Jan. 9, 2014
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - A new year is here and Michigan State's Matt Berry couldn't happier.
The junior forward is eager to make 2014 a whole lot better than the way things played out the last six months of 2013. In mid-summer, Berry suffered a lower body injury, one that required surgery, and he's basically dealing with the rehabilitation process ever since.
Berry, 21, the Spartans' top scorer last year, had never suffered a major injury in all the years he's played hockey. So he never realized the hard work, dedication and patience needed to recover from an injury and get back on the ice and regain his solid offensive skills and instincts.
It's taken a lot of time - way too much time in Berry's mind.
"It's been the most frustrating thing I've had to deal with,'' he said. "You have to work a lot harder than I expected. I kind of expected that I could just hop back in there and be back to myself. That wasn't the case
"I've had to put a lot more work into it, to get back to where I was last year. I still don't feel like I'm 100 percent, but I think I'm getting there slowly.''
Since given the OK to play and get back in the lineup on Nov. 22, after missing MSU's first eight games, Berry has played in only five games and has two goals - both on power plays in back-to-back games two weeks ago in the Great Lakes Invitational at Comerica Park in Detroit.
Last season, Berry had 15 goals and 16 assists for 31 points - all team highs -- in 41 games
"I've never had an injury in my whole life, besides a sprained ankle or something like that,'' said Berry, a 5-foot-10, 169-pounder from Canton. "And even then, I didn't miss any games. I just kind of played through it.''
This time, Berry couldn't play through it.
"Even when I (first got injured), I could still skate and go as hard as I'd want. It would just hurt,'' he said. "When I came back (from surgery and initial rehab), I couldn't do that. I had to slowly get into it and get my stride back because it hurt so bad when I did skate.''
Since Berry sat out MSU's home series against Minnesota in early December, he'll be making his Big Ten debut this weekend when the Spartans (6-9-2 overall, 0-1-1-1 Big Ten) face Ohio State (10-6, 0-2) on Friday and Saturday at Value City Arena in Columbus.
If the Spartans are going to have a strong initial season in the Big Ten, Berry is going to have to be a key contributor.
"You just have to keep working it at, and hope coach gives you the opportunities you had before,'' Berry said. "I worked hard to get back on the power play (in the GLI) and that's where I got both of my goals.
"When you first get back on the ice, you realize you can't do everything, but now I don't feel it or notice it as much,'' he said. "I can do the things I did before, so it's a matter of getting my timing back and where to be on the ice.''
MSU coach Tom Anastos has encouraged Berry to compete hard in practice every day, carry a good mindset into every game and be ready to perform with energy at both ends of the rink.
"When he plays at the highest level of his game, he can compete and contribute offensively and defensively, and that's what our expectations are for Matt Berry,'' Anastos said.
"I thought his game started to come around (at the GLI). We've been monitoring that in practice more than anything. Matt has a real challenge, both mentally and physically, in dealing with the kind of injury he's had.
"He's never had an injury before and he was fighting through that when we he was trying to come back. At times, he was struggling with it. We sat down to address it right before the (Christmas) break and he started to recognize how to deal with an injury like that.''
Anastos believes Berry has to continue to push himself to regain his scoring touch from last season and once again become an impact player.
"A big part of (recovering from a difficult injury) is just your attitude and approach to dealing with things like he's had,'' the third-year Spartan coach said. "He had some success at the GLI and now each day - not each week - he has to continue to improve himself and his approach so he can make the solid contribution he did in those games.
"For Matt, it was different from day 1 to day 2 (at the GLI). In game 1, he saw limited amount of ice time, because of (team) penalties and other things. I had to talk to him about remaining focused and earning ice time.
"He did that and adjusted to it on Saturday, played well (against Michigan) and scored another goal, which should help his confidence. It helps our team so much if he can contribute in the right way, and that's not just scoring goals. Scoring is needed but there are a lot of ways to contribute. Attitude is one and work habits is another.''
With Berry progressing, Anastos is eager to see the Spartans as close to being at their best health-level of the season. He would like it to happen this weekend but it may be another week.
"We have one or two guys nursing their way to 100 percent, and while I was hoping it would be this weekend, we may not be there yet,'' Anastos said.
The Spartan coach said sophomore defenseman John Draeger, who also missed the first eight games with a lower-body injury which required offseason surgery, is ailing and his status for the OSU series is questionable. Draeger has played in nine games after missing the first eight.
Meanwhile, sophomore forward David Bondra is lost for the season with a shoulder injury. He had surgery on his left shoulder three weeks ago in Maryland. Bondra had surgery on his right shoulder after last season. He'll likely get a medical redshirt and be eligible to play for three more seasons after this year.
BIG TEN, READY, SET, GO: With 17 games down and 18 to go, Michigan State players are eager to see a steady diet of Big Ten opponents the rest of the season. The Spartans will play 18 consecutive conference games in regular season play, before moving on to the six-team Big Ten Championship in St. Paul Minn., March 20-22.
"We've been looking forward to this all year. It's time for us to get some points,'' MSU senior defenseman Jake Chelios said. "I think this is the biggest weekend of the year for us. We just have to climb.
"Every team in the Big Ten has been fun to play against, and obviously Lake State, Ferris State and all those teams, we used to play them a lot, but when you go up against these bigger schools, it's a great environment.''
Many Spartans are eager to visit Penn State for the first time and see the impressive, new building - the 5,782-seat Pegula Ice Arena.
"I think the biggest thing (about the Big Ten) is going to Penn State,'' MSU senior captain and right wing Greg Wolfe said. "I'm excited to see what it's all about and play in front of their fan base.
"Minnesota and Wisconsin have great facilities. It's going to build the rivalries. There's only six teams so we'll see a lot of each other, and rivalries will form pretty quickly.''
MSU faces five Big Ten teams over the next 10 weeks - Ohio State (road); Penn State (home); Michigan (Detroit, home); Minnesota road); Ohio State (home); Penn State (road); Wisconsin (road); Michigan (road, home) and Wisconsin (home).
On March 1, MSU plays an exhibition game against the U.S. National Team Development Program's Under-18 team at Munn Arena.
The only team that doesn't play only Big Ten games the rest of the season is Minnesota, still ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Gophers will play in the North Star Cup tournament in St. Paul, Jan. 24-25, against three in-state rivals - No. 2 St. Cloud State, Minnesota State and Minnesota-Duluth. Minnesota plays St. Cloud, Jan. 24, and will play the winner or loser of UMD and Minnesota State on Jan. 25.
In this weekend's Big Ten games, Michigan is at Wisconsin on Friday and Saturday, while Penn State plays host to Minnesota on Sunday and Monday.
Starting this Friday, the Big Ten Network will show hockey doubleheaders for eight straight Friday nights at 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.
MSU will be on the Big Ten Network on each of the next seven Fridays.
KEY AREAS FOR SPARTANS: Two areas targeted by coach Tom Anastos as essential for success in Big Ten competition are more consistency on defense and a more productive offense.
"You can't win in the game today without being consistent defensively. That's No. 1,'' he said. "That has to be a staple in your game.
"No. 2, we have to generate more dynamics offensively. I thought we did that in the last game we played (a 3-0 win over Michigan in the GLI third-place game). We were more consistent with our puck movement all over the ice. We created more offensive zone play, which resulted in more scoring chances.
"We possessed the puck better and moved it around well enough on the power play. With all that, I think we can take a step forward.
"But we can't do it by compromising our ability to play good team defense.''
SCOUTING THE BUCKEYES: Ohio State is 10-6 overall, 0-2 in the Big Ten and has won seven of its last nine games, but it's still uncertain how good the Buckeyes really are.
They've played six teams that have been ranked in the top 20 - Miami, Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan - and they're 1-5 against that group. OSU got swept by Miami and Michigan and split with UMD.
The Buckeyes have played eight games against four Atlantic Hockey teams - Robert Morris, Niagara, Canisius and Mercyhurst - and went 8-0. They're 1-1 against Bowling Green of the WCHA.
The next few weeks should be quite revealing for first-year Coach Steve Rohlik's team. Over the next month, the Buckeyes host MSU and play at Minnesota and Wisconsin and return home to face Penn State. Incidentally, the first game of the Gophers series, Jan. 17, is an outdoor game at TCF Bank Stadium, the first in modern Minnesota history.
Ohio State is tied with Minnesota with the best offense among Big Ten teams. The Buckeyes and Gophers are averaging 3.94 goals a game, while Michigan State is sixth (last) with a 2.35 average.
Defensively, however, OSU's stats aren't as impressive. The Buckeyes are allowing an average of 2.94 goals per game, which ranks fifth, behind Minnesota (2.11), Michigan (2.19), Michigan State (2.41) and Wisconsin (2.83).
The OSU goaltending scenario this season has been one of the strangest in college hockey in many seasons. It involves a goaltender transferring early in the season, the starter getting hurt and the No. 3 netminder, a walk-on, playing in four games, and a new goaltender, who joined the team from junior hockey in December, playing two games two weeks ago before he ever attended a class.
Ohio State started the season with sophomore Colin Olson, highly regarded freshman Matt Tomkins and freshman Logan Davis, a walk-on from Columbus.
Tompkins won the starting job from Olson and played in eight of OSU's first 10 games. Olson played in two games but apparently was unhappy with his situation so he left the team and went back to play in the U.S. Hockey League and look for other future opportunities.
Tomkins suffered an injury on Nov. 9 and has missed the last games but appears close to returning. Davis finished the Nov. 9 game against Niagara and then shut out Canisius, 3-0, in his first career start, and won the second game of that series, 3-1.
With Tomkins sidelined, the Buckeyes added Aaron Kahn, who had been playing with the OSU club team, to the roster to backup Davis. In addition, Aaron Getz, a catcher on the OSU baseball team, joined the team as the No. 3 goalie for two series, but has since returned to baseball.
Davis, meanwhile, made two starts against Michigan and played well, despite the Buckeyes getting swept, 4-3 in overtime and 5-4.
Ohio State brought in a goalie from the USHL in freshman Christian Frey in December, and he played in both games of a sweep over Mercyhurst, 6-3, 7-3, on Dec. 28-29.
So, where does that leave the Buckeyes goaltending right now?
Tomkins could be back this weekend to face the Buckeyes as the No. 1 goalie, with Frey settling in as the No. 2 and Davis resuming his role as No. 3. If not, Frey would probably start. Then again, maybe it's Davis.
Tomkins is a 6-foot-3, 194-pounder from Edmonton and was playing very well as a rookie before his injury.
Lost in all the goaltender drama is the fact that the Buckeyes have shown good offensive production over their first 17 games.
OSU has five players with 14 points or more, led by junior Ryan Dzingel's team-leading 10 goals and 13 assists for 26 points. Junior Max McCormick has seven goals and 11 assists for 18 points, while senior Alex Szczechura (5-12) and junior Tanner Fritz (3-14) are tied for third in scoring with 17 points apiece.
Junior Nick Oddo has 14 points (4-10).
The Buckeyes struck it rich with a talented and productive 11-man junior class. And most see action.
Michigan State is 7-8-1 vs. OSU over the last five seasons. Last season, the Buckeyes won twice in Munn Arena, but in 2011-12, the Spartans swept in Columbus in a series that helped save that season. Earlier that season, the teams split in East Lansing.
Overall, MSU holds a commanding 84-28-8 lead in the series which started with an 18-0 Spartan victory on Dec. 7, 1957.
OUTDOOR OVERLOAD? Thus far this season there's been outdoor college hockey in Rochester N.Y., Detroit and Boston. There are two more games in Boston this weekend, and Ohio State and Minnesota meet in an outdoor game in Minneapolis next Friday.
In the NHL, the Wings-Leafs Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium on Jan. 1 was the first of six outdoor games. In the weeks ahead, outdoor hockey will be played in New York, with two games, and single contests in Los Angeles, Chicago and Vancouver.
So, is this an overdose of hockey outdoors? Or is each game important for growing the game in the areas at which they're held?
"You look at it and see that there's so much of it and you think the novelty is going to wear off. But when you're up close and part of it, you see how the players respond to it, the novelty really hasn't worn off,'' Spartan coach Tom Anastos said.
"The whole experience for our team was really good. The day we practiced (Dec. 26) with all that snow was fun, even though it wasn't a real practice. The first game, while it was fun, was concerning because of the ice conditions. The second day, the ice conditions were excellent.''
Some fans may be tired of watching college and NHL games on TV, but where the games are held, it's still a big deal and generates a lot of interest. Just about every NHL team would love to hold an outdoor game, especially as host of the Jan. 1 Winter Classic.
"I would welcome another opportunity (to play outside). I would like to see that as our players cycle through, our goal would be to have at least one outside experience in their time here at Michigan State,'' Anastos said.
"That way we don't overdo it, and yet everyone gets a meaningful opportunity to participate.''