Neil's Notebook: Spartans Look to Get Scoring Touch Back
 
 
 
Greg Wolfe
 
Greg Wolfe
 
 

Jan. 12, 2012

By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer

A month ago, Michigan State's offense was considered balanced, opportunistic and a team strength.

Now it's gone cold and the Spartans are feeling the impact - a 1-3 record over the last four games and some frustration over the inability to score on the power play.

The focus in practice this week is getting the offense back on track as MSU (11-9-2 overall, 6-7-1-1 CCHA) prepares to play host to Northern Michigan in a CCHA series on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. at Munn Arena.

"Our offense will come back. It's like an individual player - you go streaks sometimes,'' MSU junior left wing Dean Chelios said. "Sometimes things don't fall right. I think that's what's happening to our team right now.

"We're getting chances but nothing is going on. You just have keep working hard and hope things change.''

A month ago, the Spartans were 8th in the nation on offense, averaging 3.44 goals a game. In the last six games, MSU has scored 3, 3, 3, 2, 1 and 0 goals, dropping its average to 3.09, which is tied for 23rd.

The power play in mid-December was converting on 19.1 percent of its chances, ranking 4th in the CCHA and 27th nationally. After last weekend's 2-1 (in overtime) and 4-0 losses against Miami, in which the power play went 0-for-13, MSU is now 6th in the CCHA and 40th in the nation at 16.5 percent.

In two games against Michigan and one game vs. Michigan Tech, the Spartans had converted on 4-of-7 power play opportunities. That's when things went cold. MSU went 0-for-2 against U-M in the GLI title game and 0-5 and 0-8 against the RedHawks.

"We have to keep working on it in practice. We've had some different combinations last week and are starting to get to know each other,'' said sophomore right wing Greg Wolfe, the Spartans' second leading scorer with seven goals and 12 assists for 19 points.

 

 

"We had some good chances, but we need to do a better job of getting the puck in the zone and setting up. We need to be more patient at times, and at other times, get the puck to the net and crash harder.''

Coach Tom Anastos said he likes the way his team has moved the puck around on the power play, but that getting the puck through to the net from the points and the perimeter has been difficult.

"We started working on it Monday and we'll continue all week - we need to create more player movement, puck movement and not only get the puck through but also for second and third shots,'' he said.

"We've got to get (senior forward) Brett Perlini in position to get more shots. He's got a good release and he's a good scorer so somehow we've got to get him the puck more in scoring areas.''

Anastos said it's a challenge in most games to get the puck on the net after setting up in the offensive zone because more players block shots, goalies are bigger and better and if they can see it, they usually will block it.

"Everybody tries to protect the front of the net because it's difficult to score from the perimeter,'' he said. "How often do you see goals from that area?''

The offense will get a boost this weekend with the return of senior left wing Mike Merrifield, who's missed the last four games with a separated shoulder suffered in the 4-4 tie against Michigan on Dec. 10.

"Getting Merry back, it just adds to our depth. It's a big step,'' Anastos said. "He adds to the mix more than just scoring. It's his energy and the way he goes to the net. We've missed that.''

Merrifield, a 5-foot-9, 175-pounder from Beverly Hills, Mich., has played in only 14 games but has eight goals and five assists for 13 points. He shares the goal-scoring lead with sophomore center Lee Reimer, MSU's leading scorer with eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points.'

Merrifield missed the first four games of the season due to injury. With Merrifield in the lineup, the Spartans are 9-3-2.

MSU is also striving to create more scoring opportunities off the rush, when things are not so congested in the offensive zone.

"With our breakout, we need to come up the ice more as a unit,'' Wolfe said. "Too many times, it'll be just one or two guys coming up on a break against the defense. We need to bring three (forwards) up at the same time.

"Everyone is still working hard and staying positive. We were frustrated a bit on Saturday, but I think we're over that.''

GOOD GOALIES GALORE: Since the middle of November, MSU has faced a steady diet of standout goaltenders. In a split against Northern Michigan, Nov. 18-19, the Spartans faced Wildcats senior Reid Ellingson and sophomore Jared Coreau. The following week, MSU won and tied against Minnesota senior Kent Patterson.

To start December, the Spartans swept Bowling Green and junior Andrew Hammond. That series was followed by two games against Michigan and senior Shawn Hunwick - a loss and tie. In the GLI, the Spartans had to work hard to solve Michigan Tech senior goalie Josh Robinson in a 3-1 win, but lost 2-1 in overtime to the Wolverines and Hunwick in the GLI championship game.

In the two losses against Miami last weekend, senior Connor Knapp, who is 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, played a major role, stopping 53 of 54 shots.

"Our schedule has been really tough. We're playing good teams who are good defensively and it starts in goal,'' Anastos said. "Whatever the reason, the goalies in the CCHA are very good.

"It's hard to penetrate a team's defense because it's such a focal point and when you get to the goaltenders, they are good ones throughout the league. You're looking at goalies with save percentages between 90 and 94 percent. Most first shots and perimeter shots don't go in.

"You have to get to the net and create second and third shots. We have to do that with speed because we don't have big bodies.''

The top three goalies in the CCHA in goals-against averages are Ferris State's C.J. Motte (1.99) and Taylor Nelson (2.01) and Ohio State's Cal Heeter (2.02). Heeter has the best save percentage at .932.

"Every goalie in the CCHA is very capable and some weekends you run into a hot goalie,'' Wolfe said. "Some weekends, you get the bounces. It's a matter of doing the little things like getting the puck to the net and getting in front of the goalie so he can't see it.''

WILDCATS ON A ROLL: Northern Michigan skates into Munn Arena as one of the hottest teams in the CCHA with a 7-1-1 record in its last nine games since a 4-2 loss to the Spartans on Nov. 18 in Marquette.

The Wildcats (10-7-4 overall, 6-6-4-2 CCHA) started the season at 4-1 but then went on an eight-game winless streak at 0-5-3. They're coming off a 2-2 tie and shootout loss and 7-3 victory against Alaska last weekend in Marquette.

"They're playing with confidence, their goaltending is very strong and they're a physical team,'' Anastos said. "Northern is a very good second-half team. They've made a lot of second-half runs.

"They'll come in here eager to play us and trying to accomplish the same thing we're trying to do and that's move up in the standings.''

NMU is tied for fifth with Miami with 25 points. MSU is ninth with 20 points but with two games in hand on six of the 10 other teams.

On offense, NMU is led by a pair of seniors - Tyler Gron and Justin Florek. Gron is the top scorer with nine goals and 11 assist for 20 points, while Florek, a Boston Bruins draft pick, is second with 10 goals and eight assists for 18 points.

The Wildcats average 2.81 goals a game (6th in the CCHA and 32nd in the nation) and averaging 2.52 against (7th, 17th). The power play is third in the CCHA and 23rd in the nation at 20.5, while NMU's penalty killing is at 88.3 percent, 3rd in the league and tied for fourth nationally.

CARNEY HOPEFUL: MSU freshman defenseman Branden Carney, recovering from a broken neck when he crashed into the boards head first during a practice on Nov. 3, has hopes of one getting back on the ice and resuming his Spartan hockey career.

Dean Chelios said. "Sometimes things don't fall right. I think that's what's happening to our team right now.

"We're getting chances but nothing is going on. You just have keep working hard and hope things change.''

A month ago, the Spartans were 8th in the nation on offense, averaging 3.44 goals a game. In the last six games, MSU has scored 3, 3, 3, 2, 1 and 0 goals, dropping its average to 3.09, which is tied for 23rd.

The power play in mid-December was converting on 19.1 percent of its chances, ranking 4th in the CCHA and 27th nationally. After last weekend's 2-1 (in overtime) and 4-0 losses against Miami, in which the power play went 0-for-13, MSU is now 6th in the CCHA and 40th in the nation at 16.5 percent.

In two games against Michigan and one game vs. Michigan Tech, the Spartans had converted on 4-of-7 power play opportunities. That's when things went cold. MSU went 0-for-2 against U-M in the GLI title game and 0-5 and 0-8 against the RedHawks.

"We have to keep working on it in practice. We've had some different combinations last week and are starting to get to know each other,'' said sophomore right wing Greg Wolfe, the Spartans' second leading scorer with seven goals and 12 assists for 19 points.

"We had some good chances, but we need to do a better job of getting the puck in the zone and setting up. We need to be more patient at times, and at other times, get the puck to the net and crash harder.''

Coach Tom Anastos said he likes the way his team has moved the puck around on the power play, but that getting the puck through to the net from the points and the perimeter has been difficult.

"We started working on it Monday and we'll continue all week - we need to create more player movement, puck movement and not only get the puck through but also for second and third shots,'' he said.

"We've got to get (senior forward) Brett Perlini in position to get more shots. He's got a good release and he's a good scorer so somehow we've got to get him the puck more in scoring areas.''

Anastos said it's a challenge in most games to get the puck on the net after setting up in the offensive zone because more players block shots, goalies are bigger and better and if they can see it, they usually will block it.

"Everybody tries to protect the front of the net because it's difficult to score from the perimeter,'' he said. "How often do you see goals from that area?''

The offense will get a boost this weekend with the return of senior left wing Mike Merrifield, who's missed the last four games with a separated shoulder suffered in the 4-4 tie against Michigan on Dec. 10.

"Getting Merry back, it just adds to our depth. It's a big step,'' Anastos said. "He adds to the mix more than just scoring. It's his energy and the way he goes to the net. We've missed that.''

Merrifield, a 5-foot-9, 175-pounder from Beverly Hills, Mich., has played in only 14 games but has eight goals and five assists for 13 points. He shares the goal-scoring lead with sophomore center Lee Reimer, MSU's leading scorer with eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points.'

Merrifield missed the first four games of the season due to injury. With Merrifield in the lineup, the Spartans are 9-3-2.

MSU is also striving to create more scoring opportunities off the rush, when things are not so congested in the offensive zone.

"With our breakout, we need to come up the ice more as a unit,'' Wolfe said. "Too many times, it'll be just one or two guys coming up on a break against the defense. We need to bring three (forwards) up at the same time.

"Everyone is still working hard and staying positive. We were frustrated a bit on Saturday, but I think we're over that.''

GOOD GOALIES GALORE: Since the middle of November, MSU has faced a steady diet of standout goaltenders. In a split against Northern Michigan, Nov. 18-19, the Spartans faced Wildcats senior Reid Ellingson and sophomore Jared Coreau. The following week, MSU won and tied against Minnesota senior Kent Patterson.

To start December, the Spartans swept Bowling Green and junior Andrew Hammond. That series was followed by two games against Michigan and senior Shawn Hunwick - a loss and tie. In the GLI, the Spartans had to work hard to solve Michigan Tech senior goalie Josh Robinson in a 3-1 win, but lost 2-1 in overtime to the Wolverines and Hunwick in the GLI championship game.

In the two losses against Miami last weekend, senior Connor Knapp, who is 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, played a major role, stopping 53 of 54 shots.

"Our schedule has been really tough. We're playing good teams who are good defensively and it starts in goal,'' Anastos said. "Whatever the reason, the goalies in the CCHA are very good.

"It's hard to penetrate a team's defense because it's such a focal point and when you get to the goaltenders, they are good ones throughout the league. You're looking at goalies with save percentages between 90 and 94 percent. Most first shots and perimeter shots don't go in.

"You have to get to the net and create second and third shots. We have to do that with speed because we don't have big bodies.''

The top three goalies in the CCHA in goals-against averages are Ferris State's C.J. Motte (1.99) and Taylor Nelson (2.01) and Ohio State's Cal Heeter (2.02). Heeter has the best save percentage at .932.

"Every goalie in the CCHA is very capable and some weekends you run into a hot goalie,'' Wolfe said. "Some weekends, you get the bounces. It's a matter of doing the little things like getting the puck to the net and getting in front of the goalie so he can't see it.''

WILDCATS ON A ROLL: Northern Michigan skates into Munn Arena as one of the hottest teams in the CCHA with a 7-1-1 record in its last nine games since a 4-2 loss to the Spartans on Nov. 18 in Marquette.

The Wildcats (10-7-4 overall, 6-6-4-2 CCHA) started the season at 4-1 but then went on an eight-game winless streak at 0-5-3. They're coming off a 2-2 tie and shootout loss and 7-3 victory against Alaska last weekend in Marquette.

"They're playing with confidence, their goaltending is very strong and they're a physical team,'' Anastos said. "Northern is a very good second-half team. They've made a lot of second-half runs.

"They'll come in here eager to play us and trying to accomplish the same thing we're trying to do and that's move up in the standings.''

NMU is tied for fifth with Miami with 25 points. MSU is ninth with 20 points but with two games in hand on six of the 10 other teams.

On offense, NMU is led by a pair of seniors - Tyler Gron and Justin Florek. Gron is the top scorer with nine goals and 11 assist for 20 points, while Florek, a Boston Bruins draft pick, is second with 10 goals and eight assists for 18 points.

The Wildcats average 2.81 goals a game (6th in the CCHA and 32nd in the nation) and averaging 2.52 against (7th, 17th). The power play is third in the CCHA and 23rd in the nation at 20.5, while NMU's penalty killing is at 88.3 percent, 3rd in the league and tied for fourth nationally.

CARNEY HOPEFUL: MSU freshman defenseman Branden Carney, recovering from a broken neck when he crashed into the boards head first during a practice on Nov. 3, has hopes of one getting back on the ice and resuming his Spartan hockey career.

Branden Carney Press Conference

Carney was hospitalized for a week and has had to wear a halo since returning home to Battle Creek. He suffered a fracture in his C1 and C2 vertebrae.

"They take the halo off in two weeks and they'll check for ligament damage, and if there is no damage, I'll wear a neck brace for two weeks and then hopefully I can start training again and maybe get back out there,'' Carney said earlier this week at Munn Arena.

A halo brace is a brace used to prevent the neck and head from moving. It keeps the neck in the correct position.

"(The doctors) couldn't see the ligaments before they put the halo on and adjusted my neck. So, they'll have to wait until after I get the halo off,'' Carney said.

"If I can play, I want to play.''

Carney, 19, says he remembers just about everything about the accident and hospital stay at Sparrow hospital.

"I was conscious the whole time. I remember getting my feet tangled up and the top of my head going right into the boards,'' he said. "I remember the awful pain in my neck and moving my arms and legs to see if I could feel them. That was a big thing.

But I didn't know it would be this bad - broken neck-wise. But once I knew I had feelings in my arms and legs, I knew it would be OK.''

Carney, who is 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, said his spirits were lifted by the immediate support from his teammates and MSU officials visiting and calling and friends and teammates sending well wishes via Twitter, Facebook and texts.

"I remember being in the hospital and all the boys coming to see me. It felt good to know that the guys were there for me and cared so much, even though I had been (part of the team) for only a couple months,'' he said.

"I stayed pretty positive. There were a couple of days when it was kind of like, `Why me?' But I feel blessed that I could get up and walk around. The first month was tough trying to get my neck strong again and not being around the team.

"But it's better since I've gotten back here and I'm in a normal routine and finishing up classes that I missed.''

Of course, Carney's family rallied around Branden during the whole traumatic experience. Branden's father, Russ, is associate head coach with the MSU volleyball team.

"They played a big role. My mom (Sherry), had to take off a month from work to be with me at home and take care of me through the first month,'' Branden said. "The first week in the hospital, there were a lot of things going through her head, and both of my parents were there for me the entire week.''

Carney is back in school and trying to be around his teammates as much as possible. He traveled to the Great Lakes Invitational with the team and stayed in Detroit, and was at both games last weekend against Miami.

For sure, he's eager to lose the cumbersome halo.

"There's little things that you miss. Wearing a normal shirt would be nice,'' he laughed. "It hasn't been too bad once I got used to it.''

Coach Tom Anastos believes Carney has been an inspiration to the team.

"I've never been around an injury like that. It was very traumatic. He's handled it well,'' Anastos said. "Despite the nature of the injury, it's turned out well. He's recovered quickly and tries to be around his teammates as much as he can. I think he's an inspiration for the team.''