March 6, 2014
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - Joe Cox admits he no idea what his role would be this season as a Michigan State freshman right wing.
"When I came in, I didn't know what would happen, how much I'd play or how I'd be used, because of my injury,'' Cox said.
Cox, 20, a 5-foot-11, 167-pounder from Chelsea, suffered a serious knee injury last April while playing for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the U.S. Hockey League. He spent the summer rehabbing the knee and it wasn't certain if he'd be able to start the season with the Spartans.
Coach Tom Anastos didn't know what to expect from Cox, what kind of role he'd have as a rookie and how much playing time he'd see.
"Coming off the injury he had, we didn't know if he'd start the season,'' Anastos said. "But he got himself ready and not only did he start the season, he started it with a bang.''
As it turned out, Cox was ready to start training camp and not only earned a regular spot in the lineup, he's been one of the Spartans' most consistent forwards all year.
He started the season on a line with sophomore center Michael Ferrantino and various left wings, and it's been MSU's most consistent and dangerous unit.
Cox has played in all of MSU's 31 games and has six goals and six assists for 12 points. His role also includes killing penalties and he's recently seeing time on the power play.
"Joe is a bit of an understated player and I say that in the highest regard,'' Anastos said. "He's a hard-working guy, kind of a blue-collar player but he has a nice skill set and a high hockey intellect that maybe we didn't recognize when he came here.''
Cox, Ferrantino and defenseman Brock Krygier have the team's best plus-minus with a +6.
"He's good around the net, he's good with the puck, he makes good decisions and he's pretty smart without the puck,'' Anastos said. "When you think of it, being smart without the puck adds a lot to a player because the majority of your game is played without the puck.''
Cox and Ferrantino, who has eight goals and nine assists for 17 points, have scored almost all of their goals from in the tough areas - right around the net. Neither is very big but both are eager to go to the net and play physical to create scoring opportunities.
"I was ready to go at the start of the season and got put on a line with Ferrantino and things started to click,'' Cox said. "We had played together before (in midgets in Detroit with Compuware) and we knew what to expect from each other. It was a good fit.''
Cox has made the transition from juniors to college smoothly, especially on the ice.
"It was a big adjustment for me, because the players are so much better. They're stronger and quicker so you have to adapt to this kind of game,'' he said. "The big thing about playing at this level is how busy you are with everything - going to class, practice and games.''
Ferrantino and Cox have played 15 games with Matt Berry on left wing and 10 with Dean Chelios on the left side. In last Saturday's exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 team, Villiam Haag played left wing with Ferrantino and Cox and the unit scored two goals.
Haag set up Cox and Ferrantino for second-period goals and the Spartans rallied from a 3-0 deficit to tie the game 3-3, before losing in overtime.
Ferrantino, Cox and Haag will likely be together this weekend when the Spartans (9-15-7 overall, 3-7-6-4) face No. 11/12 Michigan (16-10-4, 8-6-2-1) at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Yost Arena in Ann Arbor and at 7 p.m. Saturday at Munn Arena.
In three games against Michigan - a 3-0 victory, 2-1 loss and 5-2 defeat - Cox has two assists while Ferrantino has two goals and one assist.
"Joe has had a great year. He works hard and he's such a smart player,'' Ferrantino said. "It's tough to come in as a freshman and be consistent at a high level, but he's done it. I know what it was like for me last year.
"But he's always ready to play and he's so good at getting us the puck, or if he has the chance, he can score.''
Cox had a goal and assist and Ferrantino had two assists in MSU's last victory - a 2-1 win at Penn State on Feb. 15. One night earlier, in a 2-2 tie and shootout win, Ferrantino had one goal.
"If we're going to score goals, we have to work had down low, and when you do that, good things happen,'' Cox said. "I think that's the gist of how we get most of our goals - it's grimy goals down low. You have to think about and do the little things that lead to goals.''
Anastos said Cox, with his development and all-around contributions, is the Spartans' biggest surprise from what he anticipated at the start of the season.
"You put all of his intangibles together and you've got quite a good hockey player,'' Anastos said. "We're excited about the season he's had to date but we're also excited about what we think he's going to be while he's here. We think he's really going to be very good.''
For Cox, any game against Michigan is extra special because he grew up in Chelsea, just west of Ann Arbor, attended many U-M games at Yost Arena while growing up in the area, and especially because his best friend in hockey, Andrew Copp, is a U-M sophomore forward and arguably the Wolverines' best player.
Cox and Copp played on the same team and trained together for eight years, starting in fourth grade. Copp's father, Andy, was the head coach, and Cox's dad, Jesse, served as an assistant. Ferratino also played with Cox and Copp on a Compuware midget team.
Copp is Michigan's second-leading scorer with 13 goals and 13 assists for 26 points.
"The rivalry is great because it's Michigan and Michigan State and it's even better because Andy is there,'' Cox said.
WOLVERINES UPDATE: Michigan has been a streaky team this season, starting the season with a 10-2-1 record in early December. The Wolverines then went 0-4-1, including a 3-0 loss to MSU in the Great Lakes Invitational, from mid-December to late January.
U-M halted its slump by sweeping Michigan State 2-1 at Joe Louis Arena and 5-2 at Munn Arena, Jan. 23-24, and went on a 4-0-1 run. But the Wolverines then lost four straight - to Penn State, Minnesota twice and Penn State again. But now up-and-down U-M is unbeaten in three games, with a home victory over Penn State, a tie at home against Ohio State and a win over the Buckeyes last Sunday in Columbus.
Over the last three months, the Wolverines are 7-8-3 overall.
Still, Michigan is ranked No. 10 in the USA Today poll and No. 11 in the USCHO rankings, and is in third place in the Big Ten, four points behind second-place Wisconsin, with four games remaining for each team.
Freshman JT Compher leads Michigan in scoring with 11 goals and 17 assists for 28 points. Sophomore Andrew Copp is second with 13 goals and 26 points.
Senior forward Derek DeBlois is U-M's top scorer against the Spartans with seven goals and four assists for 11 points in 15 games. Junior forward Phil Di Giuseppe is second with two goals and 10 points in 11 games.
Even though freshman goalie Zach Nagelvoort has played in 21 games and sophomore goalie Steve Racine has appeared in 11, coach Red Berenson has been splitting the duties in recent weeks.
Nagelvoort played in eight straight games, including two against the Spartans, in January and early February, before Racine started two games at Minnesota, and has played in four of the Wolverines' last six games. He was in goal in last Sunday's 4-3 victory at Ohio State.
Racine has a 10-7-3 record, a 2.24 goals-against average and a .927 saves percentage. Nagelvoort is 6-3-1 with a 2.97 GAA and a .914 saves percentage.
Michigan ranks 25th nationally in offense, averaging 2.93 goals per game. The Wolverines are 19th defensively, with a 2.57 goals-against average. On the power play, U-M is converting at 19.8 percent its penalty-killing unites have skated off 82.4 percent of opponents' power plays.
Michigan finishes the season with a home series against No. 1 ranked Minnesota next Friday and Saturday.
IMPROVE AND CLIMB: Coach Tom Anastos said his team's focus is on improving each week, climbing in the Big Ten standings as much as possible and to be at its best for the conference tournament in two weeks in St. Paul, Minn.
The Spartans are in fifth place in the Big Ten with 19 points, three behind fourth place Ohio State. But in order to overtake the Buckeyes, MSU will have to win at least two and maybe three of its final four games against U-M this weekend and Wisconsin next week.
OSU plays host to Minnesota this weekend and closes its season at Penn State.
"We'd like to catch them, for sure. You want to finish as high as you can,'' Anastos said. "And knowing that if we played them in that first game (No. 4 vs. No. 5), we'd get the last change if we're the higher seed, so that's a benefit you can earn.
"At the same time, I think the most important part is playing your best hockey in the tournament. We have our sights set on that.''
In the Big Ten Tournament, the top two teams earn first-round byes. The third-place team faces No. 6 and No. 4 meets No. 5 on the first day of the tourney. The 4-5 winner faces the No. 1 seed, probably Minnesota, while the winner of No. 3 vs. No. 6, faces the No. 2 seed.
KEY AREAS: If the Spartans expect to have any success in the last two weeks of the regular season and then in the Big Ten Tournament, they'll have to find more offense and improve on its special teams.
The power play and penalty killing have been emphasized in practice in recent weeks. The MSU defense has been solid most of this season but penalty killing has been inconsistent and hurt the Spartans in several games.
The Spartans have gone four games without a power-play goal and they've scored just two goals on the power play in their last 29 chances over the last eight games.
Meanwhile, MSU gave up two power-play goals in each of their last two games - 5-2 and 2-0 losses at Wisconsin. The Spartans have given up seven power-play goals in their last six games.
"We have great respect for the competition up and down the conference,'' Anastos said. "You could win or lose against any team from Minnesota at the top to Penn State in sixth.
"Going into the tournament, you have to be playing hard, you need to have a good goaltender, and we have that. The keys are good special teams and being able to score. You need opportunistic scoring. Those are the areas we have to work on over the next three weeks to give us a chance to win.''
SPARTAN POTPOURRI: Junior defenseman RJ Boyd, who sprained an ankle two weeks ago at Wisconsin, is considered doubtful for this weekend against Michigan. "He seems to be progressing but we're planning on not having him,'' Anastos said. "If he was to make major steps later in the week, that would be great.'' . . . The Spartans rank No. 13 in the nation in goals allowed with an average of 2.35 . . . MSU's seven ties are the second-most in program history. The 1991-92 and 2005-06 tied eight games apiece. The Spartans are Bemidji State lead the nation in deadlocks.