March 9, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
The reward for finishing in fifth place in the CCHA is a first-round bye in the playoffs - a week off and the opportunity to take care of bumps and bruises, rest and get refreshed.
The penalty for finish fifth is playing on the road in the second week of the playoff run - the CCHA quarterfinals.
And so it goes for fifth-place Michigan State, which has embraced a weekend off and accepted the challenge of heading out on the road and facing one of the hottest teams in the CCHA in Miami (Ohio).
The Spartans' "second season" is at hand and while they're going in as an underdog, they're eager and confident that with energetic, solid overall play, they can win the best-of-three series and earn a coveted spot in the CCHA Championship in Detroit next weekend.
"Playoff hockey is way different. It's one step faster, everybody is hitting a little more and harder and the atmosphere is more intense,'' MSU junior defenseman and captain Torey Krug said.
"We had a good stretch early when we won five in a row. But I think we're playing better now. I think it's confidence and a swagger that we've been building all year.''
The No. 15 Spartans (19-13-4 overall, 14-11-3-1 CCHA) and the No. 11 RedHawks (21-13-2, 15-11-2-1) meet at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, 7 p.m. on Saturday and, if necessary, at 7 p.m. on Sunday at the 3,200-seat Steve Cady Arena in Oxford, Ohio.
In their only series of the season, Miami swept MSU, 2-1 in overtime and 4-0, at Munn Arena on Jan. 6-7.
"We've gotten better as the season went on against teams like Miami. We know what to expect, and we're a better team than we were when we played them in January,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "But they're a lot better, too.''
At the end of December, Miami stood at 9-11-2 overall and 5-7-2 in the CCHA. They used the sweep of the Spartans to springboard to a 6-2 record in January and followed it with another 6-2 mark in February. The RedHawks have won six games in a row since getting swept at Michigan, 4-1, 3-0, on Feb. 3-4.
MSU ended 2011 with records of 8-6-2 overall and 6-5-1 in league play. The Spartans struggled in January, going 2-4-2, but rebounded with a strong finish, going 6-2 in February.
"We have great respect for their team. I think their offense is a bit underrated but they thrive on their defense,'' Anastos said. "Their goalie is really playing well and they have a big, strong defense. They're not an easy team to play against.
"But we've competed very well against everybody we've played - bigger teams, smaller teams, faster teams, skilled teams, tough teams and whatever else. We have a level of experience and age where I think we know that if we compete hard, we give ourselves a chance to be in every game.''
The RedHawks are known for their size, strength and penchant for playing a physical style. They take penalties but it's not a big deal because they have an aggressive, successful penalty killers.
In CCHA play, Miami had the second-best penalty killing statistics, just behind MSU. The RedHawks gave up 20 goals during 142 opponents' power plays for an 85.9 percent rate of success. The Spartans faced on 104 power plays by their opponents and allowed only 11 goals for 89.5 percent efficiency.
In overall games, MSU's penalty killing (88.5) ranks No. 1 in the CCHA and No. 3 nationally. Miami (85.6) is No. 3 in the CCHA and No. 7 in the nation.
Defense is the RedHawks' top strength. Their 1.96 goals-against average in 28 games was No. 1 in the CCHA. In 36 overall contests, Miami is first (2.06) in the conference and No. 7 nationally. The Spartans' defense ranked No. 5 (2.43) in league play, is 5th in overall CCHA games (2.50) and No. 15 nationally.
Miami goaltender Connor Knapp, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound senior, has a stellar 1.53 goals-against average and .939 save percentage in 20 games.
"They're a bigger team and probably more physical than any team we've played this season,'' Krug said. "They like to be physical in the corners. We're a fast team and have to use it to our advantage.
"We have to use our speed to get around them and hopefully draw penalties. And our power play has to be humming. Last time we played them, we were struggling on the power play. This time around our power play looks a little different. We had different people in different spots.''
Offensively, Miami and MSU are pretty close statistically. The Spartans averaged 2.86 goals a game and the RedHawks 2.64 in 28 league games. MSU was tied for second with Ferris State and Miami tied for fifth with Ohio State.
In overall play, MSU ranks No. 2 in the CCHA, averaging 3.03 goals, while Miami is No. 5 at 2.86.
The Spartans have seven players who have scored nine to 11 goals - Krug (11), senior Mike Merrifield (11), sophomore Greg Wolfe (10), freshman Matt Berry (10), senior Brett Perlini (9), junior Kevin Walrod (9) and sophomore Lee Reimer (9).
The RedHawks have five forwards who have scored nine to 26 goals - junior Reilly Smith (26), freshman Blake Coleman (11), senior Alden Hirschfield (9) and freshmen Austin Czarnik (9) and Jimmy Mullin (9).
Smith, like the Spartans' Krug, was a unanimous All-CCHA First Team selection, and is considered a top contender to be one of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's most outstanding player.
"He's a pure goal-scorer so you want to give him as little time and space as possible,'' Krug said. "You have to be all over him and not give him room to do anything with the puck.''
MSU sophomore goaltender Will Yanakeff expects to be seeing a lot of RedHawks buzzing around his crease this weekend. He said Miami is just as dangerous playing in the offensive zone as it is coming down on the rush.
"Both are very good. They're end zone offense is very good,'' said Yanakeff, who has started seven of the last eight games and hopes to face the RedHawks on Friday. "They compete hard in the offensive zone.
"After looking at video, it looks like they like to park someone in front of the net. They always seem to be buzzing and try to get pucks to the net.''
Anastos said playing against bigger, stronger teams who like to throw their weight around is something his team is used to.
"Some people would say we don't match up well with Miami because of their size compared to ours. But we played them here and played them tough. We're not big but we can be mentally and physically tough,'' Anastos said. "We've played against teams that have outsized us all year and we've competed hard.''
Seven of the RedHawks' top 12 forwards are 6-foot-1 or above and six weigh 195 pounds or more. On defense, four regulars are 6-foot-2 and their weights range from 197-226 pounds.
"I don't know if we can counter our size with just energy as much as we can try to counter it with good puck movement. It's playing well without the puck and moving the puck,'' Anastos said. "If we can move the puck quickly and attack quickly in the neutral zone, that plays into how we play and what we're better at, as opposed to getting into a grind-it-out game along the boards.''
"He's skating again but hasn't had any contact,'' Anastos said after Tuesday's practice. "He's day-to-day. We'll see how he is later in the week.''
If the Spartans had played last weekend, Merrifield would not have been able to play.
Last season, the Spartans played at Alaska and lost twice in overtime.
Coach Tom Anastos, however, said he senses the team is not looking back at what hasn't happened but more at the opportunity to attain this year's goals, which include winning a playoff series and getting to Detroit to try win the CCHA playoff title and secure a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
"We're trying to look ahead and chart a new course. And a new course is really an old course - that this is the time of the year you want to be playing your best hockey,'' Anastos said. "In practices, I don't sense the guys are focused on `Oh, geez, we haven't won a playoff game in three years.' It's been about getting ready to compete against Miami.
"It's a new day. It's a different team and we're focused on the now and what's ahead.''
The Spartans have 19 winning comparisons among the 31 teams in the PWR
Miami is tied with Maine for 9th with 21 comparison wins.
Since the playoff champion of Atlantic Hockey is expected to be seeded No. 16, other teams target finishing at least 15th in order to receive an at-large berth.
However, the PWR could change dramatically based the results of this week's playoff games in four of the five Division I conferences. And again next weekend.
Spartan coach Tom Anastos said he keeps track of the PairWise Rankings mostly for "entertainment purposes.''
"I know (the PWR) doesn't mean anything until the last game of the season is played for every team,'' he said. "In the end, it's going to tell me if we're in or not.
"As long as you win, you have hope. And if you don't, you have to deal with whatever else happens.''
If the Spartans win their series with Miami, they'll likely be in excellent position to make the NCAAs. If they lose, MSU will be on the bubble and have to wait until next weekend's championship series are concluded before its tournament fate is decided.
The NCAA Selection Show is at noon on March 18 on ESPNU.