Jan. 14, 2013
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
The standard has been set.
The challenge for the Michigan State hockey team is to live up it every game for the rest of the season. Or at least, as many as possible.
In two games against Notre Dame last weekend - a narrow 1-0 loss and strong 4-1 victory - the Spartans learned about the ingredients necessary to compete with the first-place team in the CCHA and the No. 2 ranked team in the nation.
In both games, MSU played with energy, competed at a high level, showed grit and toughness and went to the difficult areas around the net to create quality scoring chances.
On Friday, the Spartans weren't rewarded for their efforts and didn't get the results they wanted. But the frustrating 1-0 loss didn't impact their morale.
They came right back on Saturday and delivered another high-level performance, and this time hard work led to good puck luck and an exciting, coveted win over the Irish. The puck finally went into the net on Saturday, after two straight shutouts.
The Spartans' four goals, including the last one into an empty net from about 145 feet by Matt DeBlouw, were the most they scored since the 7-2 victory over Michigan on Nov. 10. Since that game, MSU had scored only 12 goals in 11 games going into the series finale against the Irish.
With not a lot of gifted scorers, the only way the Spartans (6-12-3 overall, 5-9-1-0 CCHA) can put themselves in position to win more games and develop into a formidable team over the next two months is fairly obvious:
Follow the same script as they brought to the Notre Dame series.
The potential for victory will be there, but there are still going to be times when a hard-working, strong overall game is going to end up with a bad result. Bad puck luck and hot goaltending can spoil things.
But at least a high-end effort gives the Spartans a chance to win. A soft, uninspired performance leads to defeat.
MSU coach Tom Anastos called his teams play against the Irish "our best six periods of hockey" this season.
"It sets an expectation that we know we're capable of playing this hard,'' he said. "This has to be the signature of our team if we're going to have success.
"I don't think I have to say much (to the team). The players watched it, experienced it and it's something we can create as an expectation.''
In a 3-0 loss at Ferris State on Jan. 5, the Spartans' had little energy, their work ethic was spotty and they rarely created good scoring chances. Anastos was especially unhappy, not so much with the loss but with the poor work habits which made it a fairly easy victory for the Bulldogs.
Anastos changed his forward lines, worked on various things in practice last week and was hopeful the challenge of facing the Irish would result in a better effort.
The Spartans showed some grit, created better scoring chances and held Notre Dame to two goals in two games and MSU even scored four in the second game.
"One challenge with younger and inexperienced players is developing a level of consistency,'' Anastos said. "That's why six periods of good play is important.
"We will use that as a standard to build on and exceed.''
So, the big test continues as the Spartans close out January and cruise into February.
This weekend, MSU plays a home-and-home series against Ferris State - at 7 p.m. on Friday at Munn Arena and at 7 p.m. on Saturday in Big Rapids. The Spartans are 1-1 against the Bulldogs, each winning at home.
On Jan. 25-26, the Spartans play a two-game, nonconference series against Penn State, which is playing an independent schedule this year before joining the Big Ten next season. This is the Nittany Lions' first year as a varsity program.
In the last five series of the season, MSU faces Michigan, Bowling Green, Northern Michigan, Alaska and Western Michigan.
Greg Wolfe, the Spartans junior captain, said the Notre Dame weekend was "the most important series that we've played.''
"We've been getting beat up for a while now but by playing a team of this caliber, it should be a confidence builder,'' Wolfe said. "That's probably the two best games we've put together all year from the standpoint of our work ethic and our willingness to do whatever it takes.
"We saw our hard work pay off. It's nice when everyone is dedicated to the same cause. Guys were blocking shots, taking hits and doing everything to get the puck out of our zone. We were going hard to the net, and paying the price.''
The Spartans aren't alone in finding it difficult to score goals. There are a bunch of teams in the CCHA struggling to score.
On Friday night, six teams scored one goal or fewer. On Saturday, four teams were held to one goal, all resulting in defeats.
Notre Dame and Miami are two of the most talented teams in the league and rank No. 1 and 4, respectively, in offense in CCHA games. Still, the Irish managed three goals last weekend - one each in a 4-1 loss at Notre Dame and a 1-0 win and 4-1 loss at MSU.
Miami was held to one goal in a 2-1 loss at Northern Michigan but did find a way to boosts its output in a 3-3 tie in the second game of the series. The RedHawks, with two of the top forwards in the league in sophomore Austin Czarnik and freshman Riley Barber, have scored only nine goals in their last seven games.
This is Miami's goal output since early December: 0, 1, 3, 1, 0, 2, 3. It resulted in a 2-3-2 record.
Meanwhile, Lake Superior State scored only two goals last weekend in a 1-1 tie and 3-1 loss at Western Michigan. LSSU, MSU, NMU, Ohio State and Bowling Green average from 2.06 goals-per-game to 1.92.
The CCHA is full of standout goaltenders and teams capable of playing smothering defense. Three goals mean a great chance at victory. Sometimes, even two.
Anastos said he'll continue to stress that his forwards must attack the top scoring areas if his team is going to boost its scoring output.
"We've reviewed every goal we've scored this season for my meetings with the players (at midseason) and we went through it with them,'' he said. "If you want to score, you have to go to the tough areas, and it's not a place for the meek.
"It's not an easy process to score goals in the game today. You have to be willing to pay the price over and over and over. You might go in there seven times and not get one look.
"But if you don't go the eighth time and the puck lies there, you've missed an opportunity.''