Neil's Notebook: Spartans Look To Break Through on the Road
Neil Koepke previews this weekend's series at Penn State.
Feb. 13, 2014
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - With eight games remaining in the regular season, Michigan State is still striving to win its first game on enemy ice.
The Spartans are 0-7-2 on the road, although the last four games away from Munn Arena have been much better than the first five.
Since early January, MSU lost and tied at Ohio State and tied and lost at Minnesota. But all four games were winnable and it gives the Spartans hope going into their remaining five games on the road.
MSU begins a five-game road stretch this weekend with its first visit to Penn State, which is coming off its first Big Ten victory - a 4-0 victory over Michigan at home last Saturday.
The Spartans (8-13-6, 2-5-5-3) and Nittany Lions (5-18-1, 1-9-0-0) meet at 6:30 p.m. on Friday and at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at the new, 5,782-seat Pegula Ice Arena in State College, Pa.
"It's been frustrating when you don't get the win after some of the ties and losses, but our team feels good how we played,'' senior defenseman Jake Chelios said. "Confidence is a thing we've battled but I think we're a lot more confidence about how we've been playing. We've been very close (to winning) in these games.''
The Spartans lost their first five road games during the 2013 portion of their schedule. They got swept at Massachusetts and Michigan Tech and lost a single game at Western Michigan.
In early January, MSU had a good chance to win both games at Ohio State, leading each game by one goal entering the third period. In the opener, defensive miscues turned a 3-2 lead into a 5-3 defeat. The next night, the Spartans led 1-0 in the third period, but OSU tied it and that's how it finished, although the MSU won the shootout to earn an extra point in conference play.
Two weeks ago at then-No. 1 Minnesota, the Spartans built a 2-0 lead in the first period and held it until the last minute of the second period when the No. 1 Gophers scored on a power play to make it a one-game. Minnesota tied it five minutes into the third period and the game ended in a 2-2 tie, with the Spartans winning the shootout.
In the series finale, Minnesota rode a first-period goal to a 1-0 victory, but MSU played a solid road game and had some good chances to tie it in the final minutes. "We're playing a lot better on the road than at the start of the season,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "We played poorly at Massachusetts and Michigan Tech. It's not easy to win at anyone's building.
"We're not playing at easy places, but it would be nice to get over that hump. At Minnesota, I thought our team responded very well. If we could score a little more that would ease the pressure, make our guys feel better about things and give us a better chance to win.''
The Spartans won twice against Penn State, 3-0, 3-2, at Munn Arena on Jan. 17-18, but the Nittany Lions competed hard were in the second game right to the end.
The Spartans expect Penn State to be play at a high level, especially after its signature victory over Michigan and with another sellout crowd of close to 6,000 jammed into Pegula Arena.
"Everyone in the league is impressed with how hard they work and that they don't quit,'' Jake Chelios said. "It's no secret what they try to do. They try to get the puck to that bubble (in front of the net) and throw it to the goalie's feet and crash the net.
"The big things for us are boxing out guys, (lifting) up sticks and getting pucks to the corner. We're looking forward to it and to keep playing the way we have been playing.''
Anastos said he was impressed with the way Penn State, in its second year as a varsity program, played in getting a split against the Wolverines.
"Their team plays hard and they're a difficult team to play on the road. They compete at a very aggressive level,'' he said. "Even in the game they lost 7-3, they competed from start to finish. We saw that when they played us here, both last year and this year.
"For us, the challenge will be to prepare ourselves to overcome the disappointment that we let some points slip out of our hands (against Ohio State with two ties, and two shootout losses). We know we're close to getting over that hump.''
The victory over U-M ended Penn State's nine-game losing streak and was only the Nittany Lions' second win in 17 games.
Still, PSU has been playing a plethora of ranked teams - UMass-Lowell, Union, Wisconsin, Boston College, Minnesota and Ohio State.
The Nittany Lions average 2.29 goals per game and allow 3.54 per game. Their top scorer is Eric Scheid, a redshirt sophomore from Blaine, Minn., who has 11 goals and seven assists for 18 points. Standout sophomore offensive defenseman Luke Juha is second in team scoring with four goals and 14 points.
TOP 10 IN DEFENSE? While the Spartans still struggle to score more than two goals a game, the defense continues to improve and keep MSU in contention in almost every game. Quietly, the combination of solid team defense and stellar goaltending from Jake Hildebrand has the Spartans tied with Michigan for 10th nationally in defense, allowing 2.33 goals per game.
In the last four games, MSU has given up seven goals. The only poor defensive games among the last 13 contests were a 5-2 loss against Michigan and 5-3 defeat vs. Ohio State. In the other 11, MSU allowed two or fewer goals.
"Coming into the season, I wouldn't have forecast that,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said of his team's defensive statistics. "We didn't have a lot of experience on defense. But we changed how we played systematically to help our defense.
"We've asked different things from our forwards and from our goaltenders. At first, we weren't convinced that was the way to go. But after we gathered feedback from players, we thought it made sense, given our skillset. The guys have bought into it.''
The defense includes seniors Jake Chelios and Nick Gatt, junior RJ Boyd, sophomores John Draeger and Travis Walsh and freshmen Rhett Holland, Brock Krygier and Chris Knudson. Gatt, a transfer who is in his second season in the program, has played in only 10 games, while Knudson has appeared in six. Boyd, a transfer from Sacred Heart, is in his second year at MSU.
The defensemen and forwards have worked well in getting the puck out of their zone, limiting turnovers and MSU has become one of the best shot-blocking teams in the nation. In fact, the Spartans are No. 1 this week with an average of 17.5 blocked shots per game.
MSU doesn't mind giving up a lot of shots as long as most are from the perimeter and not from high-quality scoring areas.
"Our guys are incredibly committed in playing hard defensively, despite our lack of experience,'' Anastos said. "Our defense, as well as our forwards, have worked hard to commit to a team defense concept. You can see our identity growing. Guys take pride in blocking shots and we have a lot of guys willing to do it.''
FRIENDLY RIVALRY: Michigan State goalie Jake Hildebrand and Penn State goaltender Matthew Skoff are best friends, former junior teammates, both are sophomores from the Pittsburgh area and even have the same goalie coach.
There's a good chance they'll face each other in one or both games this weekend at Penn State. Skoff, 22, 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, was in goal last Saturday when the Nittany Lions won their first Big Ten game with a 4-0 blanking of Michigan. He made 32 saves in earning his third career shutout.
"We're pretty good friends. I usually see him every time I go home in the summer,'' Hildebrand said. "We hang out, work out together. I texted him (after the Michigan game) said congratulations. We talked about the games last weekend and how things went.''
Skoff has played in 14 games this season and has a 3.19 goals-against average and .899 saves percentage. Freshman Eamon McAdam has appeared in 10 games and has a 4.09 GAA and .882 saves percentage.
In 24 games, Hildebrand has a 2.21 GAA and a .933 saves percentage.
In 2010-11, Skoff (43 games) was the starting goaltender and Hildebrand (21 games) the backup for the Sioux City Musketeers of the U.S. Hockey League. The next year, Hildebrand was traded to the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, where he became the starter in his last season in the USHL before coming to MSU in 2012-13.
"He was a couple of years older than me and he was already successful in the league, and I was a young guy just coming in,'' Hildebrand said. "So, I tried to take some pointers from him and tried to be successful.''
Hildebrand and Skoff have played against each other in college two times - one last season (a 3-2 PSU win) and one time this year (a 3-0 MSU win on Jan. 17).
"They're a hard-working team and they shoot the puck from everywhere,'' Hildebrand said of the Nittany Lions. "They take a lot of long shots. You just have to be ready the whole time, but that helps get you into the game, when the puck is always coming at you.''
Hildebrand said he's never been to Penn State. But he's looking forward to see the Pegula Arena, college hockey's newest state-of-the-art facility which opened last fall.
"I hear it's supposed to be amazing. I've heard from multiple people and I haven't heard anything bad about it,'' he said. "In talking to Skoff, he said every game is supposed to be sold out. It's fun to go on the road and play in front of great crowds.''
IN THE BIG TEN: In two other Big Ten series this weekend, first-place Minnesota plays host to second-place Michigan and third-place Wisconsin plays at fourth-place Ohio State. The Gophers and Wolverines are meeting for the first time in Big Ten play. They'll meet again on the final weekend of the season, March 14-15, in Ann Arbor.
Ohio State's Ryan Dzingel leads the Big Ten in overall scoring with 17 goals and 20 assists for 37 points, 10 more than Minnesota's Sam Warning, who has 10 goals and 17 assists. Michigan State's Greg Wolfe is tied for 13th with 11 goals and 10 assists for 21 points.
In Big Ten games, Dzingel leads with nine goals and nine assists for 18 points. Michigan freshman JT Compher is second with seven goals and 13 points.