March 2, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
Will Yanakeff's confidence level is at the highest is has been in his almost two full seasons at Michigan State.
And why not?
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound sophomore goaltender is stopping the puck with great frequency, authority and is looking very good doing it.
There might be the odd goal "that I'd like back" or he might give up a juicy rebound here and there, but overall Yanakeff has lifted his game to a high level, using his size and his penchant for little movement in the crease to his benefit.
"I think it's because I'm more relaxed. I've got quite a few games under my belt and my confidence level is higher,'' said Yanakeff, who's from Jerome, Mich., just south of Jackson and turns 20-years-old on April 30.
"I'm going into every game with an open mind, trying to compete and do my best.''
Yanakeff finished the regular season with a 13-7-1 overall record, a 2.32 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. In CCHA play, he was 11-7-1, with a 2.36 average and a .927 save percentage.
Yanakeff, who has started seven of the Spartans' last eight games, compiling a 5-2 record, faced a lot of big challenges during the regular season and is eager for more.
Up next for fifth-place MSU (19-13-4 overall, 14-11-3-2 CCHA) is a second-round CCHA playoff series against fourth-place Miami (21-13-2, 15-11-2-1), March 9-10, in Oxford, Ohio. The RedHawks swept the Spartans 2-1 in overtime and 4-0 at Munn Arena in early January.
"The games are completely different in the playoffs,'' Yanakeff said. "The way we've been competing and working, we have a good chance to go a long way.''
In eight of his last 11 starts, Yanakeff has allowed only two goals. In one game he allowed one goal, and in two others, he gave up three.
"There's always room to improve. That's what I live by,'' he said. "You have to enjoy (the individual success) but right now it's more about the team and what we have to do at the end of the year.
"We want to do it for the seniors on this team.''
And by "it," Yanakeff means get to the CCHA Championship in Detroit, win the title and earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
As a freshman, Yanakeff played in only two games and had one start before Christmas. But he made a splash in from December to early February, going 5-0-1, including beating Michigan and earning two shutouts.
He finished his rookie season with 14 appearances, a 6-5-1 record, a 2.11 GAA and a .927 save percentage.
Coach Tom Anastos believes Yanakeff's high level of play the last two months is due to maturity and a working harder in practice.
"I think he's maturing. We all go through that at that particular age, and he's learning to be a better practice player,'' Anastos said. "He's competed hard but he's become even a better goalie in practice. He makes it tough to score and competes for every puck.''
In January, Anastos said he had a conversation with Yanakeff about what goes into the coaching staff's decision as to whom to play -- Yanakeff or senior Drew Palmisano -- from game to game. A big part of it centers around one's play in practice.
"I had a discussion with him about how we were trying to decide whether we were going to play him in one game or not. I shared with him some of our concerns about our decision in which we ultimately decided to play him,'' Anastos said. "We didn't think he competed as hard as he could that week.
"I wanted him to know what goes into our decision. Since that time, whether it's coincidence or it just stuck (with him), his compete level in practice has been through the roof.
"We have two goalies - actually three, with (freshman) Nate Phillips, our new goalie -- and they all compete at a high level. For Will, that's been the single biggest difference.''
Spartan junior defenseman Torey Krug said he knows very little about goaltending but he knows enough to like what he sees in Yanakeff's game.
"He's standing tall and playing with confidence. One of the things I've noticed is he's really efficient in his crease, energy-wise,'' Krug said.
"He's not spending too much energy making saves. He's always square to the puck and he's a bigger guy and stays in his crease. He gives us a confidence boost.''
Reimer, with 30 points, is second in MSU scoring, followed by senior center Brett Perlini (9-20-29), sophomore right wing Greg Wolfe (10-15-25) and freshman right wing Matt Berry (10-8-18) and junior left wing Kevin Walrod (9-9-18).
It's Miami, which has won six in a row and boasts the second-longest current winning streak in the country. (Boston College is first at 9-0). The RedHawks are 12-4 since the start of January, and in those 16 games, they've allowed one or zero goals 12 times. They have the best defense in the CCHA (2.06 goals against) and second-best in the nation.
The RedHawks, who finished in fourth place in the CCHA, one point ahead of the Spartans, started their surge with a sweep of MSU, Jan. 6-7, at Munn Arena. Their only glitch in their last eight series was when they got swept at Michigan, 4-1 and 3-0, on Feb. 3-4.
Miami finished the season winning twice against Alabama-Huntsville in a nonconference series and sweeping Notre Dame and Ohio State to climb into fourth place. At one time, was Miami was 2-6 overall and 0-4 in the CCHA.
"We know we're playing against a very good team that is playing their best hockey of the season,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "They're very good defensively, they're very physical, have good depth on offense and have some very talented younger guys.
"We have great respect for their team.''
The RedHawks have several all-star candidates - sophomore forward Reilly Smith, whose 26 goals top the CCHA and is second in the nation, senior defensemen Chris Wideman and Will Weber and senior goalie Connor Knapp. They also have four standout freshmen forwards who've contributed 39 goals.
"They play a fast-paced game like we do, they hit hard and move the puck fast,'' junior center Anthony Hayes said. "We'll be seeing the Miami team that everyone expected to see.
"It'll be a tough series, a huge challenge. But our team thrives on huge challenge. We look forward to it.''
The last time the two teams faced each other in the playoffs was on March 18, 2006 - a 2-1 victory in the CCHA title game. The last best-of-three series was in 2005, won by the Spartans 2-1 and 5-4 in overtime.
This will be MSU's first visit to Miami for the playoffs.
The RedHawks have been in the Frozen Four twice in the last three seasons. They came within 17.4 seconds of winning the 2009 national title in Washington, D.C., but Boston University scored two goals in the final minute and went on to hand Miami a heartbreaking 4-3 defeat in overtime.
Miami also played in the 2010 Frozen Four at Ford Field in Detroit, losing to Boston College, 7-1, in the semifinals.
"I think we're a much better team than we were the last time (we played Miami),'' Coach Tom Anastos said. "Certainly, our power play is better. And I think we're better defensively.
"We have a more balanced attack with four lines playing pretty well, we're getting more minutes out of our defensemen and our goaltending continues to be good.''
The Spartan coach, who's been upbeat about his team all year, said he was very pleased with most aspects of the season.
"Given where the team finished last year (10th in the CCHA) and given the mindset coming into this season, I think there has been very good progress made,'' Anastos said.''
The CCHA All-Conference team will be announced on Wednesday, while the finalists for the major award winners will be revealed on Thursday.
Major awards include player of the year, rookie of the year, best offensive defenseman, best defensive defenseman, best defensive forward, and coach of the year.
The winners will be announced at the CCHA Awards Banquet on March 15 at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.