March 8, 2013
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
Alaska's record in the regular season was 16-14-4. Michigan State compiled a 11-22-3 record.
This weekend, the Nanooks and Spartans are both 0-0.
It's a new season, a new beginning. It's the playoffs.
It doesn't matter what happened last weekend when MSU split with Western Michigan and Alaska swept Alaska-Anchorage. And it doesn't matter what transpired two weeks ago when the Spartans and Nanooks split a CCHA regular-season series in Fairbanks.
What matters is what happens when MSU and Alaska meet in a best-of-three, CCHA first-round series this weekend back in Fairbanks. The teams collide at 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and, if necessary, on Sunday, at the Carlson Center.
Welcome to the CCHA playoffs and an opportunity for the Spartans seniors to change their legacy a bit.
In the same season the Spartans finished in last place for the first time in 32 years in the CCHA, they also can become the first MSU team in five years to win a conference playoff game and first in six years to win a playoff series.
"Everyone has the same record. Whoever can put it together can do well,'' MSU junior right wing and captain Greg Wolfe said.
Last season, last-place Bowling Green went on an amazing run and ended up in the CCHA semifinals at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. The Falcons upset Northern Michigan, 2 games to 1, in a first-round series and then did the same thing in the second round against regular-season champion Ferris State, winning the third game 4-3 in overtime.
BGSU took Michigan to double overtime in the semifinals before falling, 3-2, just missing a shot at the CCHA playoff title and automatic berth into the NCAA Tourney.
For the Spartans, it's a long shot but they can dream.
"People have talked about Bowling Green and what they did. It's a good story,'' junior defenseman Jake Chelios said. "We're aware that nobody is too dominant. We know anyone can beat anyone.
"Going back there a second time will be a little better for us because we're used to the bigger ice and their style of play. I think it'll be a better matchup this time.''
Two weeks ago, MSU defeated the Nanooks 1-0 in the series opener, thanks to the sensational goaltending by Will Yanakeff. In the second game, the Spartans rallied to tie the game with 2:41 left in the third period, only to give up a power-play goal with 1:03 left and empty-netter and lost, 4-2.
The Spartans, 9-18-1 in CCHA play, are coming off one of their best games of the season - a 1-0 victory over Western Michigan last Saturday on Senior Night at Munn Arena.
The Broncos still had a shot at finishing first in the CCHA, but the Spartans played a complete game with minimal mistakes. They worked hard, were physical, didn't allow an odd-man rush and sacrificed their bodies to block shots and held on for the victory.
"I'm a realist and I realistically feel that if we play to our capability, given the experience we had playing out there recently, we have as good of a chance to win this series as our opponent does,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said.
"I thought we played a really good game last Saturday against a very good team and one that played well. That gives me confidence that if we play to our potential, it doesn't mean we're going to win, but it certainly gives us a good chance to win.''
The Spartans' last playoff victory came on March 14, 2008 - a 5-1 victory over Northern Michigan in the first game of a CCHA second-round series. MSU proceeded to lose the next two games and lose the series, 2-1.
The Spartans' last playoff series win came in March, 2007, a two-game sweep of Nebraska-Omaha at Munn Arena. Since then, MSU has lost five straight series -- against NMU twice (2008, 2009), Michigan (2010), Alaska (2011) and Miami (2012).
Anastos said he was impressed with the Nanooks' skill and depth on offense.
"Their top two lines are probably as good as most any team we played all season,'' he said. "They have some defensemen who really move around well and move the puck. They play hard and are well-coached. I liked their skill.''
Alaska is led by senior Andy Taranto (14 goals, 13 assists, 27 points), juniors Cody Kunyk (9-17-26) and Colton Beck (11-9-20) and freshman Tyler Morley (10-9-19). Taranto had two goals, both on the power play, in Alaska's 4-2 win over MSU.
Freshman goaltender John Keeney started both games against the Spartans. He's 12-9-3 overall, with a 2.33 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage. Keeney played with MSU freshman defenseman Travis Walsh and freshman forward Matt DeBlouw last season with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the U.S. Hockey League.
"They're a fast team and use speed to their advantage, especially on the bigger ice,'' Chelios said. "For us, it's about making smart decisions. It's knowing when to pinch, when to jump into the play and when to stay back.
"In the Western game, we didn't have a lot of neutral-zone turnovers, which is huge for us. Western is usually good at capitalizing on those. So is Alaska.''
Chelios said he loved the way his team played against WMU but he wasn't ready to proclaim that all the Spartans' problems have been solved.
"We're not going to blow it out of proportion. It's one win and we did split the series,'' he said. "It's good to take it in but it's a new season and we just have to go play Alaska.''
"In the second game against (Alaska), I thought we played with desperation in the third period, trying to get the sweep. But we have to play with that desperation for three periods.''
In the two games in Fairbanks, the Spartans got outshot 37-14 in the 1-0 victory in the opener and 43-24 in the 4-2 loss in the series finale.
"We have to get a lot of shots on their goalie. We didn't really test him the last time,'' Wolfe said. "We have to focus on more shots and traffic in front.
"And we have to stay disciplined. Their power play was pretty good. If we get penalties we've got to step up and shut them down.''
Anastos said the most impressive aspect of his team's win over Western Michigan was the way the defense played.
"We were all in. I liked the commitment in transitioning from offense to defense,'' he said. "We made good decisions all over the ice and I liked our positioning.
"Our guys were committed to winning. They were blocking shots, doing whatever it took to have a successful shift. As a team, our guys on the bench were encouraging the guys on the ice, especially if we caught trapped in our zone. Those things really matter.''
If the Spartans rise up and knock off the Nanooks, they'll advance to a second-round series at Miami, March 15-17.
"The only way we can get into the NCAA Tournament is to win the CCHA title. But you can't look that far down the road,'' Anastos said. "We're focused on playing Friday and doing everything we can to win. It's a week at a time.
"But Bowling Green did it last year, so why can't we? They were very close to getting into the championship game. If you get there and have a hot goalie ... well ... ?"
GOALTENDING DECISION: Anastos said junior goalie Will Yanakeff was making progress in recovering from a nagging injury that kept him out of the Western Michigan series. The Spartan coach said he wouldn't know if Yanakeff will be in the mix this weekend until he sees him in practice in Alaska and finds out if he's OK to play.
Yanakeff played spectacularly in both games at Alaska, and Hildebrand started the two games last weekend against the Broncos.
"What I'm hoping for is that Will is healthy, both are ready and we have a decision to make,'' Anastos said.
TOP GUNS: Jake Chelios and Greg Wolfe are MSU's top scorers against the Nanooks in career points. Chelios has two goals and four assists for six points in nine games, while Wolfe has two goals and three assists for five points in 10 games.
MSU's top goal-scorer vs. Alaska is sophomore Brent Darnell, who has three goals in four games.
UAF senior forward Nik Yaremchuk has had a couple of clutch games against the Spartans in the playoffs. Two years ago, he scored the overtime goal in both games as Alaska swept MSU, 3-2 and 4-3 in double overtime. He also had an assist in each of those games.
BY THE NUMBERS: The Spartans lead the series with Alaska, 42-16-3. They're 6-4 vs. the Nanooks in the CCHA playoffs. .... Spartan freshmen defensemen John Draeger and Travis Walsh rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in the nation in blocked shots. Draeger has blocked 78 and Walsh has 75. The national leader is Boston University's Sean Escobedo with 87. ... Wolfe has eight points (5-3) in his last 10 games and 11 points in his last 15 contests. ... The Spartans have played in five games that have ended 1-0. They've won two (Alaska, WMU) and lost three (Bowling Green, Ohio State and Notre Dame).
LET THE PLAYOFFS BEGIN: The CCHA has two other playoff series this weekend. No. 10-seed Northern Michigan plays at No. 7 Michigan, and No. 9 Bowling Green visits No. 8 Lake Superior State. No. 1 Miami, No. 2 Notre Dame, No. 3 Western Michigan, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Ferris State all have first-round byes.
Playoffs also begin this weekend in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) and Atlantic Hockey. The WCHA and Hockey East close out regular-season play this weekend and open their playoffs next weekend.