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Neil's Notebook: Spartan Struggles are Complex

Jake Hildebrand

Feb. 4, 2013

By Neil Koepke, staff writer

EAST LANSING - For Michigan State, the 2012-13 college hockey season has been a difficult one to assess and digest.

With as many as eight freshmen, two other first-year players and four sophomores in the mix for playing time, it was feared the Spartans would struggle early in the season and be in contention in the second half when most of their improvement was expected.

Instead, the opposite happened.

MSU, with two freshmen and two transfers among the top six defensemen, held its own over the first two months, compiling respectable records of 4-5-2 overall and 3-3-1-0 in the CCHA by mid-November.

In fact, the Spartans went four weekends from mid-October to mid-November by winning one game each weekend. They beat and tied Niagara in nonconference games at home, defeated Lake Superior State and Bowling Green on the road and Michigan at home to earn CCHA series splits.

The future looked bright, even after a tie and loss at Miami and a loss at home to Ohio State dropped MSU's two-month record to 4-7-2.

For sure, the Spartans were playing with some confidence and had high hopes for what was ahead in December, January and February.

But while Spartans may have gotten better in some areas, and a lot of young players got plenty of valuable experience with tons of playing time, the team hasn't learned how to take the positive elements and play with consistency.

And the Spartans haven't found that certain savvy needed to win, especially the close games.

After getting swept by Michigan, 3-2 and 5-2, last weekend, the Spartans are 7-18-3 overall and 5-14-1-0 in CCHA play. Eight of those 18 losses were by one goal and another was a one-goal game until an empty-net goal made it a two-goal loss.

So, if MSU had won just half of those eight one-goal defeats, its record would jump to 11-14-3 and the Spartans most likely would not be in last place in the CCHA.

Surprisingly, the Spartans showed some offensive flair and were fairly responsible with a young defense in October and November.



They scored 30 goals, including 12 on the power play in the first two monts.

In December and January and one week into February, goals have been scarce and MSU seemed to pay a higher price for defensive miscues. Fewer goals and more costly mistakes led to more losses, a drop in confidence and lots of frustration.

The Spartans are 3-11-1 since Nov. 30 and have scored only four power-play goals during that stretch.

Still, coach Tom Anastos says his team, despite watching the losses pile up, continues to compete hard and battle through adversity with a good attitude.

"I give our guys credit for staying together. There's no finger-pointing,'' Anastos said. "But it is very frustrating.''

Rebuilding college hockey programs is never easy and it takes time and patience for young players to develop.

Anastos is convinced that his young players will benefit by getting so much ice time and dealing with tough situations. He believes they'll be much better and more capable of playing at a higher level in the future.

This group includes freshman defensemen John Draeger and Travis Walsh, sophomore-transfer defenseman RJ Boyd, freshman forwards Matt DeBlouw, Michael Ferrantino, Ryan Keller and David Bondra and sophomore forwards Matt Berry, Brent Darnell, Tanner Sorenson and Justin Hoomaian.

That's the bulk of next year's team.

No question, a few Spartans aren't having the type of seasons they expected. They've worked hard but things haven't fallen into place.

Junior forwards Greg Wolfe and Lee Reimer, who had strong sophomore seasons, have four and three goals, respectively. Berry scored his team-leading 11th goal on Dec 30, but has gone eight games without a goal.

Defensively, junior Jake Chelios, senior Matt Grassi and rookies Draeger and Walsh have played a ton of minutes, while mostly playing in a five-man rotation with Boyd. Perhaps, they're getting worn down.

Meanwhile, freshman goaltender Jake Hildebrand continues to play at a high level and gives his team a chance to win almost every night. Clearly, he's the Spartans' most valuable player at this point.

What has a lot of fans - near and far - frustrated is MSU's inability to follow up on last season's solid season, which led to a NCAA Tournament berth, in Anastos' first year as coach.

But last year's team had All-America defenseman Torey Krug and a group of strong and experienced seniors on defense and up front.

Krug played a major role in leading the Spartans to a fifth-place finish in the CCHA. He created offense from his defensive spot, something MSU doesn't have this year, and he was deadly in running the power play.

When Ron Mason took over as MSU coach in 1979-80, the Spartans finished with a better record in the WCHA in his first season than in the second. In fact, MSU made the WCHA playoffs in Mason's first season but finished in last place in year two.

But with sophomore forwards Mark Hamway and Robert Martin, sophomore defenseman Ken Leiter and freshman forward Newell Brown, freshman defensemen Gary Haight and David Taylor and rookie goalie Ron Scott, the ingredients were present for a bright future in 1980-81.

The next season, the Spartans started their run of nine consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament, including four trips to the Final Four and a national title in 1986.

Whether the Spartans can make a big leap forward next season remains to be seen. But with the experience gained by this year's freshmen and sophomores and the addition of three incoming freshman forwards who should upgrade the skill level, MSU should be much improved on offense and defense.

But there's still much to be gained from the Spartans' final eight regular season games and at least two playoff contests.

It's still all about getting better, learning to play in different situations and about pride.

"We have to try to keep staying together, try to deal with the frustration that comes with it and keep working through it,'' Anastos said. "It's not easy to deal with that right now, that's for sure.''

UP NEXT: The Spartans play a home-and-home series against Bowling Green at 7 p.m. on Friday at the BGSU Ice Arena and at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Munn Arena. The teams split a series in early November, with the Falcons winning 1-0 at Munn Arena and the Spartans claiming a 6-1 victory in the second game in Bowling Green.

The Falcons (10-13-5 overall, 7-10-3 CCHA) are coming off a home sweep of Lake Superior State, 4-1 and 7-3, and ending a three-game losing streak. BGSU, one of the most improved teams in the nation, went 6-1-2 from Dec. 7-Jan 18.

The Falcons are tied with Michigan for 8th-place, nine points (three victories) ahead of 11th-place MSU.

After the BGSU series, the Spartans play host to 10th-place Northern Michigan, which is four points up on MSU.

To close the regular season, the Spartans play at Alaska, Feb. 22-23, and play host to Western Michigan, March 1-2.

ALSO IN THE NHL: Last week, we listed the 12 Spartans playing in the NHL. There's another Spartan also skating in the NHL, but not as a player.

Former MSU defenseman and captain Wes McCauley is starting his 7th season as an NHL referee. He started this season having worked 521 games in the NHL.

McCauley, 41, who is from Georgetown, Ontario, played at MSU from 1989-93. He started his career as a referee in 1997-98, and is his 16th season as an official. He made his NHL debut in 2007.

McCauley and his wife, Bethany, and their son and two daughters, make their home in Portland, Maine.

MOVIN' ON UP: Former Spartan right wing Dustin Gazley made his American Hockey League debut last weekend with the Binghamton (N.Y.) Senators. Gazley was called up from the Elmira (N.Y.) Jackals of the ECHL and played in two games against the St John's IceCaps in Newfoundland.

Gazley didn't register a point but had two shots on goal in a 4-2 loss on Friday, and played in Saturday's 2-0 setback against the IceCaps.

Gazley, 24, a Spartan from 2007-11, is the leading scoring for the ECHL Jackals with 14 goals and 35 assists for 49 points in 37 games. Last season, Gazley led Elmira and the ECHL in scoring with 25 goals and 60 assists for 85 points.

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