a player, and it was a little different there.
“Nothing against those coaches, but they went about things a little different.’’
Appleton also has two former U.S. Hockey League teammates playing for the Badgers. Forwards Matthew Freytag and Daniel Labosky and Appleton played for the Tri City Storm in 2014-15.
Appleton had a very good freshman season at Michigan State with five goals and a team-high 17 assists for 22 points in 37 games, tying for fourth in team scoring. He was selected as MSU’s outstanding rookie.
This season, Appleton has been the Spartans’ most valuable player through the first three months. He’s been an offensive force on a line with a pair of skilled freshmen – left wing Taro Hirose (3-8-11) and center Patrick Khodorenko (3-5-8).
Appleton has scored a goal in three straight games – against Northeastern on Dec. 18 and last Thursday and Friday vs. Western Michigan and Michigan, respectively, in the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit. He has four points (3-1) in the last five games, and has a pair of two-goal games – in November victories against Michigan Tech and Ferris State.
Appleton’s six power-play goals rank tied for 6th in the nation.
Last season, MSU and Wisconsin split a series at Munn Arena in early December, with the Spartans winning the opener, 4-3, and losing the second game, 3-0. In Madison in February, Michigan State swept the Badgers, 4-3 and 3-1.
Wisconsin is much improved this year, especially on offense, and has already won as many games this season (8) as it did in 2015-16.
“They’re a hard-working team. The pack the house (area around the goal crease) when they’re tired and they block a lot of shots,” Appleton said. “They’re doing the things you want your leaders and main guys to be doing. They’re buying in. I kind of see us as a similar team to them.
“They’re a different team with new coaches and some new players who are making an impact. Guys like (forwards) Grant Besse and Luke Kunin are having good years, so it’ll be important to shut them down.’’
Despite losing both games at the GLI – 4-1 vs. Western Michigan and 5-4 in overtime to Michigan – Appleton found some positives in the Spartans’ overall game. They created more quality scoring chances in each game than they have in several games before the GLI.
“Definitely against Michigan, I thought we had a ton of chances and I liked our third period, even though we didn’t end up winning,’’ he said. “We scored some good goals in that game.’’
MSU had 83 total shots and 30 on goal against WMU and 113 total shots and 40 on goal vs. Michigan.
“You don’t question things when good chances are happening. You question when they’re not happening, when you’re not getting good looks,’’ Appleton said. “I think it’s coming for us. The (Joe) Cox line (with Ebbing and JT Stenglein) had a ton of chances all weekend and I had eight or nine on Friday. The opportunities are there and it’s a matter of us getting some puck luck, bounces and finishing.’’
As long as it finishes with a couple of victories, Appleton and his teammates will be come away happy.
SCOUTING THE BADGERS: Wisconsin is coming off two of its worst seasons in the history of the program – 4-26-5 overall and 2-15-3 in the Big Ten in 2014-15 and 9-19-8 overall and 3-13-4 in the conference in 201-16.
But the Badgers have a new coaching staff in head coach Tony Granato and assistants Mark Osiecki and Don Granato, Tony’s brother. All three are Wisconsin alumni and there’s renewed energy on the ice and excitement about the future with the fanbase.
Tony Granato played 13 seasons in the NHL and coached 13 years in the NHL, including a two-year stint as an assistant with the Red Wings. Osiecki was an NHL defenseman for 93 games over four seasons, coached at Wisconsin as an assistant and Ohio State as the head coach. Don Granato, a veteran minor league and junior coach, spent the last five years coaching with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor.
Wisconsin has two wins over Northern Michigan and single victories against Boston College, Merrimack, Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Colorado College and Michigan. Losses have come against Northern Michigan (2), Boston College, Merrimack, Denver, Omaha and Michigan and there’s been one tie against Omaha.
Wisconsin is 1-3-1 in its last five games and 4-5-1 in its last 10.
When the Badgers play MSU on Friday, they’ll have been off for 26 days, the second longest time-off stretch in program history going back to 1963-64. They haven’t played since Dec. 9-10 at Michigan – a 7-4 win and 4-1 loss.
This season, Wisconsin’s strength is offense and more experience from a talented group of forwards, led by sophomore Luke Kunin, senior Grant Besse, juniors Seamus Malone and Ryan Wagner, sophomore Cameron Hughes and freshman Trent Frederic.
Besse leads the team in scoring with eight goals and 11 assists for 19 points in 15 games. Kunin, the team captain, is second with 11 goals and six assists for 17 points. Malone has 15 points (6-9) and he’s followed by Wagner (4-10-14), Hughes (2-11-13) and Frederic (5-7-12 in only 10 games because of injury).
The Badgers are getting good offensive production from a pair of defensemen. Tim Davison is seventh in scoring with 11 assists while Jake Linhart is eighth with one goal and eight assists for nine points.
“I think their team is growing. They’ve added Frederic up front and he’s a dangerous player,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “I think with the returning players, they just have more experience. And when you have more experience, there’s more confidence, more poise, more poise around the net.
“Their power play has been good so far and their penalty killing has been good. They have good depth. They’re a better team and they’ll be a better offensive team than they were a year ago.’’
Wisconsin is averaging 3.44 goals per game, which ranks No. 11 nationally. Its power play is converting on 23 percent of its chances (9th).
Defensively, the Badgers have been inconsistent most of the season. They’re giving up 3.56 goals per game (54th), but their penalty killing has been strong, skating off 86.4 percent of opponents’ power plays (12th in the nation).
In goal, freshman Jack Berry has started the last six games because of a right leg injury suffered by sophomore Matt Jurusik against Merrimack on Nov. 19. But Jurusik is back practicing and on track to get back in the lineup.
Berry has a 4-3-1 record, a 2.61 goals-against average and a .886 saves percentage. Jurusik is 4-4 with a 4.16 GAA and a .852 saves percentage.
Berry, a 6-foot-1, 180-pounder from Holly, Mich., was a junior hockey teammate last season with MSU’s No. 3 goaltender, Spencer Wright, a freshman from Farmington Hills and a Novi Catholic Central graduate. Berry and Wright played for the New Jersey Titans of the North American Hockey League. Berry and Wright split the goaltending duties early last season, but Berry was injured in late November and Wright took over as the starter.
Wright went 17-12-1, had a 2.63 GAA and was voted the team’s co-most valuable player. Berry was 12-8-2 with a 2.26 GAA.
Berry started this season backing up Jurusik and didn’t make his first start until Wisconsin’s ninth game. But he made it memorable with a 2-0 shutout of Northern Michigan on Nov. 5. He’s started eight of the last nine games, including the 7-4 win and 4-1 loss at Michigan on Dec. 9-10.
THE RIVARLY: Michigan State holds a 53-47-3 edge in the series which started with a 9-2 Spartans’ victory on Dec. 11, 1964, at MSU’s Demonstration Hall. Michigan State won the first nine meetings while the Badgers were in the early stages of Division I hockey. The Spartans are 4-1 vs. the Badgers in the last five games and 7-3 in the last 10. But in the 10 previous games – from Nov. 29, 2003, to Feb. 22, 2014, Wisconsin went 8-1-1 against MSU.
BACK TO WORK, BIG TEN CHALLENGE: After five straight losses, the Spartans are frustrated and disappointed, but Coach Tom Anastos said his team is resilient and eager to see some bright spots eventually help turn the season around.
With 18 Big Ten games remaining, Michigan State needs to improve its special teams – especially penalty killing – and boost offensive production and cut down on giving up easy goals with improved overall defense.
“I liked the mindset of our team going into the GLI and I thought we played a lot of good minutes of hockey there,’’ Anastos said. “But pucks went in too easily in certain situations and didn’t allow us to make the kinds of plays we needed at critical times to win the games.
“Scoring has been an issue and obviously our penalty killing has really struggled. We’re spending a lot of time on that in terms of schemes, personnel, doing a better job of blocking shots and stopping the puck from getting in the net.
“The combination of those things has to be in the solution to improving our play there. It has to get better. It’s really negatively affecting our team against Western Michigan, the two games with Minnesota and in our game with Northeastern.’’
Michigan State is averaging 2.38 goals per game, which ranks No. 46 in the nation, and its power play is converting at 13.8 percent (46th). Defensively, the Spartans are allowing 3.88 goals per game (56th), while their penalty killing is skating off only 68.4 percent (60th).
“Five on five, I thought we were really good in those games. In fact, in the GLI we had more shooting attempts than in my time here,’’ Anastos said. “We had 83 attempts against Western. We’re usually in the 60s. We had 113 against Michigan.
“So, I guess I’m looking at that as a good sign that we’re developing more of a shooter’s mentality. We’re getting to the scoring areas and we’re starting to think ‘shoot’ more. We have to get more shots through to the net and bear down and score, and that can change the dynamic and outcomes of these games.’’
Anastos said that his team continues to battle adversity by working hard in practice and with a determination to get better.
“The attitude of our team is good. We’re going through a tough stretch, but I like how we’re approaching things every day in practice. There’s good energy, lots of physicality,’’ he said.
“I like our focus and togetherness and I think the quality of our game continues to be high. We have to keep pushing to get results and clean up those defensive lapses that are costing us games.’’
STRONG IN THE CLASSROOM: Coach Tom Anastos said his team had a strong fall semester in the classroom, compiling a 3.22 grade-point average. He said that freshman left wing Taro Hirose has not only made an impact on the ice but he was also a star in the classroom with a 4.0 GPA.
“This is really a good group. They work hard, compete hard, deal with the highs and lows, and even with some of the inexperience of our team, they take care of business away from the rink,’’ Anastos said.
“The semester we just finished, we had a 3.22 grade-point average as a team. I think that’s the best it’s ever been here. I congratulate the guys because that was a heck of a job.’’
IN THE BIG TEN: Penn State, which hasn’t played in 34 days, returns to game action with a Big Ten series at Ohio State on Friday and Saturday. The No. 2-ranked Nittany Lions (13-1-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) are the hottest team in college hockey. They’re undefeated in 13 games (12-0-1) and have won 11 straight.
No. 11 Ohio State (9-3-4, 1-1) has played one game since coming off its holiday break and it didn’t go well. The Buckeyes lost at home to Miami, 6-3, on New Year’s Eve.
Minnesota and Michigan are idle this weekend. The No. 9 Gophers (11-5-2, 3-1) won their Mariucci Classic last weekend with victories over Mercyhurst, 5-1), and Massachusetts, 4-1. The Wolverines (8-9-1, 1-3) split two games in the Great Lakes Invitational, losing 2-0 to Michigan Tech and edging Michigan State, 5-4 in overtime.