Jan. 22, 2014
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - Jake Chelios is having his best season as a Spartan. The senior defenseman is playing a ton of minutes, he's involved in crucial situations in trying to score a key goal or keeping the opponent from scoring, and he consistently putting up points.
Chelios, 22, a 6-foot-2, 200-pounder from Bloomfield Hills, leads Michigan State in assists with 13, and he's second in team scoring with 14 points.
"If you look at my assists, they're not the most beautiful things,'' Chelios said with a laugh. "It's basically get the puck to the goal scorers and let them do the work.
"It's been a nice bonus to get some points, but I'm just glad we're winning some games. Having some success in the second half so far has been unreal.''
Since late November, the Spartans are 5-3-3 and they're 3-1-2 since returning from the Christmas break.
MSU takes a two-game winning streak and three-game unbeaten streak at 2-0-1 into its first Big Ten series against Michigan this week. The Spartans (8-10-3 overall, 2-2-2-2 Big Ten) and Wolverines (10-6-2, 2-2-0-0) meet at 7 p.m. Thursday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit and at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at Munn Arena.
Chelios played forward for all minor hockey career until his freshman season at MSU when he moved to defense for part of that season. It took a while for Chelios to think like a defenseman but he gradually he began to understand the position. This season, Chelios was counted on to play a major role as the most experienced defenseman among a group that included three freshmen. In addition, standout sophomore defenseman John Draeger has played in only nine games because of injuries, so that has increased Chelios' playing time.
"I don't think I'm doing too many different things from last year. I think the biggest thing is keeping it simple,'' Chelios said. "Last year, I was more all over the ice. This year, I'm trusting our forwards a lot more.
"Last year was tough at times. You're playing a lot of minutes and not producing and struggling offensively as a team. This year is nice. My plus-minus is my main focus - in shutting down the other team's top lines. But it's fun to get points, and nobody hates scoring goals.''
With one goal and 13 assists for 14 points, Chelios is the third-leading scorer among Big Ten defenseman in overall games. He's one point behind Wisconsin's Jake McCabe (5-11-16) and Minnesota's Mike Reilly (8-8-16).
Chelios has put together three solid scoring stretches this season. Early on, he had six assists in five games, then followed it with two goals and one assist for three points in four games. Most recently - starting with the Great Lakes Invitational opener against Michigan Tech - Chelios had five assists in four games and six assists over a seven-game stretch.
"He's older, stronger and more comfortable playing the position,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "All those things are helping him raise his confidence and productivity.
"In my three years here, he's playing as well as I've ever him seen him play.'' Anastos said there's no secret to Chelios making more of an impact in his own zone, as well as contributing offensively.
"He's focusing on the simple things to allow him to be successful,'' he said. "I think his expectations when he moved from forward to defense were to play a certain way and he was in a forward mentality. But he's adapted to that.
"He sees by keeping the game simple, moving pucks quickly, getting pucks to the net and taking opportunities when they present themselves, that points will come as a result of it.
"He's getting a lot of playing time critical situations. He's killing penalties, getting power-play time and playing a lot in 5-on-5 situations.''
Early in the season, when the Spartans were struggling to win games, seniors like captain Greg Wolfe, Lee Reimer, Dean Chelios and his brother, Jake, were convinced that this year's team would be more competitive and successful than last year's group.
It's taken a while to come into focus, but it looks like that might be the case. "In looking at the freshmen class, we knew they were going to be pretty good,'' Jake Chelios said. "If you look at (Mackenzie) MacEachern and Villiam Haag, they're been contributing and playing a lot of minutes all season.
"And with all of our freshmen, the second half is way different than the first part of the season. They look more comfortable and they'll continue to contribute. Our defense is a lot more experienced.''
Chelios said he's savoring every minute of his senior season, and one of the best parts of any year is playing Michigan. The Spartans blanked the Wolverines, 3-0, in the third-place game in the GLI at Comerica Park.
"Ever since my freshman year, the game against Michigan at the Joe is my favorite game of the season,'' he said. "It's a great crowd. There's no better game, no better energy.''
Chelios' father, Chris, played for the Red Wings for 10 years of his 26-year NHL career. Jake and Dean spent a lot of time with their father skating before and after practice and hanging around the dressing room.
"It's kind of sad that this is my last one at the Joe. I've loved playing there,'' Jake said. "Obviously, I was down there a lot as a kid. It's fun playing in front of that big crowd.''
Chelios said the key to beating Michigan in the GLI was that the Spartans outworked the Wolverines and played physical.
"That was a huge game for us and a big turning point in coming back from the break,'' he said. "We have to outwork them. They're a skilled team that likes to possess the puck.
"We were successful against them because we outworked them, laid bodies on them and got the puck to the net. They have three to four lines of skilled forwards and we need good gaps so they don't blow by you.''
SCOUTING THE WOLVERINES: Michigan was cruising along, playing well and ranked in the top three in early December after a sweep of Ohio State to begin the Big Ten season.
But the Wolverines (10-6-2, 2-2-0-0) haven't won since a 5-4 victory at Ohio State on Dec. 1. U-M tied Ferris State, 2-2, on Dec. 11, lost to Western Michigan 3-2 in overtime and 3-0 to MSU in the GLI, Dec. 27-28.
In their only series this month, the Wolverines got swept at Wisconsin, 5-2 and 3-1. For sure, Michigan was shorthanded for the GLI, with the absence of standout sophomore center Andrew Copp, who was with the U.S. team in the World Junior Championship in Sweden. In addition, two key freshmen who were cut by the U.S. Junior Team - Tyler Motte and JT Compher - were not up to full strength because of injuries or travel.
The two losses and only three goals scored at Wisconsin were more of a surprise than the failure at the GLI at Comerica Park.
Copp is Michigan's top scorer with 10 goals and six assists for 16 points. Compher is second with six goals and nine assists for 15 points. Senior Luke Moffatt follows with 14 points (7-7).
Freshman goaltender Zach Nagelvoort has played in 13 of U-M's 18 games. He has a 2.06 goals-against average, a .932 saves percentage and a 6-5-1 record. Steve Racine, who played against the Spartans, has a 2.81 average, a .925 saves percentage and a 4-1-1 record.
The Wolverines are averaging 2.78 goals a game, which ranks 29th nationally. Defensively, U-M is averaging 2.39 goals against, which is 19th in the nation. The power play is converting on 21.4 percent of its chances, while Michigan's penalty killing is skating off 81.3 percent of opponents' power plays.
"Every time they come on the ice, they can score a goal,'' MSU goalie Jake Hildebrand said of the Wolverines. "They're great at transitioning from defense to offense. That's why they're so dangerous.''
Hildebrand said he hopes his team can play the same way it did in the 3-0 win over Michigan in the GLI's third-place game nearly four weeks ago.
"We kept it simple, we got pucks and bodies to the net, and if we do that most of the game, we can be successful,'' he said.
Another thing the Spartans did well against the Wolverines was block a lot of shots. "We do that well every game. Our guys pay the price to win games,'' Hildebrand said. "You see the sacrifices the guys make. It makes me feel great.''
JOE LOUIS ARENA SPECIAL: For all the Spartan players from the Detroit area, playing any game at Joe Louis Arena is a special event. Whether it's the Great Lakes Invitational or against Michigan in a regular-season meeting, the energy level is high and the crowds are large, loud and colorful.
For Spartan coach Tom Anastos, it's no different. He's always loved playing and watching games at Olympia Stadium and later playing and coaching at Joe Louis Arena, which opened in 1979.
"I grew up being a Detroiter and watching college games at Olympia Stadium,'' said Anastos, who grew up in Dearborn. "That's where I was introduced to college hockey.
"I always wanted to go to a school - when I figured out that I might be able to go to a school - to be able to play down there. There's just an aura about playing at a NHL rink.
"I remember the day I got to play as a 6-year-old at Olympia on Olympia Day. That's probably the foremost memory I have of hockey.''
Anastos, who played at MSU from 1981-1985, had lots of success as a player at Joe Louis Arena.
In four seasons, his Spartan teams posted a 14-1-1 record in Detroit. They won four CCHA Championships and three GLI Championships. In Anastos' first two games at JLA, the Spartans lost to Michigan Tech and tied Michigan in 1981. Then he was part of MSU teams that won 14 games in a row in Detroit, when Joe Louis Arena was known as Munn Arena East.
"I always looked forward to playing there and I still do to this day,'' Anastos said. "I just think it's neat being on an NHL stage.''
The Spartans' third-year coach believes he had good games at JLA.
"I always felt I was in a good zone there. I was in some memorable games there and made some all-tourney teams,'' he said. "The one team I wanted to be part of a championship was the one that slipped away from us in 1985.''
In 1985, Anastos' and assistant coach Kelly Miller's senior years, the Spartans' so-called Dream Team was on track to likely play Rensselaer, the powerhouse team in the East, in the NCAA Finals at Joe Louis Arena.
But MSU was upset by Providence in the NCAA West Regional at Munn Arena ending the Dream Team's hopes playing for a national title in Detroit.
Anastos' last game as a player at JLA was on March 9, 1985 - a 5-1 victory over Lake Superior State in the CCHA Championship game.
BIG TEN LEADERS: Ohio State's Ryan Dzingel leads the conference in overall scoring with 13 goals and 15 assists for 28 points in 20 games. Sam Warning of Minnesota is second with 10 goals and 16 assists for 26 points in 22 games.
Amazingly, Ohio State has five players among the top 11 scorers - Max McCormick (7th, 7-13-20), Alex Szczechura (8th, 6-13-19), Tanner Fritz (tied 9th, 3-15-18), and Nick Oddo (tied 9th, 6-12-18).
Minnesota, the top-ranked team in the nation, is the Big Ten's best offensive and defensive team. The Gophers average 3.49 goals per game and their team goals-average is 2.00. Michigan State plays at Minnesota next weekend.
In the only other Big Ten series this weekend, Ohio State is at Wisconsin on Friday and Saturday.
Meanwhile, Minnesota is playing in a tournament with three former WCHA rivals - St. Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota State - at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. On Friday, the Gophers play St. Cloud State and UMD faces Minnesota State. The winners and losers meet in the championship and third-place games on Saturday.
Penn State plays a nonconference game at home against No. 2-ranked Boston College on Saturday.