Feb. 18, 2013
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - It had all the ingredients of a special victory, one to savor and build on during a season of disappointment and few great moments.
Michigan State's 4-2 win over Northern Michigan on Saturday night at Munn Arena arguably was the most satisfying performance the Spartans have delivered in three months.
They dominated play during large portions of the contest, but had little to show for it as they had to keep battling from behind. But MSU found a way, through mental and physical toughness, to keep pushing forward with energy and feistiness and made some good plays.
Collectively, it resulted in a dramatic come-from-behind victory and a loud and frenzied Munn Arena.
"I thought our execution was probably as good as it's been,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "We were moving the puck pretty well, attacking pretty well, putting pressure on their net and made good decisions.''
The Spartans (9-20-3, 7-16-1-0) treated the spirited, sellout crowd of 6,573 to some exciting goals and creative plays, capped by a three-goal third period that turned a 2-1 deficit into a two-goal win.
In a way, it was like old times at Munn Arena, with the Spartans taking control of the game, holding a decided edge in shots (43-20), making good passes, winning battles along the boards and behind the net and getting rewarded with a fluky goal off a heads-up play.
Chris Forfar got the game-winner with 8:44 left, coming out from the left corner and firing the puck between NMU goalie Jared Coreau's right arm and his body, from the side of net just in front of the goal line. This season, those kinds of breaks have gone against the Spartans, not for them.
For sure, MSU didn't beat one of the CCHA's elite teams. Northern Michigan (13-15-4, 7-13-4-1 CCHA) is desperate, like the Spartans, to avoid finishing in last place, and the Wildcats played this series without three of its top defensemen.
In the overall weekend picture, what has to be frustrating for the Spartans is Friday's 5-3 loss to the Wildcats -- a winnable game that was spoiled by costly defensive mistakes. It prevented a chance at their first series sweep of the year.
MSU rallied for three goals in the third period on Friday but a 3-0 deficit was too much to overcome. However, the Spartans' energy and momentum in the third period carried over to Saturday's series finale.
"There were a lot of good things that went on tonight,'' Anastos said. "Our whole team felt bad after Friday's result. It was good to see us able to regroup and put together an effort like we did tonight.
"I was a little concerned how we were going to respond. But I like the resilience and mental toughness that our team showed.''
For a team averaging a little more than two goals a game, the seven goals in two games against NMU was like a scoring binge. Only one other time this season has MSU scored more than seven goals in a two-game series. The Spartans scored eight against Michigan on Nov. 9-10 - a 5-1 loss and a 7-2 victory.
MSU also scored seven in a nonconference series against Penn State, Jan. 25-26 - a 5-3 win and 3-2 defeat.
In the split with Northern Michigan, the Spartans got goals from seven different players, including a few forwards who've been in a drought in recent weeks. Matt Berry, Jake Chelios and Brent Darnell found the back of the net on Friday and Lee Reimer, Michael Ferrratino, Forfar and Tanner Sorenson (empty net) scored on Saturday.
Berry ended a 10-game goal drought, while Reimer's goal was his first in eight games.
Captain Greg Wolfe continued to make an impact with two assists on Saturday and freshman Ryan Keller doubled his season point total by collecting a pair of assists Saturday - on the tying goal by Ferrantino and the clincher in the final minute by Sorenson.
Wolfe set up Reimer's shorthanded goal with a long pass up the middle that Reimer caught up with and skated in on a breakaway to score and tie the game 1-1 early in the second period.
About a minute later, a few seconds after MSU's penalty expired, Wolfe again made like a quarterback and found freshman David Bondra with a long pass up the middle for a breakaway. But Bondra's bid for his first collegiate goal was foiled by the crossbar - his shot from in tight hit the crossbar and deflected up and over the net to the right side.
While Saturday's strong effort and victory will have the Spartans feeling good in practice this week, and as a confidence boost heading out on their long trip to Alaska for their next challenge, it's probably too late to have much impact on where MSU finishes in CCHA.
Four difficult games are just ahead. After facing Alaska, the Spartans, with 22 points, close the regular season with a home series against second-place Western Michigan, which is two points behind first-place Miami.
It's not impossible to overtake eighth-place Bowling Green (31 points) or seventh-place Lake Superior State (32 points) and claim home ice for the first round of the playoffs. But it's very improbable.
The Spartans would have to go 4-0 or 3-1 in their final four games, while BGSU or LSSU lose all four contests. The Falcons host NMU and play at Notre Dame. The Lakers host Miami and visit NMU.
MSU's goal has to be to execute as well as it has the last two Saturdays - in victories over BGSU and NMU - and if that produces enough points to avoid 11th place then it's a great finish.
If not, so be it, and you focus on the playoffs and plot to pull off an upset.
It would be nice if the Spartans could avoid a playoff matchup against Alaska, back in Fairbanks March 8-10, for the second visit in two weeks.
The Nanooks are in sixth place with 32 points and only two games remaining - the series against MSU. It's possible that Alaska could finish fourth or fifth, ahead of Ferris State (42) and Ohio State (42) and earn a first-round bye, but not likely.
The Nanooks also could drop into seventh or eighth but that would take a Spartan sweep and BGSU or LSSU winning three of their last four games.
The Spartans would love to finish higher than Michigan and Northern Michigan. MSU trails by Michigan (25) by three points and is four points behind the Wildcats (26).
U-M plays at OSU this weekend and closes with a home series against Ferris State. NMU is back on the road this weekend with two games at BGSU and wraps up the regular season at home against LSSU.
Anastos' message to his team is don't worry about the standings or wins and losses but to play with the formula used on Saturday.
"We did a good job executing and we've got to continue to build on that,'' he said. "We need to be as hungry and play as aggressively, both physically and mentally, and emotionally as we played tonight. We had good emotion in this game.''
PLAYOFF OPPONENT POSSIBLES: MSU'S most likely CCHA first-round matchups are against Alaska, Lake Superior State and Bowling Green. But there's still a chance the Spartans could play anyone in the league except Miami, Western Michigan and Notre Dame.
Crazy things would have to happen but MSU could still play Ohio State, Ferris State and even Northern Michigan and Michigan.
The top five teams receive first-round byes. Teams finishing No. 6, 7 and 8 host first-round series against the bottom three finishers. It's No. 11 at No. 6; No. 10 at No. 7; and No. 9 at No. 8 in best-of-three series.
The three first-round winners are reseeded as Nos. 6, 7, and 8 (based on regular-season points) and play the first, second and third-place teams - No. 8 at No. 1; No. 7 at No. 2; No. 6 at No. 3, and the teams finishing fourth and fifth, which also had first-round byes, meet in the fourth second-round series.
The four winners advance to the final CCHA Championship at Joe Louis Arena, March 23-24.
FEWEST SHOTS: The Spartans allowed 20 shots on goal in Saturday's win over Northern Michigan, and it was just goalie Jake Hildebrand's second game in his last 14 in which he has faced less than 30 shots.
MSU's low in shots against was 19, in a 6-1 win at Bowling Green on Nov. 3, with Will Yanakeff in goal. The fewest shots Hildebrand had faced was 24 - against Ferris State in a 3-1 win on Dec. 15 and in a 3-1 loss to Ohio State on Dec. 1.
Meanwhile, the Spartans' 43 shots on goal vs. NMU were the most this season. The highest number had been 37 in two games - a 4-2 win at Lake Superior State on Oct. 27 and in a 5-2 loss to Michigan in the GLI on Dec. 30.
GRANT MAKES NHL DEBUT: Former Spartan forward Derek Grant played in his first NHL game on Saturday with the Ottawa Senators. Grant, in his second season in the Senators organization, played 7 minutes and 30 seconds and had one shot on goal as Ottawa lost to the Maple Leafs, 3-0, in Toronto.
Grant, who played two years at MSU (2009-2011), was called up to the NHL last week from the AHL's Binghamton Senators because of injuries.
In addition, ex-Spartan forward Tim Kennedy (2005-2008) got called up from the AHL last week by the San Jose Sharks, and played in two games. He scored a goal on Friday in a 4-1 road loss against the Chicago Blackhawks.
That makes 14 Spartans on NHL rosters, including forward David Booth, who hasn't played for the Vancouver Canucks this season because of a preseason groin injury.
Booth hopes to make his season debut this week on the Canucks' four-game road trip. He could play against the Red Wings in Detroit on Sunday afternoon.