Jan. 19, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
When Mike Merrifield is in the lineup, good things usually happen for Michigan State. When he's not, winning seems to be more difficult.
It's taken four seasons and a new offensive system for the 5-foot-9, 190-pound senior left wing to find a role in the lineup that suits his talents the best, and he's taken advantage of it.
Despite missing eight games because of injuries, Merrifield leads the Spartans in goals with nine. When he's in the lineup, MSU is 10-3-3 and when he's watching from the stands, the team is 2-6.
"I feel a lot more comfortable on the ice this season. I'm not constantly worried about making mistakes,'' said Merrifield, who's from the small Detroit suburb of Beverly Hills. "Now that I've solidified a role on the team, I have no problem going to the net and making plays I might not have made last year.''
Merrifield has nine goals and five assists for 14 points in 16 games. The last two seasons, he had two goals and four points as a sophomore and four goals and eight points as junior. As a freshman, he played in only six games the first half of the season and then went back to junior hockey to work on his game with the Green Bay Gamblers of the U.S. Hockey League.
MSU's new style of attacking the puck in all zones and the emphasis on puck possession and offense is perfect for Merrifield, and his skill set is perfect for the system.
"I was never a huge fan of a defensive style,'' he said. "I like to have the reins to go. I love to go, go, go.''
And Spartans coach Tom Anastos loves watching go, go, go - speeding down the ice, driving hard to the net and creating a scoring chance.
"What he's provided is tons of energy and strength. He gives us a tenacity that we need and the enthusiasm he brings is contagious,'' Anastos said. "He's logged a lot of ice time - on the power play, 5-on-5, 4-on-4 and penalty kill - and he's scored important goals for us.
"He goes to the net hard, he creates pressure whether the puck is coming to him or not. I guess it's no coincidence that when he's in the lineup, our team has been successful.''
The Spartan coach didn't know a lot about Merrifield, only what people said about him, when he took over the program last spring.
"I had no idea what to expect from him. I heard words like `excellent condition,' `lots of energy,' ` and `very strong for his size,' when people were describing him,'' Anastos said. "He's been all that.''
Anastos said both of Merrifield's injuries were the result of his energy and desire to make an offensive play - one in practice and one in a game. He suffered an ankle injury in practice before the season started and he missed the first four games.
Against Michigan on Dec. 10, in MSU's final game before the holiday break, Merrifield suffered a separated shoulder that forced him to miss four games. He came back last weekend against Northern Michigan and scored a goal 13 minutes into the opening period.
"In practice, he hurt his ankle because he was going hard, lost his footing and went into the end boards,'' Anastos said. "When he got the upper body injury, he was going hard by the boards and got checked and went into the end boards.''
Merrifield, who will turn 22-years- old on Feb. 8, got his game going offensively when he had a goal and an assist while playing on a line with center Brett Perlini and right wing Chris Forfar in a 5-2 victory over Robert Morris on Oct. 28.
Merrifield had the best night of his career with two goals and two assists in a 6-2 victory. His new linemates also flourished with their best games. Reimer had three goals and two assists for five points and Wolfe chipped in with four assists.
The line has been together since, minus the four games Merrifield was out recovering from his shoulder injury. Reimer leads MSU in scoring with eight goals and 16 assists for 24 points in 24 games, while Wolfe is second with seven goals and 12 assist for 19 points in 23 contests.
"Certainly, playing with guys like Reimer and Wolfe really helps,'' Merrifield said. "They're going to the net looking to make a play. I feel way more confident than I have in the past.''
In youth and junior hockey, Merrifield used his speed and skill to score goals and put up points. In 2007-08, he had 26 goals and 45 assists for 71 points in 68 games (regular season and playoffs) for the St. Louis Bandits of the North American Hockey League.
After he left MSU in 2008 to play for Green Bay, he scored 18 goals and had 34 points in 38 games. He came back to MSU in the fall of 2009.
"Growing up, I put up points in most every league. But I came here and struggled in the beginning,'' he said. "Now under Coach Anastos, his style of play helps my game because I'm a speed and energy guy.
"I like to go to net and produce some offense. I think I see the ice well and I'm out there to make plays and not just dump it into the corner and chase.''
Forfar, a junior said he noticed Merrifield's great speed from the time he joined the team as a freshman.
"He's one of the fastest skaters I've ever watched. I could see how fast he was when I got here and I knew in juniors he had a lot of success. so I knew (his offensive skills) were there,'' Forfar said. "He's a good guy, an energy guy and always upbeat, and that definitely translates to how he plays on the ice.
"It's nice to see him go to the net strong. Playing guys like Reimer and Wolfe really helps because they're capable of making plays and getting to the net, and it's really shown this year.''
Despite having a new coaching staff and new systems and philosophies, Merrifield said it didn't take long for the team to realize this could be a fun season.
"It was right from the get-go. The practices . . . We really started to enjoy the practices and pushing each other to get better,'' he said.
The Spartans (12-9-3, 7-7-2-2) sit in eighth place in the CCHA going into this weekend's home series - Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. - against Lake Superior State at Munn Arena, but only four points behind third-place Michigan.
MSU still has 12 games left but every weekend is important in the Spartans' quest to finish in the top five in the CCHA and earn first-round bye in the playoffs.
"It's really a tight race so if you win a couple games, you could jump as high as third, but if you lose, you're right back at the bottom,'' Merrifield said. "We come into every weekend looking to get six points.''
The Spartans aren't looking too far ahead but the seniors would like nothing better than to end their college careers with a bit of a splash. They're eager to win a playoff series, get to Detroit for the CCHA Championship and be in position to earn a NCAA Tournament berth.
"It would mean a ton. We haven't made the (CCHA) tournament, let alone win a playoff game, but I think we have a better chance than we've ever had,'' Merrifield said. "To win some playoff games and make it to Detroit, that would be a dream for a lot of guys.
"We've had our ups and downs the last few years, but to get to Detroit and make the NCAAs, that would help the program and get a lot of people taking about us.''
LAKERS SOLID: Lake Superior State comes to town in fourth place in the CCHA and boasting one of the best goaltenders in the league and one of the best penalty-killing units in the nation.
The Lakers (13-10-3 overall, 8-8-2-2 CCHA) are coming off a series split with Miami last weekend. The RedHawks won the opener, 2-1, but LSSU bounced back for a 4-3 victory.
In mid-October, the Lakers swept the Spartans, 5-4 and 3-2, in the Sault Ste. Marie.
"They're strong, they have good goaltending, they're good defensively and tough to score goals on,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "They have very good special teams.''
Sophomore goaltender Kevin Kapalka (8-7-1) has a 2.49 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.
"He looks like he plays with a lot of poise. His body position is very good and his team plays well in front of him,'' Anastos said. "Based on that, it's hard to get second and third shots on goal.''
The Lakers have seven players with 14 points or more, led by junior forwards Domenic Monardo (8-12-20) and Nick McParland (12-7-19) and sophomores Kyle Jean (10-7-17) and Colin Campbell (5-12-17).
"We're a much different team than we were back in October and so are they,'' Anastos said.
LSSU and the Spartans have two of the best penalty-killing records in the nation. Both teams have skated off 81 of 91 opponents' power plays for 89 percent rate of success, tied for third in the country.
In CCHA play, MSU is No. 1 in penalty killing (51 of 56 for 91.1 percent). LSSU (88.2) is No, 4, behind Ohio State and Western Michigan.
The Lakers' power play is No. 2 in CCHA play, clicking at 19.7 percent, just behind Notre Dame's league-leading 19.8 percent.
HOME ICE EDGE: The Spartans have not lost to Lake Superior State in the last 19 games at Munn Arena. They're 16-0-3 since a 3-0 loss to the Lakers on Dec. 9, 1995. Ron Mason was coaching MSU and Jeff Jackson was coach at LSSU.
The goaltenders in that game? It was Sean Kulick (23 saves) for the Lakers and Chad Alban (16 saves) for the Spartans.
In the last 10 meetings, the Lakers hold a 4-3-3 edge. Last season, MSU won 4-0 and tied 2-2 (losing in the shootout) in Sault Ste. Marie.
POWER PLAY UPDATE: Despite the Spartans' recent struggles on the power play, their 15.4 percent success rate, is No. 6 in the CCHA in overall games and higher than Ferris State, Alaska, Miami and Michigan.
"We've been happy with our puck movement but we're wrestling with finding the right spots for the right players, and our shot selection has to be better,'' Anastos said. "When we have an open shot, sometimes we're looking for the perfect shot. I'm not of the mind to just throw pucks at the net. I just want to see us shoot when a good opportunity presents itself.''
The Spartans have not scored a power-play goal in the last 21 opportunities over five games.
Anastos said his team has worked all week on trying to get the power play back on track.
"We have some ideas that we're going to try. It's moving players around and trying some different combinations,'' he said. "And different things with player movement. Hopefully, we can get a goal or two and take some pressure off.''