Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Looking for Turnaround at Penn State
Neil's Koepke previews this weekend's series at Penn State.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – For sure, Ed Minney’s first career start as a Michigan State goaltender was anything but memorable.
It was at Penn State last season – on Dec. 5, 2016. Minney, a sophomore in 2015-16, gave up two goals before the game was four minutes old – at 2:50 and 3:50 – and another late in the first period.
Minney, who made seven saves, was replaced by No. 1 starter Jake Hildebrand to start the second period, en route to a 6-1 loss.
The night before, in the first game of the series, Minney took over for Hildebrand in the third period with the Spartans trailing 4-0. Minney played well, making eight saves and not allowing a goal in a 4-2 loss.
Michigan State is headed back to Penn State this weekend but Minney isn’t using the memory of his first start as motivation for playing well against the No. 4-ranked Nittany Lions. The 6-foot-5, 197-pound junior grew up in Wind Gap, Pa., (170 miles east of Penn State) and will have family and friends on hand at Pegula Ice Arena.
“I don’t think last season has much to do with it. It’s a big game for us. We need to win and they’re a good team, so it should be interesting,’’ Minney said. “It’s always nice going there, with me being from the state of Pennsylvania and it’s close to my parents. That’s kind of cool and some of my friends are coming in for the games.’ ’ The Spartans (4-13-1, 0-4 Big Ten) and Nittany Lions (14-2-1, 3-1) meet in a Big Ten series at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at the 5,782-seat Pegula Arena.
“Last year, I came in that first game in the third period and felt really good,’’ Minney said. “I don’t think there’s any built-up frustration. Things are different now. It’s a new season, new teams.’’
Minney, 20, is more concerned about the challenges that the high-scoring Nittany Lions present than what happened in 20 minutes more than a year ago.
“They have great tenacity and they throw a lot pucks at the net. It’s a little different than most teams we play this year,’’ he said. “It’s a different way to play but for them it’s working
“We have to make sure we’re picking up guys in front of the net and that I’m doing good job with my rebounds.’’
Penn State is the second-highest scoring team in the nation, averaging 4.53 goals a game. Harvard is averaging a shade more at 4.57.
Despite a pair of 5-1 losses at Wisconsin last weekend, Minney had little chance on most of the goals, and kept his focus despite the frustration of playing from behind. He made several solid saves in the third period of both contests.
“Overall, I thought I was seeing the puck pretty well, was square on shots and making the first saves,’’ he said. “It gave me some confidence, especially coming into practice (this week). It’s not like I’m sitting here and trying to collect myself and review what I was doing wrong.
“Giving up that many goals is tough, but going in (to Penn State), it’s not one of the things that’s in the back of my mind. It’s about playing my game, trying to make a couple extra saves and help us win the game.’’
Minney, who has started 14 of MSU’s 18 games, is 4-9-1 with a 3.54 goals-average and .882 saves percentage. He’s made 30 or more saves in six of his last nine starts.
SEARCH FOR ANSWERS: Six weeks ago, things looked pretty bright for the Spartans. They were 2-0-1 in their last three games, with victories over Ferris State and North Dakota and a tie against the Fighting Hawks – all on the road. And they also got a boost when they scored five goals in a 5-1 victory in an exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 Team.
Then things went the other way, starting with two 4-2 home losses to Minnesota in early December. The series finale was a winnable game in which MSU let get away after building a 2-0 lead in the second period.
A 6-2 loss to Northeastern led into the holiday break and after two defeats in the Great Lakes Invitational to Western Michigan and Michigan and two more last weekend a Wisconsin, the Spartans’ losing streak has reached seven games.
It’s been frustrating and disappointing for the players, coaches, staff and fans to see things change so drastically. For the players and coaches, it’s keep working, grind away, improve in every area and hope for a turnaround.
“The combination of not being able to finish in front of the net on a number of good scoring chances and giving up too many goals, those are significant issues for us,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “This has been a hardworking group all season. We’ve had very few what I would consider off days from hard work.
“Last Friday was one of them and none of us can figure out why. I remember playing on great teams here where we had those kinds of nights. We’ve addressed it and moved forward.’
Special teams have made a huge impact and it’s been mostly bad. The power play hasn’t been good as hoped and the penalty killing is the worst in the nation, and that’s shocking since it was one of the best last season.
Not capitalizing on quality scoring chances over the last several games has impacted the Spartans’ confidence and left the players frustrated and trying to do too much.
MSU scored just two goals in three straight games in December – in both games against Minnesota and vs. Northeastern. The Spartans scored only one in the 4-1 loss to WMU in the GLI, but broke loose for four in their 5-4 overtime loss to Michigan in the GLI third-place game.
Last week, MSU managed one goal in each of the 5-1 losses at Wisconsin.
“When you’re scoring, that’s a point in the game when momentum is built,’’ Anastos said. “Scoring has been difficult for whatever reason. I didn’t think we would go through the scoring challenges that we’re going through. We’re getting chances and it’s a matter of time before it finally breaks and (the puck) goes in.
“I thought that was going to happen on that fluky goal on Saturday that was taken away. I’m thinking on the bench that this is going to be the break we need. That we’ll start seeing some pucks that are going to work their way in.’’
Instead of taking a 2-1 lead on shot from the right corner behind the net by Taro Hirose, the goal was called back after video review because the officials didn’t see it cross the goal line, even though the initial call was that it was a goal.
Early in the second period, Wisconsin struck for two goals in the first five minutes to take a 3-1 lead and gain momentum it never lost.
Anastos admitted that he’s feeling the feeling the pressure of mounting losses and trying to get his team back on track.
“I feel all the pressure in the world. I hate it. I feel tons of pressure,’’ he said. “When you’re not having success, at least the way I feel about it, I’m ultimately responsible. You feel you’re letting your players down, your colleagues. In the case of the school, the administration, the fans, your family. Everybody. Because it’s all consuming.
“And so it’s a mental and physical drain. Because there’s certain things in your control and certain things that aren’t. You’d love to be able to find everything and control everything. But that’s part of the frustration at times.’’
Anastos said he’s been able to block out the “noise,” the criticism by the fans on social media and media nationally and locally.
“I’m focused on doing my job and working with my team, and with due respect, I don’t follow a lot of media stuff as it relates to our team,’’ he said. “If I’m focused on that, I’m focused on the wrong things. I’m focused on trying to do everything in my means to help our team.
“What’s hardest is you put tons of pressure on yourself . . . there’s expectations. I don’t want let the athletic director down, I don’t want to let my colleagues down - they come to work every day.
“Most of all, I don’t want to let our team down. To me, that internal pressure far exceeds anything external.’’
The sixth-year Spartan coach said he had a strong belief in his team when he flew home from North Dakota on Thanksgiving weekend and that belief hasn’t changed during his team’s losing streak.
“I believe in this group, I believe in the talent level and I believe in their commitment level,’’ Anastos said. “Their commitment level is the best of any team I’ve had since I’ve been here – from top to bottom.
“But we are a results-oriented business and we have to figure out a way to get results. Not just externally, but for our players to build their confidence. That’s how you build confidence – by having results.
“That’s probably as draining and frustrating for me as anything, as it relates to seeing the players progress.’’
SCOUTING THE NITTANY LIONS: While No. 4 Penn State boasts good skill and balance, a pair of freshmen are making a big splash – one doing his best to put the puck in the net and the other doing his best in keep it out.
Rookie left wing Denis Smirnov, who grew up in Russia, leads the Nittany Lions and the Big Ten in scoring with 10 goals and 18 assists for 28 points.
Smirnov, 20, a 5-10, 185-pounder from Moscow, is tied for 12th in scoring in the nation, 12 points behind leader Tyler Kelleher of New Hampshire (14-26-40).
Smirnov spent the last two seasons with the Fargo Force of the U.S. Hockey League. He had 29 goals and 61 points last year.
Freshman goaltender Peyton Jones played in 13 games before suffering his first collegiate defeat – 3-0 last Friday at Ohio State.
Jones, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound rookie from Lanhorne, Pa., is 12-2-1 with a 1.98 goals-against average and a .919 saves percentage. He’s No. 1 nationally in winning percentage (.893), No. 7 in GAA and 18th in saves percentage.
For the last two seasons, Jones played for the Lincoln Stars of the USHL. In 2015-16, he was 19-11-3 with a 2.34 GAA and a .922 saves percentage.
Smirnov and Jones have helped the Nittany Lions build up a solid record, even though most of their early-season opponents haven’t been top teams, and 12 of 17 games have been at home.
The Nittany Lions had a 13-game unbeaten streak (12-0-1) halted last Friday when they were shut out at Ohio State, 3-0. But they rebounded for a 4-2 win in the series finale and dropped in the polls from No. 2 to No. 4.
Of course, Penn State isn’t just about freshmen – four other rookies have seen regular action, but there’s been contributions from all four classes.
Junior defenseman Trevor Hamilton is tied for second in team scoring with three goals and 13 assists for 16 points. Senior center David Goodwin also has 16 points, with one goal and 15 assists.
Sophomores continue to play a key role, just like they did as freshmen last season. Forward Andrew Sturtz has a team-high 13 goals and two assists for 15 points. Forward Chase Berger has seven goals and seven assists for 14 points, while defenseman Vince Pedrie has five goals and eight assist for 13 points.
Two other freshman forwards have made an impact, including another Russian. Nate Sucese is tied for sixth in team scoring with eight goals and six assists for 14 points, while Nikita Pavlychev, from Yaroslavl, Russia, has three goals and nine points.
“Our whole defensive corps knows that Penn State plays hard, and they’ll send in a couple of guys in on the forecheck and when they’re coming in, they’ll bang bodies,’’ MSU sophomore defenseman Zach Osburn said. “We know that their freshmen are making an impact.
“We’ll have to look out for those guys. Our challenge will be breaking the puck out of our zone and watching their freshmen.’’
In the three-plus seasons of Big Ten hockey, Penn State has been known as a team that loves to put as many shots on goal as possible, even it means shooting from wide angles. They love to fight for rebounds and create havoc in front of the net.’’
Penn State averages an amazing 48.3 shots on a goal, while allowed 24.1 per game.
In their last six games, the Nittany Lions have been credited with 54, 51, 48, 58, 46 and 43 shots on goal. The last four games have been against Michigan at home and at Ohio State.
PSU’s lowest number of shots on goal this season came at Notre Dame on Oct. 21-22 – 32 in a 3-3 tie and 33 in a 3-2 victory.
“We have to make sure we’re blocking guys out, boxing out guys in front,’’ Osburn said. “Last year, they had the same way of thinking and the perfect amount of skill and grit to be a winning team. And I’m sure it’s the same this year and probably better. They could be one of the best teams in the country and maybe even the best.’’
Because of their soft schedule, it’s uncertain how good the Nittany Lions really are after 17 games. Only three of the nine teams on the schedule have winning records – St. Lawrence, Notre Dame and Ohio State and all three are ranked. Penn State’s opponents have a combined record of 70-93-24.
Four games remain against Minnesota, two vs. Ohio State, four with Wisconsin, two with Michigan, as well as four against Michigan State.
“They’re a good team and they’re playing with a lot of confidence,” MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “They’re very good at home, they get up and down the ice in a hurry and traditionally, they’ve thrown a lot of pucks to the net and created a lot off of that.’’
Coach Guy Gadowsky is in his fifth season at Penn State, after a seven-year stint at Princeton, and has a 74-70-11 record with the Nittany Lions. Last season, PSU was 21-13-4 overall and 10-9-1-1 and third in the Big Ten.
THE RIVARLY: Michigan State holds a 6-5-3 edge in the series which began with a 5-3 Spartan victory on Jan. 25, 2013, at Munn Arena. MSU is 5-2-1 at home and 1-3-2 at Penn State. Last season, the Nittany Lions went 3-0-1 against the Spartans, sweeping 4-2 and 6-1 at home and winning 6-1 and tying 2-2 at Munn Arena. In 2014-15, MSU held a 3-1-1 edge, tying 2-2 and losing 5-2 at PSU and sweeping, 3-0, 3-2, at Munn Arena.
IN THE BIG TEN: After having last weekend off, Michigan and Minnesota are back on the ice this weekend while Ohio State plays its last non-conference series and Wisconsin is off.
The No. 9 Gophers (11-5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) and the Wolverines (8-9-1, 1-3) meet in a Big Ten series on Friday and Saturday at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. Minnesota last played on Dec. 30-31 at home, winning the Mariucci Classic with victories over Mercyhurst, 5-1, and Massachusetts, 4-1. Michigan last played in the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit, Dec. 29-30, losing to Michigan Tech, 2-0, and edging Michigan State, 5-4 in overtime.
No. 10 Ohio State (10-4-4, 2-2), which split with Penn State last weekend, winning 3-0 and losing 4-2, plays Arizona State (7-16-1) on Friday and Saturday at Value City Arena.
After being off for 26 days before playing the Spartans last weekend, Wisconsin (10-7-1, 3-1) gets another weekend off before playing host to Minnesota, Jan. 20-21.