Neil's Notebook: Spartans Excel on the Kill
MSU's success on the penalty kill is by design
Feb. 9, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
When it comes to penalty killing, nobody does it better in the CCHA than Michigan State.
Nationally, there's only one team with better numbers on the penalty kill than the Spartans.
While MSU's power play has struggled most of the season, penalty killing has flourished.
"I remember at the beginning of the season calling the team together one day and telling them that our goal was to be the best penalty-killing team in the nation,'' Coach Tom Anastos said. "They probably thought `Where is this guy coming from?'
"But now, you can see it in their eyes. They have a certain confidence level going.''
The Spartans, who employ an aggressive penalty-kill style, have allowed only 13 power-play goals in 119 opponents' power-plays for a success rate of 89.1 percent, which is No. 2 in the nation. Robert Morris is No. 1, allowing eight goals in 122 chances for 93.4 percent efficiency.
When MSU played Robert Morris in two nonconference games in October, the Spartans scored twice on the power play and Robert Morris also had two power-play goals.
In CCHA play, the Spartans have skated off 90.5 per cent of opponents' power-play chances (76-of-84). Western Michigan is No. 2 at 90 percent (72-of-80).
"The goal is to force the opposing team to beat you as opposed to give them time and hope you can stop them,'' Anastos said. "We're trying to make them make three good passes and then beat our goaltender.
"You have to have your guys playing aggressively and if one guy isn't, it breaks down the whole thing.''
Of course, the main factor in successful penalty killing starts in goal. And MSU has, for the most part, received solid goaltending from Drew Palmisano and Will Yanakeff during opponents' power plays.
The Spartans' main penalty-killing units include forwards Chris Forfar teaming with Anthony Hayes, Brett Perlini and Trevor Nill and Lee Reimer joining Nill or Perlini. On defense, regular partners Torey Krug stays with Brock Shelgren, while Matt Crandell now teams with Jake Chelios.
"We settled into a rotation where the guys are comfortable playing with each other,'' Anastos said. "When I played here, I (killed penalties) with Dale Krentz. There was an innate feeling when you went out there. You knew what the other guy was thinking and doing and you fed off that.
"Hayes and Forfar have that mojo where they have confidence in each other. That's what you want to find, whether it's a penalty-killing partner, a defensive pairing or on a line combination.''
Since early December, MSU has given up five power-play goals in 16 chances in the last 16 games. Unfortunately, three were scored by Ferris State two weeks ago in a sweep of the Spartans in Big Rapids.
But MSU bounced back nicely last weekend at Ohio State and shut down the Buckeyes' power play - no goals in six chances on Friday and no goals on eight opportunities on Saturday. For sure, it played a key role in the Spartans sweeping OSU, 6-3 and 3-2.
"We didn't have a good series at Ferris State but we responded well against Ohio State,'' Anastos said.
MSU's next challenge is shutting down Michigan's power play this weekend. The No. 17 Spartans (15-11-4 overall, 10-9-3-2 CCHA) play host to No. 4/6 Michigan (17-9-4, 11-7-4-1) at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at sold-out Munn Arena and at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
In overall games in the CCHA, the Wolverines' power play ranks only No. 7 (16.1 percent), one spot ahead of MSU (15.9). But U-M's offense is No. 1 in the league (3.40 goals a game) and No. 8 in the country.
"They're very talented and they can score anytime during a game. We have to be aggressive, but there will be times when we have to back off,'' Forfar said. "Our mindset has to be to play hard, be in the right spots and hope they don't find the backdoor guy.''
Krug said a big reason that the penalty kill has been one of the team's main strengths is "sticking to the process'' and making good decisions.
"We want to play an attacking style all over and it's the same in killing penalties,'' he said. "We want to make them have to make three good passes in a row. In hockey, it's tough to make three good passes. We want to force them to try to beat us.
"If they do, then it's a good play for them. We saw Ferris State do it. Last weekend, we wanted to shut down Ohio State's power play and we did.''
Krug said Hayes and Forfar have something special going in killing penalties. "All year they've been a mainstay on the penalty kill. They've done a great job,'' Krug said. "At Ohio State, they probably had more ice time than they've had all year.
"Hayes, Forfar, Nill, Perlini and Reimer, they're all creative penalty killers.''
Anastos said the decision whether to pressure the opposition or to stay back and defend depends at times on the other team's personnel and their ability to control the puck.
"We'll look at what a team might be looking to do. Some guys are poised and it's hard to pressure them,'' Anastos said. "But we think if we can get to the puck about the same time as their player, then we have a good chance to make them throw the puck away rather than make a good play.
"What we're saying is `we're coming after you and if I come at you and you make a good pass to a teammate, my teammate is coming after you and if you make a good pass to another guy, my guy is coming after him and if then if you score, well then you made a great play.'
"There are times when you're out of sync or you can't be as aggressive as you want because they're too wide or too high or you can't get a good start. Then you have to hold up, set up and wait until you can aggressively pursue them again.''
Forfar said when the opposition sets up on a power play in the MSU zone, he and Hayes are responsible for pressuring the defensemen at the points.
"Hayes' job is the point guy in front of him and my job is the guy in front of me. I look to see how my guy shoots because that will determine which way I'll pressure him,'' said Forfar, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound junior from Darien, Ill. "If they win the draw and get the puck back to the point, they're probably go D-to-D, so I'm going to wait for that pass and be ready to go right away to start the pressure.
"After that, it's read and react. It's got out, come back, out, back -- in straight lines -- and being super aggressive until the puck gets out of our zone or if they get control. Then you adjust and wait for the right time to go after them again.''
Forfar, a solid defensive forward who plays on a line with Hayes and Nill, said he's been killing penalties most of his career - at the junior level and even in youth hockey.
"I guess I had to play on the penalty kill in youth hockey because my coach wouldn't put me out on the power play,'' he said with a laugh. "So I learned to accept the role.''
In juniors, with the Lincoln (Neb.) Stars of the U.S. Hockey League, Forfar got plenty of practice of jumping over the boards and setting up to skate off yet another power play by their opponent.
"Our team took a lot of penalties. We led the league in fighting majors and so I got a lot of penalty-kill time,'' he said. "So that was something I knew I could contribute here.
"It's kind of nice to know I have that role. It's something I've strived for ever since my two years in Lincoln.''
The Spartans and Wolverines are playing for six points in the CCHA standings and to set themselves up for high finishes as the league race is down to the final six games.
Michigan is in third place in the CCHA with 38 points but only three ahead of MSU, which is tied with Lake Superior State for seventh place with 35. U-M is only three points out of first place, while the Spartans are a point behind three teams tied for fourth - Notre Dame, Miami and Ohio State.
"We're in the stretch run so these games are so meaningful for every team. There's a lot on the line,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "The rivalry is important, it means a little more. But the points mean a lot at this stage of the season.''
The Wolverines are 2-0-1 against the Spartans, but the goal differential in the three goals is only plus-2 for U-M (10-8). Michigan won the first game, 4-3, at Yost Arena in early December , and then the teams played to a 3-3 tie the next night at Munn Arena. In the Great Lakes Invitational championship game in Detroit, the Wolverines rallied from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in the third period and pulled out a 3-2 victory in overtime.
"We know what they have to offer and they know what we have to offer,'' MSU defenseman and junior captain Torey Krug said. "It's going to come down to the mentality of who's going to come into the rink and be willing to do more to get the win.
"There's a lot of implications for the playoffs. We know what we're looking for to put ourselves in the right position. I can't wait to see Munn on Friday and hear our band. The atmosphere should be unbelievable.''
In three games against U-M, MSU is 3-for-7 on the power play and has allowed only one goal in seven power-play chances by the Wolverines.
Krug has eight goals and 16 assists while Perlini has seven goal and 17 assists.
Michigan's top three scorers make up their No. 1 line. Freshman center Alex Guptill has 14 goals and 13 assists for 27 points and shares the team scoring lead with junior right wing Chris Brown, who has 11 goals and 16 assists. Senior left wing David Wohlberg is third with 11 goals and 15 assists for 26 points.
Brown will miss Friday's series opener. He'll be serving a one-game suspension for a fighting penalty assessed last Saturday against Miami.
U-M senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick has the third-best goals-against-average in CCHA overall games at 2.05 and the No. 1 save percentage at .932. He's No. 9 nationally in goals-against and No. 5 in save percentage.