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Neil's Notebook: Final Weekend Big for Spartans

Feb. 23, 2012

By Neil Koepke, staff writer

Before the start of the season, conventional wisdom from coaches, media and fans around the CCHA was that Notre Dame would be involved in a lot of games that would end up in victories for the Irish, and that Michigan State would be involved in a lot games that would not end up in victories for the Spartans.

Funny, how things can change during the course of a long season.

Notre Dame and MSU are two big surprise teams in the CCHA and college hockey - but for different reasons.

The Irish, picked by the coaches and media to finish first in the CCHA and ranked No. 1 nationally to start the season, have been spiraling downward since mid-January, and can't finish higher than sixth place. They've lost five straight games, are 3-9 in their last 12 CCHA contests and tied for eighth place with Northern Michigan.

The Spartans, picked for eighth and 7th by the coaches and media, respectively, are red-hot and surging toward the top of the CCHA, thanks to a 5-1 run this month. They're sitting in fourth place.

MSU can finish anywhere from second to sixth place, and no matter what happens this weekend, the Spartans (18-12-4 overall, 13-10-3-2 CCHA) will end up higher in the standings than the Irish (16-15-3, 11-12-3-0).

That much we know about the CCHA race but there's so much more to be decided in the final weekend of the regular season, and MSU's two-game series at Notre Dame has major implications for both teams and the final standings.

The Spartans' season-long goal of finishing in the top four and earning a bye for the first round of the playoffs and home ice for the second round is still reachable.

But MSU likely will face a tough challenge from an Irish team that still has a chance to avoid a ninth-place finish and earn home ice for the first round of the playoffs. If Notre Dame continues to stumble, it'll be on the road for the first round, something that seemed farfetched at the end of November.



The Spartans and Irish collide at 8:30 p.m. on Friday and at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Compton Family Arena in South Bend, a sparkling, new $50-million arena that seats 5,022. The complex opened last fall.

"I think we'll see a desperate team this weekend. They're one of the most talented teams in the country and with their work ethic and talent, I think we'll have to weather quite a storm,'' Spartans junior defenseman and captain Torey Krug said. "They're a big team. I don't think they have any defensemen under 6-foot-1 or 6-1, except for Sam Calabrese.''

Actually, Irish have two under 6-1 - junior Calabrese (5-11) and freshman Robbie Russo (5-11). Among the other four regulars are a pair who are 6-4 - sophomore Stephen Johns and freshman Shayne Taker - and sophomore Kevin Lind (6-3) and senior ,Sean Lorenz (6-1).

Two big issues for the Irish are goaltending and a group of forwards that's having a difficult time putting the puck in the net.

The Spartans, who haven't played Notre Dame since November, 2010, do not have memories of many flaws in the Irish's game. MSU's seniors are 0-6-2 and the Spartans are winless in their last 10 games (0-7-3) against Notre Dame.

"What I remember is you don't have much time and space with the puck,'' Krug said. "Their forwards are relentless on the forecheck, and they're a very structured defensive team that plays hard in their own zone.''

Despite having some standout forwards, Notre Dame's offense ranks 45th nationally, averaging 2.62 goals per game. That's No. 8 in the CCHA. In 26 league games, the Irish are 9th, averaging 2.35 goals.

Defensively, they're tied with Bowling Green at No. 32 in the country, averaging 2.85 goals-against. That's tied for 10th in overall games in the CCHA. In league games, the Irish defense is 7th with an average of 2.65.

Junior goalie Mike Johnson (2.63 goals-against average, .886 save percentage, 9-9-3) played most of the games early in the season but sophomore Steve Summerhays (2.93, .887, 7-6) has started nine of the last 15 games. Johnson was in goal for both games last weekend at Miami.

Like his players, MSU coach Tom Anastos has a lot of respect for Notre Dame and believes the Irish are more than capable of breaking loose with a strong series.

"They're a good team, very talented and have lots of depth. Clearly, they're going through a tough stretch,'' he said. "They're struggling to score goals but they're very good defensively.''

The Irish last weekend were swept at Miami, 3-0, 4-1. Two weeks ago, they lost 3-0 and 5-1 against Ferris State. In January, after beating Minnesota, 4-3, in Minneapolis, Notre Dame got swept by Western Michigan, and split with Michigan, Alaska and Bowling Green.

"It's going to take our best effort of the season. Notre Dame has been sliding but they'll be hungry,'' junior left wing Kevin Walrod said. "It's the last weekend of the season and we don't know where we're going to finish.

"Our goal is to get a bye and the home ice advantage for the playoffs. Notre Dame is in our way and we just have to get past them.''

With 44 points, the fourth-place Spartans are three points behind second-place Michigan (47) and one point in back of third-place Western Michigan (45).

MSU leads fifth-place Miami (42) by two points, sixth-place Lake Superior State (41) by three, and seventh-place Ohio State (39) by five points.

There are several ways the Spartans can clinch at least a fourth-place finish.

  • Defeat Notre Dame twice. That might even lift MSU ahead of Western Michigan, which plays a home-and-home series against first-place Ferris State, which has earned a share of the CCHA title but still needs a point or a U-M tie to clinch outright. The Spartans also could pass the Wolverines but need help from Bowling Green.

  • If MSU wins one game, it could still wrap up fourth if Miami doesn't sweep Ohio State in a home-and-home series and LSSU doesn't win two games at Northern Michigan.

  • If the Spartans end up losing twice, they could still place fourth if Miami loses two or loses one game and ties and loses in a shootout and LSSU doesn't get more than three points.

    "Our guys will be emotionally ready because there is so much at stake,'' Anastos said. "Our goal was to finish in the top four, get a first-round bye and home ice in the second round. That goal is in front of us, but we have a huge challenge facing us.

    "We can achieve it if we take care of business. But we know we're playing a good team and that's going to make it very challenging to do so.''

  • IRISH NOTES: Notre Dame two standout sophomore forwards are among the top nine scorers in the CCHA in overall games. T.J. Tynan, who is 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, leads the league with 12 goals and 27 assists for 39 points. Anders Lee, 6-foot-3, 218 pounds, is in a three-way tie for ninth with 14 goals and 16 assists for 30 points. Lee has not scored in his last 11 games but has eight assists.

    Junior Riley Sheahan, the Red Wings' No. 1 pick in 2010, has nine goals and 24 points and senior Billy Mayday has nine goals and 21 points.

    But Notre Dame has scored only two goals in its last four games and six in the past six contests. The Irish have given up 18 goals during that stretch. . .

    Notre Dame's rink - the Charles "Lefty" Smith Rink at Compton Family Ice Arena - is not Olympic size (200 feet by 100) but at 200 feet long and 90 feet wide it's bigger than all CCHA arenas except Northern Michigan and Alaska. Both of those are Olympic size. And just like Munn Arena, the benches at Notre Dame are on opposites sides of the ice and the penalty boxes are next to the Irish bench.

  • A SPARTAN FIRST? Torey Krug is more concerned about victories than goals and assists this weekend but the standout junior can become the first MSU defenseman to win the CCHA scoring title and first defenseman to do it since Western Michigan's Wayne Gagne won it in 1987.

    Krug has 10 goals and 18 assists for 28 points in 26 CCHA games. That's tied with Notre Dame forward T.J. Tynan, who has eight goals and 20 assists.

    Cody Kunyk of Alaska is third with 25 points (13-12), but he played his last two CCHA games last week against MSU. There's a three-way tie for fourth place - NMU forwards Tyler Gron (10-14-24) and Justin Florek (10-14-24) and FSU defenseman Chad Billins (7-17-24).

    "I haven't even thought about it. I just want to win,'' Krug said when asked about the scoring title earlier this week. "I was disappointed in the way I played last weekend. I didn't play my best hockey. I still had a couple of points but I think that's a testament to my teammates and how they've been playing.''

    While Krug may not be impressed, other Spartans were excited about his chances of making history and ending a long drought for CCHA blueliners.

    "That would be amazing. I'll be rooting for him,'' said left wing Kevin Walrod. "But it's all about getting two wins and points in the standings.''

    Gagne, a senior, led the CCHA with 68 points - 12 goals and 56 assists. In overall games, Gagne had 13 goals and 76 assists for 89 points. He was CCHA player of the year, NCAA West All-American and a Hobey Baker finalist.

    The last Spartan to win the CCHA scoring tile was senior Shawn Horcoff in 1999-2000. He had eight goals and 36 assists for 44 points. In overall games, Horcoff had 14 goals and 51 assists for 65 points in 42 games.

    Coach Tom Anastos said that if MSU's power play hadn't gone into a cold spell for eight games last month, Krug might be leading the league in scoring `'given his spot on the power play.''

    "That would be an amazing accomplishment if that were to happen, especially in today's game and the way it's played,'' Anastos said. "Torey's focus is to help the team win. He approaches the game the same way. He plays hard and tries not to force things, but by playing hard he's getting results.''

    Krug has taken over the MSU scoring lead with 10 goals and 21 assists for 31 points 33 games. Sophomore Lee Reimer is one point behind with nine goals and 21 assists for 30 points in 34 games.

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