March 9, 2014
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - It was clearly not Michigan State's best game of the season. No big deal, because it was clearly the Spartans' best victory of the year. And most dramatic.
Down 2-0 five minutes into the first period and 3-1 when the first 20 minutes wrapped up, it looked like another disastrous night was in the making for Michigan State, and in front of a sellout crowd at Munn Arena.
MSU, hoping to make amends for Friday's 7-1 embarrassing defeat at Michigan, had little energy and push in a forgettable first period. The Wolverines were again licking their chops, anticipating another easy win and second straight Big Ten sweep over their top rival.
Instead, the Spartans got inspired by their backup goaltender, Will Yanakeff, they turned their game around and carved out their most satisfying and exciting victory of the season with a 4-3 triumph over Michigan, much to the delight of most of the 6,475 fans.
There were plenty of Spartan heroes and solid performances but one of the best storylines was Yanakeff, who took over the goaltending duties from starter Jake Hildebrand to start the second period and played a huge role in the comeback. The victory, MSU's 10th of the season and second over Michigan, may have saved the Spartans' season, and Yanakeff's solid play for two periods allowed his teammates to make a vaunted comeback.
It was one Spartans fans won't forget and neither Will Yanakeff, who had not played in a game in four months until Friday night in Ann Arbor, when he replaced Hildebrand to start the third period with MSU trailing, 5-1. Yanakeff was solid in making 11 saves and allowing two goals, one on a deflection and second on a 5-on-3 power play in the last two minutes.
On Saturday, Yanakeff was called into service to give the Spartans a lift and help change the complexion of the game. And the 6-foot-2, 211-pound senior from Jerome, Mich., did just that. He made 11 saves in the second period and 13 in the decisive third period, and thanks to MSU's dramatic two-goal rally in the final period, Yanakeff earned his fourth career win over the Wolverines. He's 4-3 overall vs. U-M, going 2-0 as a freshman, 1-2 as a sophomore, 0-1 as a junior and 1-0 this season.
"It was really emotional. It was a great feeling,'' Yanakeff said. "It's been a while since I felt like this. I'm very happy that it worked out this way.''
So are his teammates, coaches and more than 6,000 fans who enjoy beating the Wolverines almost as much as the players do.
With Yanakeff playing at a high level, the Spartans picked up their play in the second period and got the crowd into the game by cutting U-M's lead to 3-2 on senior Lee Reimer's power-play goal at 16:00.
In the third period, MSU struck for two goals within 1 minute and 13 seconds. Michael Ferrantino chipped in defenseman John Draeger's rebound to tie it at 6:34, and freshman Mackenzie MacEachern gave his team the lead for good at 7:47, converting on a 2-on-1 break-in by shooting the puck between the legs of U-M goalie Steve Racine. MacEachern's goal was set up by a great between-the-legs drop pass by Brent Darnell to MacEachern.
"I knew right when we scored the fourth goal that this was going to be a sweet, sweet night,'' Yanakeff said.
But before the Spartans could start savoring a sweet victory, they had to survive one Wolverine power play and plenty of intense pressure in the defensive zone. And they did by winning battles in the corners, clearing the puck out of the zone, blocking a lot of shots and Yanakeff making a few clutch saves and not giving up any dangerous rebounds. Michigan was buzzing around the Spartan net, passing the puck around and firing shots, right until the final buzzer.
"Yanny's really excited and we're excited for him,'' MSU captain Greg Wolfe said. "He came in and did an outstanding job. He made great saves and the saves he needed to make.
"On every save, everyone on our bench was getting up and getting behind him, and the crowd was really behind him. That was a special thing to see. He's had a rough go of it this year, but for him to battle back and give us a chance to win, and the guys step up for him, it doesn't get any better than that.''
With Hildebrand taking over the job as the No. 1 starter early in the season because of his outstanding play and ability to handle a heavy workload, Yanakeff had not played since a 3-2 overtime loss at Michigan Tech on Nov. 9. At that point, he had started three games and had a 1-2 record. Hildebrand has started 25 straight games.
On three or four occasions, Yanakeff was supposed to start but back luck followed him around. Injury or illness kept Yanakeff from getting in the lineup.
"We tried to play him several times but things came up. He had a leg problem, a foot problem, then a concussion,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "Those are frustrating things. But I give Yanny credit. He's been a good teammate.
"You can see how his teammates responded to him. It kind of galvanized our team. He came in Friday night and did a good job. He's been practicing hard and he was ready. Tonight, he was just outstanding.''
For sure, Yanakeff was disappointed that he didn't get a chance to start, but he dealt with his role and worked hard to stay sharp and be ready for any opportunity.
"You can never lose hope, you can never doubt yourself. You just keep working to get better,'' he said. "You never know when your name is going to be called.'' And when it is, a goaltender has to react quickly and settle in fast and make plays.
"You have to stay confident, stay calm and just believe in yourself,'' Yanakeff said. "That's the biggest thing for me - knowing that I'm capable of going out there and stopping the puck.''
Yanakeff's steady play in the second period Saturday kept his team within striking distance and gave it hope. The Spartans capitalized and maintained the lead until the end, something they've had trouble doing most of the season.
"It's always nerve-wrecking, but I knew we could pull it off,'' Yanakeff said of holding off Michigan's pressure in the last 10 minutes, especially in the last two or three.
"All game long, we were diving in front of shots and blocking them. Countless times, these guys saved my butt - especially in the second period when Reimer had that huge block with an open net. I can't thank the guys enough for that.''
Well, the feeling is mutual.
When the game ended, Yanakeff put his head down for a few seconds, with lots of things running through his mind, and he got emotional. The tears flowed.
"It's been a long year for me,'' he said. "I was just happy ... and I just got a little emotional.''
The Spartans mobbed their goaltender, shook hands with the Wolverines, saluted the fans and started savoring the best moment of the season.
Anastos was thrilled that Yanakeff got rewarded for his commitment and keeping himself prepared.
"It's been a trying season for him. He had high expectations for himself,'' Anastos said. "I'm proud of him because of the growth he has shown.
"Regardless of today's game, one of the things that's really rewarding in this job is to see somebody really grow - in his came from three years ago. And while he still has a ways to grow, I'm sure, he has come a long way from where he was, and not in easy circumstances.
"I use the (Spartan) football example all the time - (fifth-year senior linebacker) Kyler Elsworth. He took advantage of his opportunity (with the play of the game in the Rose Bowl). You never know when it's going to come, and if you're not prepared for it, you don't have much chance to take advantage of it if it comes.
"For Will, that opportunity came last night and I thought he did a pretty good job. He's been practicing hard. And he's dealing with some adversity.''
DECISIONS, DECISIONS: Anastos said the decision to replace Jake Hildebrand at the start of the second period was made after a close look at Hildebrand's play and demeanor on video during the first intermission.
Anastos even skipped a TV interview to attend to business.
"I wasn't sure how Hildy was seeing the puck so I had a chance to review (the video) to get a better feel,'' he said. "After I looking at it, I thought pucks went in a little too easy and that Hildy was fighting it. We had to shift momentum somehow. I just tapped Yanny and said `You're goin' in,' and he did a great job.''
Hildebrand wasn't necessarily to blame on the first two goals -caused by poor coverage - but the shot on the third goal by Phil Di Giuseppe, from the right circle, is one he usually stops, even if it was deflected a bit.
Nevertheless, Hildebrand is still the Spartans' No. 1 goaltender and will likely start MSU's Big Ten playoff opener against Ohio State in two weeks. But in next weekend's final series against Wisconsin, at Munn Arena, there's a good chance both Yanakeff and Hildebrand will make one start. Saturday's 4 p.m. game against the Badgers is Senior Night and Yanakeff could be in goal. Or maybe it's Friday night for Yanakeff.
Hildebrand is 8-14-7, with a 2.41 goals-against average and a .925 saves percentage. Yanakeff is 2-2, with a 2.46 GAA and also has a .925 saves percentage.
WORST LOSS, GREAT VICTORY: Coach Tom Anastos didn't mince words Saturday when he described Friday's 7-1 defeat at Michigan as "the worst loss since I've been here in terms of how we performed.''
Saturday's 4-3 victory was more to Anastos' liking.
"That was a great win for a lot of reasons,'' the third-year coach said. "I'm really happy for our team. This (shows) how we fought back and the perseverance we've played with all season.''
Still, Anastos was worried how Friday's defeat would impact his team on Saturday. In the first period, he thought the impact of Friday's game was carrying over.
"I thought our confidence was pretty fragile, given that we've been struggling to score goals and how the game went on Friday,'' Anastos said. "We talked about turning the page, looking ahead and then game starts and it's like we hadn't turned the page.
"Then for whatever reasons, we started to climb back in it.''
Anastos didn't say what he said to his team after the first period but you have to believe it was a little more forceful than "play hard, get the puck in deep and go to the net.''
"Coach came in and got us fired up,'' MSU senior captain Greg Wolfe said. "We got ourselves going and decided to have some fun. We had nothing to lose. We kept our cool and kept it simple. We kept saying, `It's one shot. That's all we need.'''
One of the big differences in MSU's play from Friday to Saturday was in blocked shots. The Spartans had only 10 on Friday but 24 on Saturday - led by five each by defenseman John Draeger and center Thomas Ebbing.
They entered the weekend as the No. 1 shot-blocking team in the nation, averaging 17.7 blocks a game.
"The most telling stat from Friday's game was that we had 10 blocked shots. That's not this team,'' Anastos said. "Tonight, we had 24. You saw guys laying out. That's our team.''
DARNELL EXCELS: Junior forward Brent Darnell had arguably his best game of the season on Saturday. He played with great energy, was physical and made smart plays and it didn't go unnoticed by his teammates and coaches.
"He had a real good game. He hasn't been playing that well but he had some good practices and we put him in and he made a difference tonight,'' Anastos said. "He made a good play on the winning goal.''
He also made a team-uplifting crunchy check of Michigan forward Derek DeBlois in the third period.
Darnell, a healthy scratch in four of MSU's last seven games, started Saturday on the fourth line with center Justin Hoomaian and Dean Chelios. But he eventually moved up to a line with center Thomas Ebbing and Mackenzie MacEachern on left wing. On the game-winning goal, Darnell took a pass from Jake Chelios at the U-M blue line near the left wing boards. He carried the puck toward the boards, was ready to take a hit from a Michigan defenseman and calmly slid the puck between his legs to an onrushing MacEachern.
Suddenly, the Spartans found themselves in a 2-on-1 situation. MacEachern skated toward the left circle, Ebbing went to the middle, trying to get open for a pass. But MacEachern fired the puck on goal and it went between the pads of goalie Steve Racine.
It was Darnell's first point in 12 games and MacEachern's eighth goal of the season but only his second in his last 20 contests. He did score against Wisconsin two weeks ago.
"When I looked up and saw it was a 2-on-1 with Thomas (Ebbing), it was kind of déjà vu, because at (Joe Louis Arena against Michigan in late January), Thomas and I had the same play,'' MacEachern said. "I made a pass off (the goalie's) pad and took a weird bounce (in that game.)
"I made the same play and luckily it squeaked through. It went between his legs. I was going for the pass (to Ebbing) off the pad. I've had that shot many times.''
LINEUP CHANGES: Forward Matt Berry, who scored MSU's only goal on Friday, suffered a lower-body injury in Friday's game and then was ill on the way home after the game. He sat out Saturday's contest so Anastos had to adjust line combinations and he also made a change on defense.
Darnell and Justin Hoomaian went into the lineup and Berry and Ryan Keller came out, Keller as a healthy scratch. On defense, freshman Rhett Holland was a healthy scratch and freshman Chris Knudson suited up as the sixth d-man and saw limited playing time.
For most of the game, Anastos went with three forward lines and rotated five defensemen.
OFFENSIVE OUTBURST: Before Saturday, Michigan State had not scored more two goals in its last 11 games, going back to a 3-2 win over Penn State on Jan. 18. The Spartans hadn't score more than three goals in 20 consecutive games, since an 8-2 win over Princeton on Dec. 1. MSU is 9-1 when scoring at least three goals.
IN THE BIG TEN: Here's what's certain after Saturday's three Big Ten games - Minnesota's 2-2 tie and shootout loss at Ohio State, Wisconsin's 3-2 overtime win at Penn State and MSU's 4-3 win vs. Michigan:
First-place Minnesota (42 points) and Wisconsin (37) have clinched first-round byes. Wisconsin can still overtake the Gophers for first place but the Badgers would have to sweep Michigan State and Minnesota would have to lose twice at Michigan.
Michigan is locked into third place and will play Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on March 20.