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Neil's Notebook: Spartans Ready to Challenge Top-Ranked Gophers

Jake Hildebrand

Jan. 30, 2014

By Neil Koepke staff writer

EAST LANSING - Michigan State will try to do this weekend what no team has been able to do since Nov. 24: Beat Minnesota.

The No. 1-ranked Gophers are undefeated in their last 12 games -9-0-3 - and their only blemish on their near-perfect 7-0-1 record in the Big Ten is a 2-2 tie and shootout loss at Michigan State on Dec. 6.

How did the Spartans manage to pull that off?

"Our goaltending was really strong, our commitment to defense was very good and, as I remember, our penalty killing was pretty good,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "We have to play with discipline and be a difficult team to play against.''

The Spartans (8-12-3 overall, 2-4-2-2 Big Ten), who are coming off two frustrating losses against Michigan, face Minnesota at 9 p.m. on Friday and 8 p.m. on Saturday at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.

The Gophers' (18-2-4, 7-0-1) last loss was a 6-2 setback at home against Minnesota-Duluth on Nov. 24. Notre Dame handed Minnesota its only other loss - 4-1 on Nov. 8 in South Bend.

The Gophers have been ranked No. 1 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll since Oct. 21. U.S. College Hockey Online polls had Minnesota at No. 1 from Oct. 21 to Dec. 9, when the Gophers slipped to No. 2 after the tie and win at Michigan State. St. Cloud State took over the No. 1 ranking for a week. The Gophers regained No. 1 status in the USCHO poll on Dec. 16.

"We know this (series) will be really challenging, especially playing Minnesota on their big (Olympic-size) rink,'' Anastos said. "They're very talented, very deep, and probably present challenges beyond what Michigan and other schools present.''

The Gophers play a wide-open, up-tempo game, using their speed and skill and ability to transition the puck quickly to create odd-man scoring chances.

"I watched them play against Penn State a couple of weeks ago and they won 3-2 and all three of their goals were scored by defensemen,'' Anastos said. "They create a lot of offense from their defense.''



The Gophers are the second-highest scoring team in the nation, averaging 3.83 goals a game. They have 22 goals from five defensemen, led by sophomore standout Mike Reilly, a Columbus Blue Jacket draft pick, who has eight goals and 12 assists for 20 points in 24 games.

In the two games against Michigan State on Dec. 6-7, the Gophers scored only five goals (2, 3) but had 46 shots on goal in the first game and 38 in the second, in which they built a 3-0 lead and were never threatened.

"They shot the puck a lot. They're very skilled offensively and like to make plays,'' said Spartans' sophomore goaltender Jake Hildebrand, who played in both games against the Gophers.

"Our defense played great, our penalty killing was awesome and we limited a lot of their chances to the outside,'' Hildebrand said of the first game of the December series "That made my job easier. We also got pucks to the net and got bodies to the net.''

After the Gophers tied and defeated MSU, they didn't play for almost a month. To start January, Minnesota tied Colgate, 2-2 (losing in the shootout) and defeated Rensselaer, 6-2, in the Mariucci Classic, which Colgate won, defeating Ferris State in the final.

The Gophers then swept Penn State, 3-2, 5-2, on the road and won twice at home against Ohio State, 1-0, 4-2. Last week in the Hockey City Classic in St. Paul, Minnesota topped St. Cloud State, 4-1, and then tied Minnesota-Duluth, 4-4, in the finals and won the championship by winning the shootout.

"They're coming off an emotional tournament with other state schools and I'm sure that will give them a boost,'' Anastos said. "They're playing with confidence. I think our team will be up and excited about the challenge.''

The Gophers get key contributions from all four classes, especially from their juniors and highly talented sophomore and freshmen.

Minnesota has only one player among the top 30 scorers in the nation, but it boasts nine players with 15 points or more. The top two scorers are juniors - Sam Warning (10-17-27) and Kyle Rau (6-17-23) - and the next two are freshmen - Justin Kloos (8-14-22) and Hudson Fasching (8-12-20). Warning is tied for 27th in the nation.

Minnesota's elite defensive corps includes Reilly, junior Ben Marshall (Red Wings draft pick) and sophomores Brady Skjei (Rangers) and Michael Brodzinski (Sharks).

Adam Wilcox, a sophomore, is in his second season as the Gophers' starting goaltender. He has a 2.05 goals-against average and a .929 saves percentage. Minnesota ranks No. 3 in the nation in defense, allowing only 2.04 goals a game. Before last Saturday's 4-4 tie with UMD, the Gophers went nine consecutive games allowing two or fewer goals.

MSU's last visit to Minneapolis was not a trip to remember. The Spartans opened the 2012-13 season at Mariucci Arena with an inexperienced team, especially on defense, and got dominated, 5-1, 7-1.

"We have a much better team this year and I think we'll give them a different look,'' said MSU sophomore defenseman John Draeger, who's from Faribault, Minn., the only Minnesotan on the Spartans.

"They have a good fanbase. It's a fun building to play in. Getting booed by Minnesota fans is always nice. I love playing in that environment. It reminds me of going to Michigan where all the fans hate you.''

Over the last 10 years, Minnesota holds a 7-2-5 edge in the series. In the last five seasons, the Gophers are 2-4-2. Under Anastos, MSU is 1-3-2 in three seasons.

LESSONS TO LEARN: Spartan coach Tom Anastos this week again touched on his feelings about the way his team handled adversity and frustration in last Friday's 5-2 loss against Michigan.

He said he addressed his issues with the team and is confident that the players will learn from it.

"We talked a lot about our preparation to play and the mentality it takes to play,'' Anastos said. "You can't just be a `sunny-and-70s' guy. When things are going great, it's easy to deal with things, but when things aren't going your way, you have to know how to respond.

"When I talked to our team about my dissatisfaction, it was less about the score of the game and more about how we handled ourselves. This is part of the process of developing a certain mentality, team chemistry, and have it lead to championship mentality.''

On Friday, the Spartans had to deal with lots of frustration. They got off to a good start with a power-play goal with less than three minutes left in the first period, and just when it looked like they'd take a 1-0 lead into the intermission, a mistake in the offensive zone led to late Michigan rush that turned into a goal with six seconds left in the period.

Michigan took a 2-1 lead early in the second period with a harmless-looking shot from the right boards that took an odd skip in front of the net and bounced and past MSU goalie Jake Hildebrand.

The Spartans managed to tie it 2-2 on another power-play goal later in the second period, and had several good chances to go up 3-2 on another second-period power play. But they couldn't finish and lost an opportunity to take the lead and momentum. Instead, Michigan got another good bounce early in the third period to go up 3-2, and 51 seconds later, it capitalized on an odd-man rush to make 4-2. MSU then gave up a shorthanded goal to increase its frustration.

"Ultimately, it blew up at the end when guys got out of character and did some things that shouldn't happen,'' Anastos said. "And that isn't representative of how we play.''

For a team with so many sophomores and freshmen, Anastos said the ups and downs of a season and what the players can learn from it, should make the team and program better.

"One of the things I said on Friday was that we have to grow up. This is part of growing up - learning how to handle success and learning how to handle and adversity, without deviating from your core beliefs,'' Anastos said.

"I'm confident that it's been addressed and confident that we'll move forward having learned from the experience.''

DRAEGER RETURNS: After missing the Ohio State and Penn State series with a lower body injury, sophomore defenseman John Draeger was back in the lineup against Michigan last weekend.

Draeger sat out MSU's first eight games while recovering from offseason surgery for a lower body injury. He played in nine straight games before suffering another injury in the Great Lakes Invitational in late December.

"I feel OK, but I don't think I'll be 100 percent all year,'' he said. "But I'm 80 percent so I'll just have to play through it. I thought I played OK. I didn't get a lot of minutes so that was good. I wasn't out there huffing and puffing. I could ease my way into it.

"It's really frustrating. You don't want to overdo it during the week because you want to be ready to play. It's hard to find that balance in getting reading to play and not going too far where it's bothering you.''

Draeger was being counted on to play a major role as one of the Spartans' top defensemen and a leader after a solid freshman season.

"It's nice to have him back but he's not 100 percent and we're not sure he'll get to 100 percent this season,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "I really admire his commitment to try to do everything he can to play.

"One of the challenges he's going to have is to go out and try to keep it simple. When he does that, it's a benefit for him and for the team. He's one of those guys that wants to win so bad and get back to 100 percent, so he's always pushing himself to do more. We've got to keep our fingers on him to convince him that less is more.'' Last season, Draeger had one goal and nine assists for 10 points in 42 games. This year, he has five assists in 11 games.

IN THE BIG TEN: Every team is involved in Big Ten series this weekend. In addition to the MSU-Minnesota series, Wisconsin is at Michigan and Ohio State makes its first visit to Penn State. All series are Friday and Saturday.

Minnesota (7-0-1-0) is in first place with 22 points, Wisconsin (5-3-0-0) is second with 15 points, followed by Michigan (4-2-0-0) in third with 12.

Michigan State (2-4-2-2) is in fourth place with 10 points, three more than fifth-place Ohio State (2-5-1-0) with seven. Penn State (0-6-0-0), in sixth, has played a lot of close games but is still looking for its first Big Ten victory. Michigan and PSU have played two fewer games than Minnesota, Wisconsin, MSU and Ohio State.

Ohio State junior forward Ryan Dzingel continues to lead the Big Ten in overall and conference scoring. He has 14 goals and 16 assists for 30 points in 22 overall games. That ranks tied for 16th nationally. Sam Warning of Minnesota is second in the Big Ten with 10 goals and 27 points.

In eight Big Ten games, Dzingel has six goals and 11 points, one more than Wisconsin's Michael Mersch (6-4-10).

The top scorer in the nation is Boston College junior forward Johnny Gaudreau, who has 22 goals and 28 assists for 50 points in 25 games.

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