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Neil's Notebook: Freshmen Making Strides

Villiam Haag

Feb. 6, 2014

BY Neil Koepke staff writer

EAST LANSING - Two years ago, Mackenzie MacEachern and Thomas Ebbing were playing high school hockey at Brother Rice in Bloomfield Hills and zeroing in on a state championship.

Two years ago, Villiam Haag was playing junior hockey in Gothenberg, Sweden.

Two years ago, Joe Cox and JT Stenglein were playing junior hockey in the U.S. Hockey League.

Their paths to Michigan State were different, but now they're all together as Spartans and part of a talented, hard-working freshman class that's getting plenty of playing time and making key contributions every weekend.

Coach Tom Anastos was hoping his rookies would make an impact up front and on defense and they have. For sure, they've upgraded the team's skill level and make it more competitive.

Five members of the eight-man freshman class have accounted for a class-high of 20 goals, and their 46 points is second to the senior class' 59 points (15-44).

"They're been getting better and better all season, and their confidence continues to grow,'' Anastos said. "We're going to get a lot of contributions from the freshmen as they gain more confidence. We'll see more offensive production.''

In addition to forwards MacEachern, Ebbing, Haag, Cox and Stenglein, the other rookies include defensemen Rhett Holland, Brock Krygier and Chris Knudson. Holland and Krygier were with the team last year but were red-shirted. Knudson is in his first year with the program.



The Spartans usually play four or five freshmen at forward and two on defense in each game.

The all-freshman line of Ebbing at center with MacEachern on left wing and Haag on the right side has been most impressive. Cox has been a mainstay at right wing on a line with sophomore center Michael Ferrantino. Junior Matt Berry is now at left wing on that unit.

MacEachern, Haag and Cox are tied for sixth in team scoring with 10 points apiece. MacEachern and Cox have six goals and four assists while Cox has five goals and five assists.

Ebbing has two goals and six assists for eight points, while Stenglein has one goal in 15 games.

"Our freshman line had a good weekend (at Minnesota),'' Anastos said. "Villiam scored on Friday and they competed hard. Joe Cox was a factor and JT (Stenglein), even though he didn't get a lot of minutes, when called upon he scored the (winning) shootout goal.

"On defense, Holland and Brock Krygier played on Friday and Knudson came in on Saturday.''

The MacEachern-Ebbing-Haag line, which has been together for 16 of MSU's 25 games, appears to be on the verge of breaking loose. They've worked hard and created good scoring chances over the last four weeks. But the puck just isn't going in like it did earlier in the season.

"The last couple weeks we've had good chances but not everything has gone in,'' said MacEachern, a 6-foot-2, 192-pounder from Troy. "Everyone has slumps or doesn't get the good bounces, so you have to keep working.

"We thought we were doing well in creating chances and helping our team get opportunities to score. At the start of the year, the puck was going in.''

The Spartans hope their rookies' tough luck turns this weekend when they play host to fourth-place Ohio State at 6:30 p.m. on Friday and 4 p.m. on Saturday at Munn Arena.

MacEachern, who missed part last season with the Chicago Steel of the USHL due to a concussion, feels he's progressed since the start of the season.

"It's been a really cool experience. Not everyone can experience a Big Ten school like this,'' he said. "I'm taking it all in and learning everything I can to evolve into a great player next year and help our team.

"I've definitely progressed a lot. It's helped to have some success early, because at the end of last year, I didn't have any confidence due to my concussion.''

MacEachern and Ebbing, who's also from Troy, have been linemates for the last seven years - travel hockey, high school, junior and now as freshmen at MSU.

"It definitely helps. I know where he's going to be, and with Villiam on the line, we've gotten along well,'' MacEachern said.

Ebbing agrees.

"With me and Mac, it helps that we've been playing together as long as we have. And Villiam has been great at knowing what we do and what we are,'' Ebbing said. "Practicing every day with the same line helps out a lot. Off the ice, we're good friends and our communication is great.''

The Spartans' first-year players have become a close class and spend lots of time together in the dorms, going to class and hanging out at Munn Arena.

"We get prepared together. We watch video together, eat together and talk about the games and what we could do better,'' said Ebbing, a 5-foot-11, 172-pounder. "I'm just happy that we're all getting playing time. We're working hard for it, and every day it's a battle to stay in the lineup.

"As a freshman, your biggest thing is you want to play and get experience every game. It's been a great experience since we came in last summer. We've got a great group of freshmen.''

Ebbing said the toughest adjustment he's had to make is keeping up with everything he has to do each day.

"It's not the playing so much but more the school aspect. You have to juggle so many things,'' he said. "You have to go to all your classes, figure out when to eat and then stay at the rink for four or five hours.

"Last year, I had an easier schedule in school. My biggest priority was hockey. This year, it's both. Coach talks about how school is very important. You can't slack off.''

Spartans captain Greg Wolfe said he's been impressed with the development of the freshmen class.

"They're doing a great job. I look back at my freshman year and it's not an easy time,'' Wolfe said. "It's hard to be consistent with a lot of new things going on. There's your outside environment, school environment and hockey. It's pretty demanding.

"But they're a mature group and they've grown a lot this year. They're playing tons of minutes and that's huge for them to come in and make that big of an impact. They're getting points here and there, they're a big part of our team moving forward and the best is yet to come.''

Wolfe sees a bright future for the Spartan program after he leaves after this season. "They're comfortable in the locker room and on the ice. That's a huge positive looking at the rest of this season and into the future,'' Wolfe said. "They're getting a ton of experience and they'll use it next year.''

GOOD HEALTH: Coach Tom Anastos said this week that sophomore forward Ryan Keller has recovered from a concussion and is ready to play. Keller has missed the last six games.

With Keller back in the mix, that means the only injured player is sophomore forward David Bondra, who's out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery in December.

SCOUTING THE BUCKEYES: The Spartans (8-13-4 overall, 2-5-3-3) and Buckeyes (14-9-1, 4-5-1-0) meet in crucial series for both teams. Fourth-place Ohio State holds a one-point lead over MSU, which is four points behind third-place Wisconsin. Since the last time MSU and OSU met in early January, the Buckeyes lost three straight, then won three in a row, highlighted by a 5-1, 5-2 home sweep of Penn State last weekend.

The Buckeyes defeated the Spartans 4-3 in the series opener in Columbus on Jan. 10, but the teams played to a 1-1 tie in the series finale, with MSU winning the shootout and earning two points in the Big Ten standings to one for the Buckeyes. After facing MSU, the Buckeyes got swept at Minnesota, 1-0, 4-2, then split at Wisconsin, losing 5-3 and winning 3-1.

"This series is really important. It's important we play well,'' Coach Tom Anastos said. "The points are important, and from a program standpoint, it's important that the people who come to support us know how hard our guys are playing and that we get good results.''

Ohio State is the second-highest scoring team in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes average 3.62 goals per game. Minnesota is only slightly better at 3.65.

The Buckeyes boast the top scorer in the Big Ten in overall games. Junior Ryan Dzingel has 17 goals and 19 assists for 36 points in 24 games. His 1.50 points-per-game average is fourth best in the nation. He's on track to be one of the top 10 Hobey Baker Award finalists.

Max McCormick, a junior, has 10 goals and 24 points and is tied for fifth in conference scoring. Nick Oddo, also a junior, is ninth with seven goals and 22 points.

"They're playing with a lot of confidence,'' Anastos said of the Buckeyes. "They're a good team, they have a dynamic offensive players.''

Dzingel, who is from Wheaton, Ill., had three goals against the Spartans in OSU's 5-3 victory in Columbus. Anastos said he's been impressed with Dzingel since he was a freshman.

"He stood out to me when he played here two years ago,'' Anastos said. "I thought he'd be a very good player. He's dynamic. He plays with speed, has good vision and has a good knack around the net. He scored a couple of really nice goals against us.'' Spartan captain Greg Wolfe said his team will have to be aware of Dzingel every time he's on the ice.

"We know they have a very good offense and Dzingel is a real threat. He's someone we have to look out for,'' Wolfe said. "We've talked about. They have two pretty good lines and seem to be very deep up front.

"We need to possess the puck down low and create chances from moving the puck out of the corner, to the points and getting shots and crashing the net for rebounds. We need to come out of the gates ready to go and make them play at our pace. We have to play in their zone as much as we can.''

Because of an injury and defection, Ohio State has used four goaltenders and dressed two others who were with the team for a limited time.

Freshman Matt Tomkins played both games against the Spartans, but freshman Christian Frey, who played in the USHL before joining the Buckeyes in December, has played the last three games - a victory over Wisconsin and a sweep of Penn State. Frey, who's from Arlington, Texas, is 5-1, with a 2.19 goals-against average and a .936 saves percentage.

Tomkins, from Sherwood Park, Alberta, is 6-5-1, with a 2.66 goals against average and .912 saves percentage.

SPARTAN POTPOURRI: Matt Berry and defenseman Jake Chelios are the highest-scoring Spartans against Ohio State. Berry, a junior, has five goals and three assists for eight points in eight games. Chelios has three goals and four assists for seven points in 12 games. . . . Michigan State leads the nation in blocked shots per game with an average of 17.92. The Spartans have blocked 20 shots in 11 of their 25 games. Defenseman Travis Walsh is MSU's top shot-blocker with 54. Walsh's average of 2.45 blocks per game is seventh in the country and second in the Big Ten. . . . In the last nine games, the line of Matt Berry-Michael Ferrantino-Joe Cox has contributed nine goals and nine assists for 18 points. Ferrantino has scored goals in four of the last five games and has at least one point in six of the last eight contests.

IN THE BIG TEN: Minnesota and Wisconsin get an early start on weekend play in the Big Ten with a Thursday-Friday series in Madison. The No. 1 Gophers swept the Badgers, 4-1, 4-3, in Minneapolis in late November. Meanwhile, Michigan plays Penn State for the first time in school history in a two-game series on Friday and Saturday in State College. The Nittany Lions host the Spartans next weekend. PSU (4-17-1, 0-8-0) is still looking for its first Big Ten victory.

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