Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Face High-Scoring Penn State in Home Finale
Neil Koepke previews the weekend series with Penn State.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING – One week after facing the second-highest scoring team in the nation in Ohio State, Michigan States get another chance to try to contain another team that is offensively dynamic.
Welcome in Penn State, the No. 1 scoring team in college hockey, one that averages 4.18 goals and 46.14 shots on goal per game.
MSU knows all about the Nittany Lions, which swept the Spartans, 5-2 and 5-3, on Jan. 13-14 at Pegula Arena in University Park, Pa.
The second game of that series is one that still has Michigan State players shaking their heads over. With 11 minutes left in the third period, the Spartans were up 2-1 and playing a smart, gritty road game.
Then some poor decisions which led to turnovers and some bad bounces opened the door for Penn State to rally for a 5-3 victory.
Even though the Nittany Lions are in fourth place and the Spartans are in sixth, 14 points apart, how’s this for an intriguing note:
In their last eight games, Penn State is 2-6-0 and Michigan State is 2-4-2. In their final home series of the season, the Spartans (6-19-3 overall, 2-10-2 Big Ten) meet the Nittany Lions (18-8-2, 7-6-1-0) at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Munn Arena. Saturday is Senior Night, and after the game, eight seniors will be recognized and take the traditional Senior Skate around the rink.
Last weekend, the Spartans suffered a pair of one-goal losses (3-2 and 4-3) to Ohio State, then No. 2 in offense, averaging 4.14 goals. Meanwhile, Penn State also got swept, losing 6-3 and 4-3 in overtime at home against Minnesota.
So, what are the differences in these two high-scoring teams?
“Penn State is a team that gets a lot of their offense from their defense and they kind of swarm you,” MSU coach Tom Anastos said.
“Ohio State has scored a lot off the rush and they’ve created a lot of odd-man rushes – I think the first night against us they had nine – and that’s been a key to their success.
“Penn State is a team that does a good job playing in groups of five and they do it on the attack and they do it defensively. They approach it differently.
“Both try to be possession-based teams. Penn State will try to throw anything from everywhere at the net and try to create outnumbered scrambles in front of the net to create scoring chances. Ohio State doesn’t go about it quite that way, but both of them have been very effective with their approach.’’
Penn State’s average of 46.14 shots on goal is No. 1 in college hockey, while Ohio State isn’t as dominant at 30.17, which ranks No. 24 in the nation.
Both teams have also benefited by very successful power plays, especially Ohio State. The Buckeyes are converting on 29.6 percent of their power plays, and that’s No. 1 in the nation. Penn State is 15th at 20 percent.
Each team has top offensive players and good depth, so if the top scorers are shut down, there’s enough balance in the lineup to make up for it, as witnessed by the Spartans last weekend. MSU held OSU’s top guns in check – players like Mason Jobst, Nick Schilkey, Tanner Laczynski and David Gust - but they received important contributions from other players.
Penn State’s top four goal scorers are sophomore Andrew Sturtz (18 goals), freshmen Denis Smirnov (16) and Nate Sucese (11) and Chase Berger (10), but there’s good depth with senior forwards David Goodwin (7) and Dylan Richard (6) and a pair of high-scoring defenseman in junior Trevor Hamilton (6-17-23) and sophomore Vince Pedrie (7-14-21).
“The major difference in the two teams is that Penn State’s identity is they like to shoot the puck from anywhere,’’ MSU senior defenseman Rhett Holland said. “Ohio State is a great offensive team too, but they’re looking for that perfect play, whereas Penn State’s philosophy is any chance they get to shoot the puck, they shoot it.
“We’ll have to defend a lot harder than we did against Ohio State. We defended pretty well last weekend, but I think Penn State will be more of a challenge for us in and around the net. They’re going to be crashing the net the whole weekend. They’ll be putting pucks on goal, hoping to get bounces.
“We have to be ready for that. We’re going to have to focus on defending hard, boxing out and clearing rebounds. They’ll have occasions where they’ll have their defensemen crashing the net and have four guys at the net. We have to be aware of where everyone is on the ice.’’
SCOUTING THE NITTANY LIONS: Since Penn State swept Michigan State in mid-January and ended up as the No. 1 team in the nation, the Nittany Lions have struggled to win consistently and fell from the top of the Big Ten and in the polls.
Penn State is 2-6-1 since the MSU series, but four of the losses have come against No. 4 Minnesota – 5-1 and 5-1 on the road and 6-3 and 4-3 in overtime at home.
In addition, the Nittany Lions tied 3-3 and lost 6-3 at home against Ohio State, lost a non-conference game to Princeton, 5-4, in Philadelphia. PSU’s two victories in this stretch came in a sweep at Wisconsin, 6-3, 5-2, two weeks ago.
The Nittany Lions experienced their most crushing defeat of the season last Saturday against Minnesota, and it was a huge blow to their hopes of finishing in first place.
PSU took a 2-0 lead into the third period and it seemed like the Nittany Lions were going to gain a series split, but the Gophers scored at 5:08 to cut the deficit to one goal and tied it at 17:49.
Forty-five seconds later, PSU’s top scorer, Denis Smirnov, was awarded a penalty shot and went in and scored at 18:34 to give Penn State a 3-2 lead. The Gophers pulled their goalie, pressured for the tying goal, and with a faceoff in the left circle in the offensive zone with seven seconds left, Minnesota won the draw and Justin Kloos’ shot hit the top right corner with 3.5 seconds left to tie it 3-3.
After skating off a Gophers’ power play early in overtime, the Nittany Lions lost it on a goal with 1:33 left in the OT.
Smirnov leads PSU in scoring with 16 goals and 23 assists for 39 points, which is tied for 13th in the nation. David Goodwin is second with seven goals and 22 assists for 39 points, followed by Chris Berger (10-16-26), Andrew Sturtz (18-6-24) and Nate Sucese (11-12-23).
Penn State boasts one of the highest-scoring defenses in the league, one that has contributed 24 goals and 63 assists for 87 points.
“They’re a hard team to play against, and I would anticipate that they’ll play with desperation because they’re in the NCAA Tournament as it sits right now, but they lost a real emotional game last Saturday (against Minnesota),” MSU coach Tom Anastos said.
“They started the season playing with tons of confidence and I know they haven’t been on the best run the second half but they’ve also played some good teams.’’ Freshman goalie Peyton Jones has started 25 of Penn State’s 28 games. He’s 16-6-2 with a 2.72 goals-against average and a .898 saves percentage.
THE RIVARLY: Penn State holds a 7-6-3 edge in the series which began with a 5-3 Spartan victory on Jan. 25, 2013, at Munn Arena. MSU is 5-2-1 at home and 1-5-2 at Penn State. In mid-January, the Spartans were swept 5-2 and 5-3 at Pegula Arena in University Park, Pa.
Last season, the Nittany Lions went 3-0-1 against the Spartans, sweeping 4-2 and 6-1 at home and winning 6-1 and tying 2-2 at Munn Arena. In 2014-15, MSU held a 3-1-1 edge, tying 2-2 and losing 5-2 at PSU and sweeping, 3-0, 3-2, at Munn Arena.
PLENTY TO PLAY FOR: Coach Tom Anastos was asked at his weekly press conference on Wednesday if his team still had anything to play for.
“Absolutely,’’ he said. “I’ve seen teams put it together at the right time. As you’re playing down the stretch, regardless of how your seasons goes, if you can win three games in a row, you can win a Big Ten Championship and progress in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m not trying to be impractical but at the same time, I’m looking at so many games that mistakes cost us games, and if we can continue to mature and get over the hump and see it start to swing the other way, the margin to swing things isn’t that great. So, we keep playing.’’
The Spartans are in sixth place, two points behind Michigan, with each team having six games remaining in the regular season. If MSU overtakes the Wolverines and finishes fifth, it’ll play the fourth-place team in the playoffs, while U-M would face the third-place team on the first night of the Big Ten Tournament (March 16-18) in Detroit.
“Hot goalies and teams coming together at the right team can make a big difference,’’ Anastos said. “I’m not talking to our team about that every day but we’re talking about getting better and having success against the team that’s right in front of us in the next game.
“As part of that process, you have to maintain hope that on any night, you have a chance to win. I think our team does.’’
SENIOR NIGHT SATURDAY: Eight seniors will be recognized after Saturday’s during MSU’s Senior Night ceremonies and they’ll take the traditional Senior Skate around Munn Arena.
Coach Tom Anastos said the class will be remembered for setting a high standard with its work ethic, passion for the game and resiliency.
“It’s a group that worked very hard. I’d like to have seen them win more and they’d have liked to see themselves win more, but one of the key focal points in trying to establish a foundation here was to have certain commitment level from our plays, a certain passion level to play the game and this group of guys – with Mackenzie MacEachern also a part of this class – really established that,’’ Anastos said.
MacEachern came in with this class in 2013-14 but left after last season to turn pro with the St. Louis Blues organization.
“You look at guys like Ebbing and Cox – those guys worked hard every day. That’s not to diminish the other guys at all but those guys kind of stand out. And Holland is a player who was redshirted into this group because of an injury his first year (2012-13) and he had a great work ethic. Haag, too, and I can go right down the line.
“For all of them, there’s the frustration of not winning enough and yet as they look back on their careers, all of them will know that they’ve given all the effort they can give. And there’s a lot of hockey left this season and they can still write their story.’’
Holland knows he’s in for an emotional night on Saturday but he’s focusing in on having fun and enjoying his last game at Munn Arena.
“My takeaway is I just want to be in the moment as much as I can and enjoy the fans, the student section and the whole atmosphere,’’ said Holland, 23, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound defenseman from Calgary who is completing his fifth year in the Spartan program after suffering an injury early in his first year and earning a red-shirt season.
“I remember that I couldn’t wait to play my freshman year and now I can’t believe that it’s coming to an end.
“It’s probably the best five years of my life and it’s something that I’ll remember forever. It’s about all those moments, all the games, just hanging out with the guys, off-campus experiences and all the relationships.
“As a whole, it’s tough to put into words, into one sentence. It was just a unique experience that I’m just glad I had the opportunity to get.’’
IN THE BIG TEN: In addition to the MSU-Penn State series, first-place Minnesota plays host to second place Wisconsin, and fifth-place Michigan is at third-place Ohio State. Both are Friday-Saturday series.
The No. 19 Badgers, with 30 points, are just three points behind the No. 4 Gophers (33) with six games remaining in the regular season for both teams.
Minnesota and Wisconsin split a series in Madison on Jan. 20-21, with the Gophers winning the first game, 4-3 in overtime, and the Badgers rebounding for a 5-3 victory in the series finale.
The Gophers finish their season at Michigan and home to Michigan State. The Badgers play at Penn State next weekend before closing out the season at home against Ohio State.
The No. 12 Buckeyes and Wolverines played three weeks ago in Ann Arbor and once again the teams hooked up in a high-scoring series. Michigan built a 5-1 lead in the first game before OSU scored three straight goals in the third period only to fall short as the Wolverines held on for a 5-4 victory.
In the second game, Ohio State rallied from 4-2 and 5-3 deficits and scored a power-play goal with 30 seconds left to pull out a 6-5 victory and earn a series split. U-M is 0-4-1 in its last five games.
In their last six meetings, Ohio State and Michigan have combined for 66 goals for an average of 11 per game. Last season, the teams played to a 5-5 tie and U-M won 8-6 in their first series. Then the Buckeyes swept Michigan, 7-4 and 6-5 in overtime.
With a 3-2-1 edge in the series over the last two seasons, Ohio State has outscored Michigan, 34-32.