Feb. 2, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
One of the key reasons Michigan State has had a good chance to win almost every game it played this season is consistent play by the defense.
Before the season, the Spartans' defensive corps was a major question mark. But the defense responded to the challenge and has been a big factor in MSU's solid start in the first half of the season.
And even during the disappointing month of January, in which the Spartans went 2-4-2, the defensive group - Torey Krug, Brock Shelgren, Matt Crandell, Tim Buttery, Jake Chelios, Matt Grassi and A.J. Sturges - has been responsible and consistent.
While the highly-regarded Krug anchors the defense, MSU's four senior defensemen - Shelgren, Crandell, Buttery and Sturges - are each having their best season as a Spartan. And, of course, they've been helped out by strong goaltending provided by Drew Palmisano and Will Yanakeff.
Crandell, a 5-foot-10, 190-pounder from St. Cloud, Minn., has taken on a bigger role, playing more minutes and in all situations, and has been solid at both ends of the ice.
Teamed with Buttery, Crandell is averaging between 23-24 minutes a game - third on the team behind Krug and Shelgren. He kills penalties, plays on the power play and is on the ice late with the game on the line.
"I think a lot of it is decision-making,'' Crandell said of his improvement. "It's not just handling the puck but when someone is coming down on a 1-on-1 or 2-on-1, it's making sure I'm in the right position and making the right decision to move up on the play or stay back.
"I struggled with that as a freshman but I'm more comfortable playing in the defensive zone.''
Crandell, 23, is also taking on a major role in the offensive zone. He and Buttery are on the second power-play unit and he's boosted his point totals. Crandell has two goals and 12 assists for 14 points - all career season highs. As a sophomore, Crandell had 12 points (1-11).
"It's been fun having a larger role. You get to play more and I think I've improved my game and it's given me more confidence,'' he said. "We have a different style and the coaches encourage us to play a certain way and not worry about mistakes and just make the best play.''
Crandell, who teamed with Shelgren, one of his best friends, for his first three seasons at MSU, has played in 114 straight games. He'll add to that total when the eighth-place Spartans (13-11-4 overall, 8-9-3-2 CCHA) play a two-game series at second-place Ohio State (14-8-5, 10-7-5-1) at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
In four seasons, Crandell has missed only six games - three as a healthy scratch and three due to a shoulder separation in the middle of his freshman year.
"He's playing with a real sense of confidence that he didn't show as much before,'' MSU assistant coach Tom Newton said. "He realizes he's now a go-to guy and he's been able to play his game consistently.
"Everybody makes mistakes and he's been allowed to be corrected and go back out and keep playing. Matt knows that as long as he works as hard as he can, he's going to be out there. I think he feeds off that.''
Crandell, who came to MSU partly because of the engineering program but early on switched to finance is a two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection and is expected to land on the team for the third time after this season. He has a 3.68 grade-point average.
"He's a naturally competitive kid and highly, highly intelligent,'' Newton said. "The No. 1 thing I've noticed about his play is increased confidence to go back to get the puck and make good plays. The other thing is he's blocking more shots. He's sacrificing his body.''
Said Coach Tom Anastos: "He's been a real good player for us. He plays bigger than he is. He always plays hard and he's been steady.''
Crandell said MSU's 10 seniors are dedicated to making this season special and to leave the program on a positive note. The attitude is good, the players are close and now it's a matter of finding a way to win close games over the four weeks of the regular season and have some momentum entering the playoffs.
"It's been an exciting, upbeat season. We're in every game and have the opportunity to win,'' he said. "Coming in with a new coaching staff, there's always some ups and downs, but we've been able to do well.
"Even when there are tough times -- like last month when we didn't do as well as we wanted -- we're still staying positive and working hard toward the next week. We have a good work ethic. I think we've improved as a group and we want to push the program in the right direction so it can be a top program on a consistent basis.''
Crandell, one of only a few Minnesotans to play at MSU over the last decade, was playing for Sioux City of the U.S. Hockey League when he got recruited by the Spartans. He had some interest in Minnesota and the opportunity to go to Colorado College and Air Force.
"I knew Michigan State had won an NCAA title a few years before and had a great tradition and I wanted to be part of program like that,'' he said. "Some of the schools I was first looking at, there didn't seem to be a lot of academic options.
"I wanted a school with a good engineering program but one with a good academic base and there were a lot of options at Michigan State. That sealed the deal. I changed majors my freshman year and fiddled around with packaging and animal science, but I enjoy numbers and the business model and chose finance.''
Picking MSU, Crandell said, was one of the best decisions of his life.
"I've loved it here. The whole package - the hockey experience, academics and meeting so many people - has been great,'' he said. "It's an unbelievable school.''
Eventually, Crandell will use his finance degree. But he'd like to delay entering the normal job market for a few years and play hockey in the minor leagues.
"I'm weighing my options but I'd love to keep playing,'' he said. "I've liked the academic side and I think I'm set. The thing my parents instilled in me was the importance of working hard academically. Everyone has to stop playing hockey at one time and you have to be ready to do something else.''
DESPERATE OPPONENTS: This weekend's MSU-Ohio State series in Columbus is a match-up of two teams in desperate need of victories. The Spartans, 2-4-2 last month, need to start winning consistently to move up in the CCHA standings and at least nail down a home-ice berth for the first round of the playoffs by finishing now lower than eighth.
The Buckeyes, winless in their last eight games at 0-4-4, need to win badly to stay among the top four or five teams in the league. OSU started January with two ties at Bowling Green, got swept by Michigan at home and in the outdoor game in Cleveland, then lost and tied at home vs. Ferris State and last week lost and tied at Lake Superior State.
In all four of their ties, the Buckeyes lost the shootout.
"They haven't won in eight games but we expect they'll be hungry to win. We have to compete really hard because we know they will,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said.
"They play well in the offensive zone and are good in transitioning from defense to offense. We have to be good defensively and create more scoring chances by getting as much pressure as we can on their net.''
CCHA RACE: After last weekend's sweep of MSU, Ferris State climbed into first place in the CCHA with 37 points and five games over .500. One point back are Western Michigan, Miami and Ohio State with 36 points, but the RedHawks and Buckeyes have played two more games than the Bulldogs and Broncos.
LSSU, with 35 points, is in fifth place but the Lakers have this week off and only six games remaining. Notre Dame is sixth with 33 points, one ahead of Michigan, which has 32 and plays a home series against Miami this weekend.
MSU (29 points) is three points behind the Wolverines but only one ahead of ninth-place Northern Michigan, which plays host to FSU this weekend.
With each game worth three points, teams can climb quickly in the standings with a couple victories or see teams pass them by if they split or get swept.
STATS COMPARISON: In CCHA games, OSU is the second-highest scoring team in the conference, averaging 2.82 goals a game, while MSU is third with a 2.80 average. The teams are close on defense, too. The Buckeyes are No. 6 on defense, allowing 2.55 goals a game, while the Spartans are right behind at No. 7 with a 2.60 goals-against average. MSU is the least penalized team in the league, averaging 11.1 minutes. OSU is No. 8 in penalties, with a 12.3 average. OSU's power play (17.4 percent) ranks tied for 4th; MSU's power play (12.8) is No. 9. In penalty killing, the Spartans are No. 2 (88.6 percent) and the Buckeyes (84.2) are No. 7.
In overall games, sophomore center Lee Reimer leads MSU in scoring with eight goals and 18 assists for 26 points. Forwards Greg Wolfe (9-12-21) and Brett Perlini (7-14-21) are tied for second. OSU's top scorer is sophomore Chris Crane with 23 points (14-9), while senior Danny Dries (12-9-21) is second, followed by freshman Ryan Dzingel (5-13-18). Rookie Max McCormick (7-7-14), injured early in the season, is coming off his first career hat trick last Saturday at LSSU.
SERIES HISTORY: MSU leads the series with Ohio State, 83-27-8, but the Buckeyes hold 14-12-1 edge over the last 10 seasons and are up 6-5-1 over the last five years. The last four series between the teams have ended in splits, including one earlier this season at Munn Arena. MSU won the opener, 3-0, but lost the second game, 5-2. MSU's senior class is 5-6-1 vs. OSU.
Junior defenseman Torey Krug is the highest-scoring Spartan against OSU with three goals and seven points in eight games. Senior Brett Perlini has three goals and six points in 11 contests. Spartan senior goalie Drew Palmisano has posted two shutouts against the Buckeyes, while sophomore Will Yanakeff has one shutout against OSU.