Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Falter on Senior Night
Notes, quotes and analysis from Neil Koepke on Saturday's home finale.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING – It took Penn State more than 55 minutes to score three goals against Michigan State on Friday night.
On Saturday, the Nittany Lions needed just 19 minutes.
Taking advantage of poor decisions, poor coverage and overall poor execution by the Spartans, Penn State scored three unanswered goals in the first period and cruised to a 4-1 victory and a sweep of the Big Ten series on MSU’s Senior Night at Munn Arena.
While the Nittany Lions played a solid game, the Spartans often times made it easy for them with defensive breakdowns and numerous missed excellent offensive opportunities because of shots completely missing the net.
It was a frustrating game all around until the game ended and the traditional salute to the seniors, playing their final home game, made for an upbeat and emotional ending to the evening.
But the Spartans’ goal and effort to send the eight seniors out with a victory came up short – way short.
“I thought we played a not-very-smart game. Mentally, our execution was poor. We made poor decisions all over the rink,” Spartans coach Tom Anastos said. “From an execution-sharpness standpoint, I can count five point-blank player-on-the-goalie chances that we either chose not to shoot the puck or we missed the net.
“We let players go, we gave up goals. We missed assignments. We step up on a play with a minute to go in the (first) period and allow an odd-man rush and create another goal against.
“It was bad decisions after bad decisions after bad decisions and poor execution after poor execution. How fitting at the end of the game, when we had a 4-on-3 (power play), we were so frustrated that we can’t execute a simple pass.’’
Penn State, a 3-2 winner on Friday in the series opener, scored on Saturday at 11:18 (Nate Sucese), 14:12 (Denis Smirnov, power play) and 19:10 (Sucese again) of the first period.
The Spartans (6-21-3 overall, 2-12-2-0 Big Ten) finally scored at 10:38 of the third period as senior right wing Villiam Haag swept in a rebound after freshman Patrick Khodorenko made a good play to take the puck from behind the net to the crease.
But 90 seconds later, Penn State (20-8-2, 9-6-1-0) made it 4-1 on another poor coverage situation that ended with Andrew Sturtz putting the puck past MSU goalie Ed Minney (31 saves).
“The better team won the game and we got what we deserved,’’ Anastos said.
Michigan State had 47 attempts (shot at the net), 23 were on target, 10 were blocked by the defense and 14 missed the net.
“I can’t answer why you can’t hit the net. With the regularity we’re missing the net … it’s such a point of emphasis for us, so I have to stop talking about it so much (to our team) or sneak in a soccer net,’’ Anastos said.
“I don’t know if it’s in guys’ heads that they get tight when they come in (for a shot). I think we’re looking to place every shot. I told the guys at the end of the second period to just bomb it right in the middle of (the goalie’s) stomach. Just put it right there.
“So, the first opportunity we had right out of the gate, we missed the net. Think of the scoring chances that we had that were point-blank – us and the goalie and we didn’t even get to count it as a shot on goal. I have a high level of frustration.’’
Mistakes, defensive breakdowns, poor shooting. It all added up to another frustrating night at Munn Arena.
Positives were few for Anastos.
“I thought (defensemen) Carson Gatt and Rhett Holland played a real strong game. They logged some big minutes back there because we had a couple of guys who couldn’t make a decision,’’ the coach said.
For the next two weekends, the Spartans will be on the road to close the regular season.
First up, it’s a visit to fourth-place Ohio State next Friday and Saturday. Then, MSU plays at first-place Minnesota, March 10-11, followed by the Big Ten Tournament in Detroit, March 16-18.
SENIORS SAY GOODBYE TO MUNN: Eight seniors were recognized after Saturday’s game during Senior Night ceremonies. They were introduced and took the traditional skate around Munn Arena after their last home game, supported by family and friends.
The departing seniors include defenseman Rhett Holland, captain Joe Cox and fellow forwards Thomas Ebbing, Villiam Haag, JT Stenglein, Connor Wood, Chris Knudson and Justin Selep. All but Stenglein (injury) and Selep (healthy scratch) were in the lineup Saturday.
Before the game, the Swedish and Canadian national anthems were played in honor of Haag (Gothenburg, Sweden) and Holland (Calgary, Alberta), along with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“I thought that was amazing. That made me pretty emotional,’’ Holland said of the playing of “O Canada.” “They’ve played it (before) in exhibition games (against Canadian schools), but nothing like a real game in the Big Ten. That was pretty cool to hear that before the game.’’
Haag felt the same way about hearing the Swedish national anthem and seeing the Swedish flag displayed on the wall above the concourse behind the east goal.
“I guess it was coach who (set it up) so I should be grateful to him,’’ Haag said. “We were joking a little my freshman year that I wanted to hear that before a game. He said do something good and after four years, maybe we’ll do it. He kept the promise.
“It’s a song that special to hear. It’s my country. You grow up watching Sweden hockey and when they win a gold medal at the Olympics or World Cup, you hear it and you always want to be part of that. It was fun.’’
Haag said he’s had eight family members – mom, dad, two brothers and some nephews - in town for almost the last two weeks and said “it was a good time for them to see where I’ve lived and created a life for the last four years.’’
They watched Haag’s last four games at Munn Arena and saw him score MSU’s only goal on Saturday in the third period.
Holland didn’t know much about U.S. college hockey while growing up in Calgary, but said that his parents – both teachers – wanted him to play Junior A hockey instead of Major Junior so he could stay eligible for college if schools came calling.
They did and soon he had some offers to play in college.
“I remember my first official visit to Michigan State and falling in love with the team dynamics, the campus, the faculty and everything about the school,’’ he said.
“I committed here and had no idea what to expect. The experiences and memories are remarkable and will stay with me forever.’’
Haag said his favorite hockey memory was beating Michigan in front of more than 20,000 fans at Joe Louis Arena, 3-2 in overtime, in early February, 2016.
“It’s always exciting to play against Michigan and that game goes to overtime and we win and we got some hardware (The Iron D trophy),’’ he said. “The whole team put it together and we finished it off.’’
Reflecting on his overall stay at MSU, Haag said it was about “growing as a person and a player” and the experiences of being a student and athlete.
“I came over here not knowing anyone or the language very well, but it was a great experience and there were things I would never change. With hockey, you’re playing against the best players and some go on to the NHL so you know you’re playing in a good league and you have to compete at your best to stand up.
“It’s been a privilege to be here at Michigan State.’’
The best memories over four years for Joe Cox?
“There’s differences on and off the ice but I’d say my favorite memories are going through practice every day and sticking around afterward and just being a rink rat with the guys and having fun just poking at each other and just talking,’’ Cox said. “Those were the most fun times for me. I’ll never forget the relationships I’ve had with these guys.’’
Despite all the losses and the disappointing season, Cox’s attitude going into the last four regular-season games and post-season is simple.
“Just play hard and try to have fun and get us some momentum going into the Big Ten Tournament,’’ he said “That’s all you can do. Give a good effort and have fun while you’re doing it.’’
THE NITTANY LION VIEW: Penn State had a strong first period on Friday and scored only one goal. But on Saturday, with another good first period, they managed to score three and give up none and that set the tone for the game.
“Michigan State took over in the second period last night and that’s what happened tonight, but tonight we got three goals instead of one in the first period and that cushion meant a lot,’’ Nittany Lions coach Guy Gadowsky said. “They took it to us in the second period tonight. They wanted to get back in it and (goalie) Peyton Jones showed up when we needed him.
“When we weren’t at our best and Michigan State was playing well, he was there to back us up.’’
Penn State came into the weekend after suffering a heartbreaking 4-3 overtime loss at home against Minnesota last Saturday. The Nittany Lions led 2-0 in the third period but found themselves tied 2-2 late in the game. And after a penalty-shot goal by standout freshman Denis Smirnov put PSU up 3-2, the Gophers tied the game with 3.5 seconds left, and then won it late in overtime.
It gave Minnesota a series sweep and denied Penn State what seemed like a sure win and a split of the series.
“It was a such a tough loss that we didn’t know how we were going to respond,’’ Gadowsky said. “To be able to come out of here with two wins is a credit to our guys. I’m very happy with their short-term memory.’’
Penn State’s road sweep of MSU is its second in the last three weekends. On Feb. 10-11, the Nittany Lions won two games at Wisconsin, 6-3, 5-2.
“Anytime you can win on the road, you have to be pumped,’’ Gadowsky said. “If you can sweep, that’s huge. We’re very happy with that.’’
The Nittany Lions’ dream of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their five-year history as a Division I program is still looking good. PSU is No. 9 in the PairWise Rankings and that would earn at least an NCAA at-large bid, if it didn’t win the Big Ten Tournament title.
Still, Penn State has to keep on winning, or only losing a few games, to be in position for an NCAA spot.
Next weekend, the third-place Nittany Lions play host to second-place Wisconsin in their final home series, and then they finish at Michigan, March 3-4.
IN THE BIG TEN: In the showdown between the teams tied for first place, Minnesota’s Justin Kloos scored with 5:06 left in the third period to give the No. 4 Gophers a 3-2 victory over No. 19 Wisconsin at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis
With the win, Minnesota (21-9-2, 12-4-0-0) takes a three-point lead over the Badgers (18-11-1, 11-5-0-0), who won the series opener, 3-2, on Friday.
The Gophers went up 2-0 in the first period, but Wisconsin scored two power-play goals – by Luke Kunin and defenseman Jake Linhart – to tie it in the second period.
Ohio State suffered a costly defeat Saturday, losing to Michigan 1-0 at Value City Arena in Columbus. The Buckeyes (17-9-6, 8-7-1-1) failed to put the puck past Wolverine goalie Zach Nagelvoort despite 42 shots on goal, including 20 in the third period.
OSU (26 points) drops to fourth place, two points behind Penn State (28), and the Buckeyes fell to No. 15 in the PairWise Rankings, which would leave them out of the NCAA Tournament.
Freshman Nick Pastujov scored the only goal of the game on a deflection at 9:39 of the first period. It was Pastujov’s first goal of his college career. There were only two penalties called in the game, one on each team.
Next weekend, OSU plays host to Michigan State, Minnesota is at Michigan and Penn State and Wisconsin collide at Pegula Arena in University Park, Pa. The Nittany Lions are five points behind the Badgers and can take over second place with a series sweep.