Feb. 11, 2013
Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - For months and months and months, Michigan State junior captain Greg Wolfe has tried hard to live up to expectations as a key offensive contributor.
But as much as he's pushed to score goals or set up his linemates, the puck has rarely found the back of the net for the 5-foot-10, 171-pound right wing. Or his teammates.
Wolfe's quality chances always seemed to end up being stopped by the goaltender, blocked by the defense or his shots end up hitting the post or going wide or sailing over the top of the net.
He's had very little puck luck, the Spartans have struggled to score as a team, the losses have mounted and disappointment and frustration set in.
Wolfe didn't score a goal in 16 consecutive games from Nov. 9 to Jan. 19, collecting just three assists in those contests. Still, each weekend he worked hard, tried to play with energy and put himself in good spots to score, just like he did last season when he had 10 goals and 26 points in 38 games.
Finally, the desperate Wolfe is getting rewarded for his efforts.
The puck has started go in for the first-year captain from Canton, who has five goals in his last six games, including three in last weekend's split with Bowling Green. In addition, he has a point in six of the past seven games and five goals and three assists for eight points in the Spartans' last nine contests.
Wolfe's the hottest scorer on a team that has averaged 2.07 goals-per-game in 30 games.
Wolfe scored a short-handed goal in Friday's 2-1 loss at BGSU and added two goals in Saturday's 3-1 win at Munn Arena. He had a power-play goal in the first period to give his team a 1-0 lead, and sealed the victory with an empty-netter in the final minute.
"I just tried to turn off my brain and work hard as possible, finish every check and things started working for me,'' Wolfe said. "I was trying to make it real simple for myself, and that allowed me to get away from making mistakes.
"The weekend was big positive for me and a big positive for our team. That's one of the best 120 minutes of hockey we've played all year. We didn't get the win on Friday, but we stayed together as a team.''
Saturday's victory ended a four-game losing streak, gave MSU its fifth series split and lifted the 11th-place Spartans (8-19-3 overall 6-15-1-0 CCHA) to within six points of 9th-place Michigan, which has played two more games.
The Spartans and 10th-place Northern Michigan (12-13-4, 6-12-4-1), who are four points ahead of MSU, meet in a two-game series this weekend at Munn Arena - at 6:30 p.m. on Friday and at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. U-M, meanwhile, is idle this weekend.
So, there's a huge opportunity to pick up ground on teams close in the standings.
"It was nice to see a weekend like that for Greg Wolfe, who's been working really hard and has put a lot of pressure on himself as the team captain,'' Spartans coach Tom Anastos said after Saturday's victory.
"I thought he had a good weekend. It's nice to see him have some success. It's important for upperclassmen to perform at a higher level. When you're not producing offense, you start to put pressure on yourself, because you're looked upon to produce. It was good to see the puck go in the net. He had some nice goals.''
Wolfe started his goal run with an empty-net goal against Penn State that wrapped up a 5-3 victory on Jan. 23. But the goal that gave him a boost of confidence was sort of a spectacular goal against Michigan at Joe Louis Arena on Feb. 2.
Wolfe, battling with a defenseman in front of the Wolverine net in the second period, dove forward (to the right of the net) to reach a loose puck and slid it into the net as he crashed to the ice to cut MSU's deficit to 3-2. The goal gave the Spartans some momentum for 1 minute and 22 seconds, before U-M got a good bounce and scored to again go up by two goals with 17 seconds left in the period.
That's just the way things have gone for the Spartans this season. But at least Wolfe was rewarded for his energy and work ethic. It didn't change the game but maybe changed Wolfe's mindset.
"Once you start to get some bounces, you think you're going to score. You're not thinking `Oh, if I don't score, it's 12 games (or whatever) without a goal,'' he said.
"Just popping one against Michigan and getting a little confidence makes a different.''
Another thing that made a different might have been a few conversations he had last week - with his parents, the coaching staff and then in a team meeting.
"When I talked to the coaches and my parents, one of the things (that came up) was my passion when I'm playing the game,'' Wolfe said. "I made it simple on myself and decided to finish every check and not worry about anything else. I tried to work hard and maybe the bounces would start coming.
"I wish it would have happened a little sooner.''
For sure, Wolfe has worked hard to get chance, but it's been difficult for him to finish, something that has been a dilemma for the whole team.
"I was taking a lot of shots at the beginning of the year but they weren't going in the right spots,'' he said. "I hit a couple posts. That's the difference - a few inches.''
"We really want to have another shot at getting this season going. What the coaches told us was to keep things simple, play with instinct and passion and not worry about mistakes,'' Wolfe said. "We talked about what makes us successful and staying together as a group.
"It was about playing for each other, taking the frustration and anger out of it and just getting back to playing and working in units of five. I think we did a good job this weekend.''
The Spartans went out and competed hard, and while they didn't produce bunches of goals, they did create some very good scoring chances, especially on Saturday, and put themselves in position to win each game.
And Wolfe's passion level was high and he made an impact with arguably his best performances of the season.
"I feel a little better on the ice. I've stopped thinking about the big picture and 100 different things, and I'm focusing on one thing, and that's taken some of the pressure off,'' he said.
"Overall, I think might have been thinking too much and not focusing on my game and what I can do to help the team the most. It's definitely been a learning experience.''
Said senior forward Forfar, who had assists on both of Wolfe's goals on Saturday:
"It's nice to see our captain playing like that. He's been struggling this season but I don't think he was playing any worse than now. It's just that he was having trouble finding the back of the net.''
With six games remaining - two each against NMU, (at) Alaska and Western Michigan -- the Spartans still have an outside shot at finishing in 8th place in the CCHA and earning home ice for the first round of the playoffs. Of course, that would take three or four victories and some teams above them - like NMU, U-M, Bowling Green or Lake Superior State - stumbling a bit.
Wolfe said the team's focus won't be on the specifics of the CCHA race, what other teams are doing and the "what ifs."
"Our goal is to have an honest effort, giving 100 percent every night,'' he said. "If we come out and finish our checks and have that effort, we'll win more than we'll lose.
"The biggest thing is competing every night.''
FIRST GOAL MORE COMMON: Early in the season, the Spartans had all sorts of trouble getting the first goal. However, things have changed over the last few weeks.
MSU has opened the scoring in five of the last six games.
In both games against Penn State, the Spartans took 2-0 leads. The first led to a 5-3 win in the series opener. In the second game, the Nittany Lions rallied with two goals in the third period to pull out a 3-2 victory.
MSU scored the first goal in one of its two games against Michigan and in both games last weekend against Bowling Green.
The Spartans have scored first in 11 of their 30 games and are 7-4 when scoring first.
MORE MINUTES FOR GATT: First-year defenseman Nick Gatt has seen limited playing time this season as MSU's sixth defenseman. The junior transfer from Alabama-Huntsville has played in all but one game, but it's usually in spot duty - only a few minutes a game.
But with MSU coach Tom Anastos trying to reduce the amount of minutes played by his top four defensemen - John Draeger, Jake Chelios, Travis Walsh and Matt Grassi - and RJ Boyd, Gatt saw increased playing time in the Bowling Green series.
"We're trying to play six defensemen more,'' Anastos said. "Nickolas Gatt is dealing with the adversity of trying to fight for playing time and he's done an incredible job of working through that.
"He's working on his game and working real hard. He made a big contribution playing those minutes and played hard and well. It's allowed us to reduce the minutes of the other guys. That's a real positive. I hope we can build on that.''
NO STANDINGS TALK: Anastos said that in the course of preparing for each week's series, he hasn't brought up MSU's position in the CCHA standings and what it'll take to finish in a higher spot - like in 8th-place, which would mean home ice for the opening round of the playoffs.
"I haven't talked about the standings one bit. We want to win every game we play and so the more games we win, the higher up we can be,'' Anastos said. "I'm not focused on playoff alignments. The 100 percent focus of our staff is trying to find a way to get our team better and go play.
"We were disappointed that we lost the game on Friday but we liked our game. We thought we took a positive step.
"We don't want to finish any lower than we have to, but there isn't any point in focusing on (the CCHA standings) because you just have to keep going out and finding ways to win to give yourself the best chance to move up.''
SPARTANS VS. SPARTANS: On Saturday, four former MSU players were on the ice at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit battling for their respective teams. In the end, the Red Wings' Spartans contingent of forwards Drew Miller and Justin Abdelkader emerged with a 2-1 victory over ex-Spartan defensemen Jeff Petry and Corey Potter of the Edmonton Oilers.
There would have been five Spartans in the game but Edmonton center Shawn Horcoff is sidelined with a broken knuckle and is expected to be out for an extended period.
The Red Wings and Oilers play two more times in the regular season - March 7 in Detroit and March 15 in Edmonton.