Neil's Notebook: Rivals Face Off in Final Regular-Season Meeting at the Joe
Neil Koepke previews the weekend series vs. Michigan, including Friday's
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
DETROIT -- For the last 26 years, Michigan State and Michigan have played each other in a conference game at Joe Louis Arena.
Since 1990-91, the Spartans and Wolverines have met 29 times in the middle of winter at the home of the Detroit Red Wings, and usually in a compelling, exciting atmosphere that highlights one of college hockey's greatest rivalries.
This great tradition will be extended one more time on Friday before it ends with the closing of Joe Louis Arena in the spring.
It's an end of an era as MSU and U-M face off for the final time in a regular-season game at JLA in the "Duel in the D" at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
On Saturday, the Big Ten series concludes with a 7:30 p.m. contest at Yost Arena in Ann Arbor.
Next season, the Spartans (5-17-2, 1-8-1-0 Big Ten) and Wolverines (9-13-2, 2-7-1-1) will start what is expected to become a new tradition: a yearly regular-season game at the new, state-of-the-art Little Caesars Arena near Ford Field and Comerica Park.
"It's going to be pretty remarkable, a very special game and I'm not going to let it just pass by,'' MSU senior defenseman Rhett Holland said. "
"You think of all the guys that have gone through that arena. Players like Gordie Howe, Nick Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman and so many NHL greats, and the Stanley Cup champions that have played there. It's crazy to think you're playing on the same ice as those guys and teams.''
Holland and fellow seniors - Joe Cox, Thomas Ebbing, Villiam Haag, Connor Wood, JT Stenglein and Chris Knudson -- have won the last two games against U-M at JLA, and are 2-1 in their careers in this regular-season duel.
The Spartans edged the Wolverines last season, 4-3, on Matt DeBlouw's goal 3:29 into overtime in front of a sellout crowd of 20,027. Cox had two goals, including one on a penalty shot.
On Jan. 20, 2015, Michigan State held on for a 2-1 win, witnessed by a capacity gathering of 20,027. DeBlouw scored the game-winner in that game, too, just 1:58 into the third period.
As freshmen, Holland and his pals suffered a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Michigan on Jan. 23, 2014. "The games against Michigan always mean a little more. Then you put the Joe into it, with a great crowd, and emotions are high and it's usually a great game and a pretty special experience,'' Holland said.
Over the last 26 seasons, Michigan holds a 14-11-4 edge in this mid-season game which started on Feb. 15, 1991. In the first two years, the teams played two Central Collegiate Hockey Association games at Joe Louis Arena and each had one league home game.
From 1993-2000, the teams played only three times in the regular season -- one home, one away and one in Detroit. In 2000-01, MSU and U-M met four times with two games played at JLA.
In 2001-02, it was back to three games for one year, and in the following season, 2002-03, the Spartans and Wolverines went back to playing four games against each other with one school giving up a home game each year.
From that season to the present, Michigan State faces Michigan twice at home, once in Ann Arbor and one game in Detroit in even years. U-M gets two at home, one on the road and one at JLA in odd years.
MSU coach Tom Anastos said no one likes to give up a home game every other season but he believes it's been worth it to play Michigan once every season in Detroit.
"It depends on your perspective but from the teams' and the players' views, absolutely,'' he said. "The guys always look forward to playing at that venue and on that stage, and recently, the games have been selling out.
"So you're going to get close to 20,000 people there, and that's three or four more times than what we'd get in our buildings. That's a positive.''
Playing in Detroit gives alumni and fans from both schools an opportunity to experience the rivalry in a NHL building, and for hockey fans who don't have allegiances to either school, it's a chance to see college hockey on a big stage.
"You hate to take those games off campus but you're willing to sacrifice it because of the experience,'' said Anastos, who includes playing at Joe Louis Arena in the Great Lakes Invitational and the CCHA Championships among his favorite memories as a Spartan player in the early 1980s.
"From a recruiting standpoint, both schools attract a lot of Michigan-based kids, so it's good that those kids get a chance to see these games. And it's a big deal for the Michigan-based kids to play at that venue.
"I think it's well worth it, and the Ilitch organization does a great job of creating a lot of excitement around the game. And now that it's the Duel in the D, we're playing for a trophy -- the Iron D Trophy.''
Friday's game won't be Michigan State's last game at Joe Louis Arena because the Big Ten Tournament is set for Detroit March 16-18.
The Spartans will play at least one game in the tournament, and while it's doubtful because of where the teams sit in the standings, there's still an outside chance MSU and U-M could play one more game at Joe Louis Arena.
Villiam Haag didn't know much about the MSU-Michigan rivalry when he came to Michigan State as a freshman in 2013 and had never played at an NHL rink. That's all changed for the senior right wing from Stockholm, Sweden
He understands the rivalry and he's a veteran of 10 games played at JLA.
"I think it's a great experience. Not a lot of people get a chance to play on a big stage like the one at the Joe and be involved with the rivalry we have between the two schools,'' Haag said. "It fantastic to be part of this.
"I know I don't have a history with Detroit but I know it's the last year at the Joe against Michigan and I feel honored to be a part of it. It's always exciting and it's the best games to play -- playing against Michigan.''
Haag and senior captain and right wing Joe Cox head into the series as MSU's highest scorers against the Wolverines. Both have two goals and three assists for five points -- Cox in 13 games and Haag in 12.
"I love being down there in Detroit. You get a little bit of extra energy, you're in a NHL arena and it always seems to be packed,'' Haag said. "I'm from a different country but I learned about this rivalry four years ago and yet it feels like I've been doing it my whole life.
"We play them at least four times every year and people really care -- in East Lansing and Ann Arbor and in this state. I'm a true die-hard Spartan fan and I care about every sport, and when you play Michigan, it feels so good to win.''
ONE WIN, ONE LOSS, ONE TIE: Michigan State and Michigan will be meeting for the fourth and fifth times this season and for the third and fourth times in Big Ten play.
Each team is 1-1-1 with two of the games going into overtime. In fact, three of the last five meetings have been tied after 60 minutes and gone needed overtime.
This season, Michigan won 5-4 in overtime in the third-place game of the GLI in Detroit in late December. After MSU blanked the Wolverines, 3-0, in Ann Arbor on Jan. 20, the teams played to a 2-2 tie on Jan. 21, with U-M winning the shootout, 1-0, to earn the extra point in the Big Ten standings.
Last year, the Spartans won 3-2 in OT at Joe Louis Arena on Feb. 5, 2016.
Michigan starts the weekend in fifth place in the Big Ten with eight points, four ahead of Michigan State, with 10 regular-season games left for each team.
The Spartans had one of their best weekends of the season three weeks ago in the 3-0 victory and 2-2 tie against the Wolverines. But last week, MSU was sloppy and erratic in a 6-3 loss to Wisconsin, and much better in the second game, but costly turnovers led to a 4-3 overtime loss to the Badgers.
One series, the Spartans gave up two goals, the next they allowed 10. What did they do so well against Michigan?
"Let's start with goaltending. I thought our goaltender was very consistent in both of those games,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "Then we were responsible in our play all over the ice, meaning we were on the defensive side of people most of the time.
"In the game in Ann Arbor, we didn't give up an odd-man rush. That's pretty unusual in the game today.
"In a comparison, last Saturday (vs. Wisconsin), where you think we played a decent game, we gave up 10 odd-man rushes, which is a ridiculous number. Now, three of those came during that (stretch of) 3-on-3 play, when it was going end to end.
"But even if you eliminate those three, that's still seven odd-man rushes and that's still a high number. For us to get better, we have to do a better job of defending. We're just giving up too many goals. Our whole focus (in practice) this week will be on that side of the puck. If you defend well, that creates opportunities, in most cases.''
Senior defenseman Rhett Holland said the key to his team's success defensively in the last series against Michigan was keeping things simple and executing the game plan.
"We backchecked hard, we forechecked hard and we were physical,'' he said. "We were together the whole game and our systems were consistent the whole game.
"I think our will to win that game was so high that it was like there was no way we were coming out of there without getting the win. Hopefully, we can embrace that and bring it back this weekend.
"We took the crowd out of it. Getting booed going off the ice at Yost Arena is probably the best feeling ever.''
SCOUTING THE WOLVERINES: Michigan has received a huge boost from the return of sophomore forward Cooper Marody, who had to sit out the first part of the season because of eligibility issues set up by a bout with mononucleosis last season.
Marody, a 6-foot, 178-pounder center from Brighton, has four goals and five assists for nine points in eight games since returning for the GLI in Detroit. Last weekend against Ohio State, Marody scored three goals -- all in the second period -- in U-M's s 5-4 victory in the series opener and had one goal in a 6-5 loss to the Buckeyes in the second game.
Marody had three assists against Michigan State in U-M's 5-4 OT win in the GLI, and he scored the winning goal in the shootout in the 2-2 tie three weeks ago.
"I think having Marody back is a big difference in their team. He's highly skilled and, arguably, may be their best skilled player,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "Not having him the first half of the season really hurt. He had a good weekend against Ohio State and he's the catalyst on their power play.''
After scoring only four goals in two losses at Minnesota, 4-2, 5-2, in mid-January and two in two games against MSU the week later, the Wolverines found their offensive game against Ohio State. They scored 10 goals but also gave up 10 goals.
And Michigan did it without three injured forwards -- Tony Calderone, Alex Kile and Cutler Martin. Calderone, who leads the Wolverines in goals with 10, has missed the last four games.
Freshman forward Jake Slaker is U-M's top scorer with five goals and 13 assists for 18 points. He had four points (1-3) against OSU and an assist vs. MSU. Freshman Will Lockwood, one of the team's top scoring threats, has seven goals and seven assists for 14 points.
Defenseman Sam Piazza, a junior, is third in team scoring with six goals and 13 points.
Michigan is averaging 2.67 goals a game, which is 39th in the nation, and its power play is converting on 20 percent of its chances (17th). Defensively, the Wolverines are allowing 3.12 goals a game (41st) and their penalty killing is skating off 80 percent of opponents' power plays (39th).
After freshman goalie Jack LaFontaine and senior goalie Zach Nagelvoort each played one game against the Spartans three weeks ago, freshman Hayden Lavigne was in goal for both games against Ohio State.
Lavigne is 5-5 with a 2.91 goals-against average and a .913 saves percentage. Nagelvoort is 3-1-1 with a 2.95 GAA and a .917 saves percentage. LaFontaine has a 1-5-1 record, a 3.12 GAA and a .918 saves percentage.
MORE SHOTS ON GOAL: Michigan State is averaging 25.21 shots on goal per game and Michigan is at 25.71, and they rank No. 59 and No. 57, respectively, nationally.
Obviously, both teams would like to give opposing goalies more work with more shots on net.
"Our biggest challenge from a shooting perspective is that we don't shoot enough," Spartans coach Tom Anastos said. "When you say shots on goal, that means hitting the net with shots. Our other problem is we miss the net too frequently.
"There's three things -- having shots blocked, missing the net and not having more of a shooting mentality and mindset -- and that's why the numbers aren't as high as you'd like.
"I think we're getting plenty of opportunities. That's not the issue. Hitting the net and getting shots through -- we have to become a better team at that.''
Penn State leads the nation with an average of 47.04 shots per game while Quinnipiac is No. 2 with 36.34. In the Big Ten, Wisconsin is 6th nationally with 34.33 shots per game, while Minnesota is No. 8 (33.88) and Ohio State No. 23 (30.96).
SPARTAN POTPOURRI: Michigan State is 88-64-7 overall at Joe Louis Arena since the building opened in December, 1979. The Spartans are 20-30-5 against Michigan at JLA. MSU has won 11 CCHA playoff titles and 12 GLI championships at the Joe, and won 17 straight games there from March 12, 1982, to March 7, 1986, when Spartan fans called JLA "Munn East." . . . Freshman center Sam Saliba had his four-game point streak end last Saturday against Wisconsin. He had two goals and three assists for five points in one game against Penn State, two vs. U-M and the first game of the Wisconsin series. In 24 games this season, Saliba has three goals and seven assists for 10 points and is tied for seventh in team scoring. Saliba has a goal and three assists for four points in three games against Michigan. . . . Sophomore center Mason Appleton leads MSU in scoring with nine goals and 11 assists for 20 points. A pair of freshmen are No. 2 and 3 -- Taro Hirose (4-12-16) and Patrick Khodorenko (6-7-12). Khodorenko has three goals and one assist in his last three games.
IN THE BIG TEN: Wisconsin, now ranked No. 17, will try to extend its five-game winning streak and remain at least tied for first place as the Badgers play host to No. 10 Penn State on Friday and Saturday.
Wisconsin's streak includes victories over Minnesota at home, and two against Ohio State, one in Columbus and one at New York's Madison Square Garden, and two wins last weekend at Michigan State.
The Badgers (15-8-1 overall, 8-2-0-0) Big Ten) have won seven of their last eight games. Meanwhile, third-place Penn State (16-6-2, 5-4-1) is coming off two losses at Minnesota, has lost four games in a row and is 0-4-1 in its last five games.
In the other conference series on Friday and Saturday, No. 5 Minnesota is at No. 12 Ohio State. The Gophers (17-7-2, 8-2-0-0), tied for first with Wisconsin, have won three straight and 10 of their last 12 games. The fourth-place Buckeyes (13-7-6, 4-5-1-1) are 2-3-2 in their last seven games and two points behind Penn State and six points ahead of fifth-place Michigan.
Each Big Ten team has played 10 games and has 10 remaining in the regular season.