Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Back on the Road With Trip to OSU
Neil Koepke previews this weekend's trip to OSU and much more going on in college hockey.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Michigan State is back on the road this weekend, a place for some strange reason or another, the Spartans feel more at home than actually do at home.
MSU seems to enjoy the challenge of playing in hostile environments, frustrating the home team and coming away with surprising victories.
Three weeks ago, the Spartans played one of their best games of the season in a 4-1 win over Michigan at raucous Yost Arena in Ann Arbor.
In late January, they did the same thing at Yost Arena with a stellar 3-0 victory over the Wolverines.
And, of course, Michigan State’s most memorable road series was at North Dakota, Nov. 25-26. The Spartans shocked the college hockey world with a 4-3 victory and 2-2 tie.
A week before the success in Grand Forks, N.D., MSU got this road thing going with a gritty, come-from-behind 4-3 victory at Ferris State.
In three tough environments, the Spartans came away with a 4-0-1 record.
This weekend, Michigan State isn’t facing the challenge of another chaotic environment as much as it’s going against a high-scoring team that’s desperate for victories to keep its NCAA Tournament hope alive.
The Spartans face off against No. 13 Ohio State in a Big Ten series at 7 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Value City Arena in Columbus.
With usual crowds ranging from 3,000-5,000 in a nearly 20,000-seat arena, an intimidating atmosphere is not a big concern. However, what’s challenging is containing a Buckeyes team that scores a lot of goals and is prolific on the power play.
Ohio State is averaging 3.97 goals per game, which is third highest in the nation, and its power play ranks No. 1 at 29.8 percent.
MSU (6-21-3 overall, 2-12-2-0 Big Ten) and OSU (17-9-6, 8-7-1-1) played just two weeks ago, with the Buckeyes coming away with a pair of one-goal victories, 3-2 and 4-3, at Munn Arena.
So how do the Spartans turn those close losses into one- or two- goal wins?
“We have to do a better job of getting pucks in play around the goal,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “It doesn’t have to be a hard shot, it doesn’t have to be a shot for a goal but a shot put in play so you have opportunities to get rebounds and deflections.
“You look at some of the goals we’ve been giving up that were deflected pucks. Last weekend (against Penn State), there’s the double deflection on the winning goal on Friday. It happened right in front of the net. And the goal that tied it.
“We’re not getting enough of those goals and we’re not generating enough of the chances to increase the probability to score those goals.’’
What had the MSU coaches and players frustrated in last Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the Nittany Lions was the inability to put shots on goal on six point-blank scoring chances.
“We keep emphasizing how important it is to get pucks on goal. It needs to more of a forethought that if you don’t have a play, there is an option to just get it there and then get bodies there,’’ Anastos said.
“We’re not parking in the right areas enough to create traffic, create the danger, create the opportunity to get closer to loose pucks in the primary scoring area. That’s where most goals are scored. We have to make a bigger commitment to get there.’’
And then there’s need for smart, responsible defense against the Buckeyes, who are skilled, dangerous on the rush and very good at finishing, especially on the power play.
The Spartans did a good job on containing OSU’s top scorers two weeks ago, but the Buckeyes’ secondary scorers played a big role in the series sweep.
“We have to manage the puck better and make better decisions in all three zones in order to give us a chance to win those tight games,’’ freshman defenseman Mitch Eliot said. “When we have a lead or it’s a tight game, our decision-making has to be more mature than it’s been.
“Coaches have talked about the catastrophic mistakes we’ve made, some of them at critical points in the game, and at the end of the day, that’s unacceptable.
“Shutting down their top players was important the last time we played (Ohio State), but you still have to play hard against their third and four lines because they can score, too.’’
Sophomore right wing Mason Appleton believes the Spartans need a better offensive push to take away some of the pressure on the defense in low-scoring games.
“We need to score more. We have a big emphasis this week to hit the net, stop on pucks and bury rebounds,’’ he said. “When we played Ohio State, those were two close games, so if we can clean up a few things, we can win games.
“To get more consistency on offense, we have to get more pucks to the net. We turned away from too many shots last weekend. We need to get those sloppy goals in front, those rebounds, those tips, those screen goals. We haven’t scored too many of them this year.’’
And, course, there’s the importance of special teams. If you win the special teams battle, your chances of winning are greatly enhanced.
In the series against Ohio State, Buckeyes went 0-for-3 in the first game and 2-for-4 in the second, while the Spartans were 1-for-5 and 1-for-4.
“If your power play isn’t going, it’s hard to win games consistently,’’ Appleton said. “Five-on-five goals are hard to come by in college hockey these days. We’re working hard on our power play this week.
“Penalty killing is really important, too. Ohio State has a potent power play. We did a pretty good job with that the last time. We have to keep killing with that fast pace and strong attack mentality.’’
This will be the third consecutive week that Michigan State has faced a team with an elite offense. It started with OSU weeks ago, when the Buckeyes were ranked No. 2 in the nation, averaging 4.14 goals per game, and last week, Penn State came into the series as the highest-scoring team in college hockey, averaging 4.11 goals.
Now, the Nittany Lions and Harvard are tied for No. 1, averaging 4.17 goals, while OSU has slipped to third at 3.97.
“We need to crack down in our defensive zone and denying them at our blue line because we know how powerful their offense is and how they like to strike off the offensive rush,’’ senior right wing and captain Joe Cox said of facing the Buckeyes. “We have to work on our blue line denial and picking up guys in our zone.
“I kind of like how we played them before in some aspects, like in shutting down their first line (center Mason Jobst, right wing Nick Schilkey and left wing Miguel Fidler or Luke Stork). We’ll try to do the same thing and we know it’ll be a little harder because they have last change so we can’t match lines the way we’d want.
“We have to play close attention to their top players and figure out more solutions how to diffuse their top lines, and be aware of their secondary-scoring guys. They’re definitely a threat throughout their lineup.’’
SCOUTING THE BUCKEYES: After sweeping the Spartans, Ohio State went home hoping to do the same against Michigan. The Buckeyes won the series opener, 4-2, and were eager for a sweep but they couldn’t manage even one goal, falling to the Wolverines, 1-0.
U-M goalie Zach Nagelvoort made 42 saves, including 20 in the third period.
The loss allowed Penn State to take over third place, two points ahead of the Buckeyes, and it dropped their PairWise Ranking (PWR) to No. 15, which would not be good enough to make the 16-team NCAA Tournament.
Playoff championship teams from the WCHA and Atlantic Hockey, with automatic tournament bids, are expected to be seeded No. 15 and 16. So, teams on the bubble know they have to be no longer than No. 14 in the PWR.
Ohio State, the third-highest scoring team in the nation, averaging 3.97 goals a game, has four players with 10 goals or more and three with nine goals.
The top goal-scorer is senior Nick Schilkey, who has 24 goals and 12 assists for 36 points. Schilkey has scored 14 power-play goals, including one against MSU in the second game of the series at Munn Arena. From a wide angle on the right, Schilkey launched a hard shot that rocketed over the left shoulder of Spartan goalie Ed Minney.
Mason Jobst, a sophomore, leads OSU in scoring with 14 goals and 28 assists for 42 points.
Other top goal scorers include senior David Gust (13 goals), sophomore John Wiitala (10), Tanner Laczynski (9), Matthew Weiss (9) and Dakota Joshua (9).
The Buckeyes continue to lead the nation is power-play success. They’re converting on 29.8 percent of their opportunities.
Ohio State’s best defenseman, Josh Healey, didn’t play against Michigan State two weeks ago because of two-game suspension for a high hit against Minnesota the game before. But Healey (4-16-20) returned last weekend and will face MSU.
Senior goalie Christian Fry has started the last four game and appears to have regained the No. 1 job after sharing the duties with senior Matt Tomkins for a few weeks. Fry is 9-7-3 with a 2.92 goals-against average and a Big Ten leading .914 saves percentage. Tomkins actually has a better record at 8-2-3 and a better GAA than Fry at 2.73, but his saves percentage is only .899.
Ohio State’s weakness is defense and penalty killing. The Buckeyes are allowing an average of 2.97 goals a game, which is No 37 in the nation, and their penalty-killing success is only at 73.9 percent, which is 58th in the country and a shade below MSU’s penalty killing ranking (57th, 74.6 percent).
THE RIVALRY: After Ohio State’s sweep of Michigan State two weeks ago, the Spartans now lead the overall series 88-36-12. Last season, the teams split in Columbus (a 4-2 MSU win and 2-1 loss) and Ohio State won (6-5 in overtime) and tied (1-1) at Munn Arena.
In the 2016 Big Ten Tournament, OSU eliminated the Spartans, 4-3 in overtime. Ohio State has edged MSU in the first round of the conference tournament twice in the last three seasons, both at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
Over the last 10 seasons, the Buckeyes are 17-14-5 against the Spartans, and in the last five years, OSU holds a 11-7-4 edge.
ELIOT ON THE RISE: The Spartans have had several freshmen get lots of playing time in key roles and get some attention and recognition for their efforts. There’s been forwards Taro Hirose, Patrick Khodorenko and Sam Saliba, defenseman Jerad Rosburg and goalie John Lethemon.
One rookie who’s also played a lot of minutes and has made great improvement since the beginning of the season but hasn’t gotten much acclaim is Mitch Eliot.
As a defensive-style defenseman, Eliot has played in all of MSU’s 30 games, has two assists and has steadily improved his game. Over the last five months, he’s developed into a more confident player in defending the rush, moving the puck and playing in key situations.
“He’s grown as much as any player on our team over the course of the season,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “He’s developing more poise with the puck. I think he’ll get better and better with his decisions with the puck and in his puck movement.
“Defending wise, I think he’s grown a lot and doing a good job. I’m every bit as excited about him as we were when he committed to coming here. He’s going to be a good player at this level.’’
Eliot, 19, admits that the transition from junior hockey to the college game was a bit overwhelming at the start of the season. But with more games, more experience in different situations, his comfortability and confidence have grown immensely.
“The things I’ve liked this season are the opportunities to play and dress for every game and be put in different situations, which is important to development,’’ said the 6-foot, 188-pounder from Grosse Pointe, who spent the last two seasons with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the U.S. Hockey League.
“I’ve been lucky enough to go through a lot of experiences as a freshman. My comfortability has come a long way from the beginning of the season – with the puck and making decisions and those things have really developed from the first 10 games to now.
“Confidence is a big thing. The first 10 games, I was adjusting to the speed and strength and size of the players, which is normal for a young guy coming into college hockey.
“My confidence has continued to grow and I’m more relaxed with the puck. I’m aware that I have more time than I think I do. All those things come with experience and you get better as development goes on.’’
Ever since the North Dakota series Thanksgiving weekend, Eliot has been pair with Rosburg, a red-shirt freshman who sat out last season because of a knee injury that required surgery.
“We enjoy playing with each other and have built some chemistry,’’ Eliot said. “We’ve built camaraderie and have become closer teammates because of it.’’
With four games remaining in the regular season and at least one game and possibly three in the Big Ten Tournament, Eliot’s goals are fairly simple.
“I just want to contribute any way I can, get as many wins as possible from this point of the season and continue to improve as much as I can,’’ he said. “I think we’ve shown as a team that we can play with anybody.
“We’ve lost of lot of tight games and have played with some of the best teams for 55 and 58 minutes and came out on the wrong side of it.’’
Eliot comes from a strong hockey background. His father, Darren, a goaltender, played at Cornell for four years from 1979-83, and then played pro hockey for six seasons, including NHL stops with the Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres.
When Darren played for the Rochester Americans, a farm team of the Sabres, in 1988-89, he was teammates with a pair of MSU all-time greats – forward Mike Donnelly and defenseman Don McSween.
Darren Eliot then worked as a TV hockey analyst in Anaheim and Atlanta before moving to Detroit, where he’s now an analyst on the Red Wings’ telecasts on Fox Sports Detroit.
So, Mitch grew up around the game and it shows, according to Anastos.
“The other thing he has, which is hard to show up as a freshman, is leadership potential. He cares about the game, he really thinks about the game, and he’s one of those guys that’s very coachable,’’ Anastos said. “He’ll ask good questions and that’s good for us. He provides good feedback.’’
SPARTANS POTPOURRI: Mason Appleton continues to lead MSU in scoring with 11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points in 30 games. Linemate Taro Hirose, a freshman, is second with six goals and a team-leading 16 assists for 22 points. Senior Thomas Ebbing is third (2-13-15) and senior Joe Cox is tied for fourth with Patrick Khodorenko, each with six goals and eight assists for 14 points. … Hirose has points in eight of his last 11 games with three goals and eight assists for 11 points. Hirose’s 22 points rank sixth among Big Ten freshmen and equals the total of last year’s top-scoring Spartan rookie – Appleton (5-17-22). … Goalies Ed Minney and John Lethemon both started four games in February. Lethemon led all Big Ten goaltenders during the month with a 2.80 goals-against average. … With a goal and two assists over the last three games, senior defenseman Rhett Holland has put together his first three-game point streak since the beginning of the 2013-14 season when he had assists in each of the first three games of the season. Holland has a career-high seven points (3 goals, 4 assists) this season.
ONCE TEAMMATES, NOW RIVALS: MSU senior captain Joe Cox and Ohio State sophomore center Mason Jobst, the Buckeyes’ leading scorer, were teammates and linemates with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the U.S. Hockey League in 2011-12 and 2012-13.
For the last two seasons, they’ve been key players for their respective teams and now rivals in the Big Ten.
“He was my center for a couple of years and the third guy for the majority of the time was Cullen Hurley, who’s now at Wisconsin,’’ Cox said. “We were the defensive shutdown line and we kind of did our job against the top lines on other teams, and one we got the opportunity to play offense, we did that and I thought we did a pretty good job.’’
In 2012-13, Cox had 20 goals and 20 assists for 40 points in 62 games, while Jobst had six goals and 24 points and Hurley had 11 goals and 24 points.
Jobst, a 5-foot-7, 185-pounder from Speedway, Ind., had 12 goals and 30 points as a freshman at Ohio State. This year, he’s leading the Buckeyes in scoring with 14 goals and 28 assists for 42 points.
“It was always fun playing with him because he such a relentless competitor,’’ Cox said. “He’s a little guy but he gives it all.’’
IN THE BIG TEN: First-place Minnesota and second-place Wisconsin, separated by only three points, are on the road this weekend. The No. 5 Gophers play at fifth-place Michigan and the No. 16 Badgers visit third-place Penn State, ranked No. 11.
Minnesota (21-9-2, 12-4-0-0) swept the Wolverines (10-17-3, 3-11-2-2) in a series in mid-January in Minneapolis, 5-2, 4-2. Wisconsin, meanwhile, was swept at home by the Nittany Lions, 6-3, 5-2, just three weeks ago.
Penn State (20-8-2, 9-6-1-0, 28 points) is five points behind Wisconsin (18-11-1, 11-5-0-0) and seven in back of Minnesota. The Nittany Lions are two points up on fourth-place Ohio State.
Next weekend, Michigan State is at Minnesota, Penn State is on the road against Michigan and Wisconsin closes out the season at home vs. Ohio State.
The Big Ten Tournament is March 16-18 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
LET THE PLAYOFFS BEGIN: Four of the six leagues in college hockey wrapped up their regular seasons last weekend and begin their playoffs this week. Only the Big Ten and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference are still finishing up the regular season. In fact, the Big Ten still has two weeks remaining, while the NCHC wraps up this weekend.
In the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, first-round matchups include: No.8 seed Northern Michigan at No. 1 Bemidji State; No. 7. Lake Superior State at No. 2 Michigan Tech; No. 7 Alaska at No. 3 Minnesota State: No. 5 Ferris State at No. 4 Bowling Green. All series are best-of-three.
Hockey East, the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) and Atlantic Hockey also begin their three-week playoff runs this weekend.
NATIONAL LEADERS: Here’s a look at the top-rated teams and individual leaders around the country.
Top 20 in the PairWise Rankings, which mimics the formula used by the NCAA to select and seed teams for the NCAA Tournament: 1. Denver, 59 comparison wins; 2, Minnesota-Duluth, 58; 3, Harvard, 57; 4. Minnesota, 56; 5. Western Michigan, 55; 6. UMass-Lowell, 54; 7, Boston University, 53; 8. Union, 52; 9. Penn State, 51; 10. (tie), Cornell, 49; Notre Dame 49; 12. Providence, 48; 13. Wisconsin, 47; 14, St. Cloud State, 46; 15. Ohio State, 45; 16. North Dakota, 44; 17. Omaha, 43; 18. Air Force, 42; 19. (tie) Vermont, 41; Boston College, 41.
Top 5 teams on offense: Harvard (ECAC), 4.17; Penn State (BigTen), 4.17; Ohio State (Big Ten), 3.97; Minnesota (Big Ten), 3.88; Union (ECAC), 3.85.
Top 5 teams on defense: Bemidji State (WCHA), 1.89 goals-against average; Army (ECAC), 2.03; Minnesota-Duluth (NCHC), 2.03; Canisius (Atlantic Hockey), 2.17; Cornell (ECAC), 2.17.
Top 5 on the power play: Ohio State (Big Ten), 29.8 percent; UMass-Lowell (Hockey East), 27.9; Northeastern (Hockey East), 27.6; Minnesota (Big Ten), 26.2; Harvard (ECAC), 25.2.
Top 5 in penalty killing: Air Force (Atlantic Hockey), 89.2 percent; Bemidji State (WCHA), 88.5; Army (Atlantic Hockey), 87.9; Canisius (Atlantic Hockey), 87.3; Wisconsin (Big Ten), 86.9.
Top 5 scorers: Zach Aston-Reese, Northeastern, 29 goals, 30 assists, 59 points; Tyler Kelleher, New Hampshire, 22-37-59; Mike Vecchione, Union, 26-32-58; Spencer Foo, Union, 22-34-56; Dylan Sikura, Northeastern, 20-33-53.
Top 5 in goals: Aston-Reese, Northeastern 29; Vecchione, Union, 26; Adam Gaudette, Northeastern, 25; Nick Schilkey, Ohio State, 24; Kelleher, New Hampshire 22; Foo, Union, 22.
Top 5 in assists: Kelleher, New Hampshire, 37; Foo, Union, 34; Cam Brown, Maine, 34; Sikura, Northeastern, 33: Vecchione, Union, 32.
Top 5 goalies (goals against average): Michael Bitzer, Bemidji State (WCHA), 1.68; Charles Williams, Canisius (Atlantic Hockey), 1.83; Tanner Jaillet, Denver (NCHC), 1.86; Angus Redmond, Michigan Tech (WCHA), 1.87; Parker Gahagen, Army (Atlantic Hockey), 1.90.
Top winning streak: Harvard (ECAC), 10 games.
Top unbeaten streak: Canisius (Atlantic Hockey), 15 games (12-0-3).