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Neil's Notebook: Quite the Script for Spartan Seniors

Matt Grassi and Jake Hildebrand

March 4, 2013

By Neil Koepke, staff writer

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State's four seniors - Chris Forfar, Anthony Hayes, Kevin Walrod and Matt Grassi - were in unanimous agreement.

Each of them said they could not have written a better script for their Senior Night than what transpired on Saturday at Munn Arena.

From the pregame ceremonies, including the traditional senior skate around the rink, through 60 minutes of gritty, highly competitive, close checking hockey and a thrilling finish to the final kissing of the ice by the seniors, Saturday's 1-0 victory over Western Michigan was a perfect way to say goodbye to Munn Arena.

"The way this season has gone, we couldn't have asked for a better way to leave Munn,'' Grassi said. "Everyone on the team, leaving it all on the ice, giving everything they had.''

The good storylines were plentiful:

Coach Tom Anastos started his three senior forwards on one line - Hayes, Forfar and Walrod.

Hayes scored a goal early in the first period, set up by Walrod and Forfar, and the line played so well, Anastos kept it together all game. The trio combined for six shots on goal and played solid shut-down defense.

The Spartans, rebounding from Friday's disappointing 5-2 loss in the series opener, put together in a complete game. They played with great energy, an edge and played smart.

MSU's defense played one of its best games. Grassi and freshman Travis Walsh were solid, each blocking four shots. Freshman John Draeger was outstanding with six blocks. Penalty killing was superb.



Freshman goaltender Jake Hildebrand earned his first collegiate shutout with a 28-save effort. As usual, he gave credit to his defense and alert forwards. "Our defense was great, blocking a lot of shots, and our senior line was unbelievable'' he said. "Our seniors were our best penalty killers, jumping in front of pucks all night.''

The Spartans got a huge break just when they needed it in the last two minutes. With the Broncos on a power play and goalie Frank Slubowski off for an extra skater, giving them a 6-4 edge, WMU looked like it scored the tying goal on a shot from the point. But wait. Referee Kevin Hall immediately disallowed the goal off, ruling that Bronco forward Dane Walters bumped into Hildebrand at the top of the crease, impairing his ability to try to make the save. A few seconds later, WMU took a penalty behind the net, nullifying its power play and the Spartans held on for their 11th victory of the season.

The final game drew a sellout crowd of 6,540, MSU's fifth of the season. The energy level in the building was high and it was especially electric in the final 10 minutes and after the game.

"It was great night all the way around. It was great to watch everyone show up and play like we did,'' said Hayes, the game's No. 1 star. "There's no way we get the result we did unless all 20 guys are going hard for 60 minutes.

"To see everyone play like that means a lot to us as seniors. I think this means a lot to the team in general.''

For the seniors, it was an emotional and exhilarating evening. Tears were shed before and after the game.

Hayes had to pause for a few seconds to collect his thoughts when asked about playing on a line with fellow seniors Forfar and Walrod in his last game at the arena he's called home for four years.

"It meant a lot ... our seniors, they're my best friends, so it meant so much to play with them in our last game at Munn Arena,'' Hayes said. "The last five or six weeks, we've put in a good effort to get some wins and stay with it. I think this puts us in good position entering the playoffs.''

Ah yes, the playoffs. It's the next challenge for the Spartans, who finished 9-18-1-0 and in 11th-place in the CCHA and 11-22-2 overall.

For the second time in two weeks, MSU will be heading to Alaska for a first-round, best-of-three series in Fairbanks - at 11 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and, if necessary, on Sunday.

Two weeks ago, the Spartans and sixth-place Nanooks (16-14-4 overall, 12-13-3-1 CCHA) split a series in Fairbanks. MSU won the opener, 1-0, and lost the second game, 4-2.

"We know what kind of team they are and we know what we have to do to be successful,'' Hayes said. "I don't think we'll take away many things from last week. It's a new week and the playoffs are a different animal.''

Hayes said Saturday's win was "another example of when we all show up to play for 60 minutes, we can beat anyone."

"We have to take this momentum and do the same things that made us successful and bring them to Alaska.''

Anastos said he thought about putting Hayes, Forfar and Walrod on a line early last week. And he decided to go with the idea on Saturday morning.

"I knew I would start them but after watching Friday's game and thinking about it more, I decided to do it. I thought they would be inspired to play together and could inspire our team,'' Anastos said.

"There was one shift in the second period when Walrod raced down the ice to nullify an icing. They got the puck and started banging bodies and it was fun to watch. I kept wanting to put them back on the ice.''

Anastos said one of the most positive aspects of Saturday's game was his team's tough, feisty play and not giving the Broncos much open space.

"We demonstrated that we can be hard to play against,'' he said. "But it takes commitment and you have to have a sense of urgency. There was a sense of urgency tonight and we had a great commitment to playing hard all night long.

"We made it difficult for them to get the puck on net. We had a lot of guys sacrifice their bodies,'' Anastos said. "And we had guys on the bench inspiring the players on the ice when we were facing some challenges.''

The Spartans ended the season with four consecutive series splits and six splits in the final eight weeks of the season.

MSU won and lost against Bowling Green, Northern Michigan, Alaska and Western Michigan. In four series leading up to that stretch, MSU played two solid games in a split at home against Notre Dame, got swept by Ferris State, split against Penn State and lost twice against Michigan.

"Our focus (last weekend) was to get our game in order where we feel confidence when we go (to Alaska),'' Anastos said.

GOALTENDING DECISIONS: Anastos said his plan going into the WMU series was to play both goalies -- Hildebrand and junior Will Yanakeff, who had a standout series at Alaska last weekend. But Yanakeff suffered an undisclosed injury in practice last week and wasn't available for the Western Michigan series.

"Will said he was still a little sore and couldn't go,'' Anastos said.

Meanwhile, Hildebrand got the start both nights, giving up five goals in the opener and blanking the Broncos on Saturday.

"I don't think Friday was a great game for Jake, but he shook that off. That was impressive,'' Anastos said. "

THANK YOU FANS: MSU players and Anastos continued laud Spartan fans for showing up in large numbers week after week and creating a great environment in Munn Arena.

"We've had great support all season. We've had great crowds and we love coming out and seeing the building packed,'' Chris Forfar said.

The Spartans had five sellouts this season and 10 crowds of more than 6,000.

"It's been a very tough season and we're going through a process and we'll get to where we want to get to, but the lead the league in attendance and finish with a sellout, well, what great fans we have,'' Anastos said.

"The recruits we've been bringing through here recognize that. They see it. I can't be thankful enough for the people who support the program - the students, the new season ticket holders, the longtime season ticket holders.

"I give lots of credit to our marketing department. They've really dug in since I came here and have done a great job of filling the building.''

REGULAR-SEASON WRAP: The Spartans on Saturday played their final CCHA regular season game and went out the same way their started in the league - with a victory.

MSU's first CCHA game was a 4-3 win over Lake Superior on Oct. 23, 1981, at Munn Arena. Anastos and assistant coach Kelly Miller were freshmen that season.

The Spartans' last game as a WCHA member was also a success. MSU defeated Colorado College 5-4 on Feb. 28, 1981, completing a series sweep at Munn Arena.

Next season, MSU joins the Big Ten hockey conference, with U-M, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State.

PLAYOFFS UPDATE: The last weekend of the regular season had a major impact on the CCHA standings and playoff matchups.

Miami needed a victory on Saturday to clinch the regular-season title or run the risk of finishing in third place. The RedHawks got the job done, defeating Ohio State 4-2 at home.

Notre Dame's 4-1 win over Bowling Green, coupled with MSU's win over WMU, lifted the Irish into second place and dropped the Broncos into third place.

With Miami, Notre Dame, Western Michigan, Ferris State and Ohio State receiving first-round byes, the three first-round matchups are: No. 11 MSU at No. 6 Alaska; No. 10 Northern Michigan at No. 7 Michigan and No. 9 Bowling Green at No. 8 Lake Superior State.

If the Spartans upset Alaska, they'll play at Miami in a best-of-seven series, March 15-17. Last season, the RedHawks swept MSU 2-0, in a second-round series.

CCHA STATS: Ohio State sophomore Tanner Fritz won the league scoring title with nine goals and 23 assists for 32 points in 28 games. Miami freshman Riley Barber was second with 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points. Fritz had the most assists and Barber topped all rookies in scoring.

Lake Superior State senior forward Domenic Monardo had the most goals in CCHA games with 15 in 28 games. Kyle Bonis, a senior forward from Ferris State, was second with 14 goals.

Miami freshman goalie Ryan McKay had the best goals-against average at 1.32. He played in 12 games. OSU senior Brady Hjelle was No. 2 with a 1.89 average.

The Spartans' Hildebrand compiled a 2.24 average, fifth-best in the CCHA, and was fifth in save percentage at .930.

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