Neil's Notebook: Seniors Lead Spartans Into Final Home Weekend
March 13, 2014
By Neil Koepke
EAST LANSING - On a team lacking in experience with several sophomores and freshmen in the lineup, Michigan State's senior class has made a solid impact this season.
The Spartans haven't won as many games as they hoped, but the seniors have played a big on role in helping MSU stay competitive in most games throughout the season.
Wolfe, Reimer, Dean and Jake Chelios and two other seniors -defenseman Nickolas Gatt and goaltender Will Yanakeff - will be honored on Saturday afternoon on Senior Day as MSU plays its last home game of the regular season.
The Spartans (10-16-7 overall, 4-8-6-4 Big Ten) close out the Big Ten and home season against Wisconsin (21-9-2, 12-5-1-0) at 7 p.m. on Friday and 4 p.m. on Saturday. Senior ceremonies will start about 20 minutes before Saturday's opening faceoff.
"They've given everything they had. Every day in practice, their effort is very strong,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said of the six seniors. "They improved over time and have been a big part of this team.''
Wolfe, the Spartans' second-year captain, Jake Chelios and Reimer rank No. 1, 2 and 3 in team scoring.
Wolfe, a 5-foot-10, 189-pound right wing from Canton, leads with a career-high 12 goals and 14 assists for 26 points in 33 games.
Jake Chelios, 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, from Bloomfield Hills, has had a career year offensively with two goals and 18 assists for 20 points in 33 games. He's the third-leading scorer among defensemen in the Big Ten in overall games.
Reimer, a 6-foot, 188-pound center from Landmark, Manitoba, is third with 19 points - eight goals and 11 assists - in 32 games. Reimer and Wolfe played on the same line all season, including 13 games with Dean Chelios, making it an all-senior unit.
Dean Chelios, a 6-foot, 190-pound left wing and a fifth-year senior who sat out last year with a shoulder injury, is in a three-way for sixth in MSU scoring with one goal and 11 assists for 12 points in 31 games.
Gatt, 6-2, 198, from Farmington Hills, has played in 10 games this season. After two years at Alabama-Huntsville, Gatt transferred to MSU after the 2011-12 season and had two years of eligibility. He played in 41 games last season.
Yanakeff, a 6-foot-2, 211-pounder from Jerome, played in 52 games his first three seasons at MSU, but spent most of this season as the backup goaltender to sophomore Jake Hildebrand. Yanakeff made his fourth and fifth appearances of the year last weekend against Michigan in relief of Hildebrand.
He played the third period last Friday in a 7-1 defeat and gave up two goals. But on Saturday, Yanakeff had arguably the biggest moment of his Spartan career when he sparked MSU to a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Wolverines at Munn Arena.
Yanakeff took over in the second period with the Spartans trailing 3-1. He made 24 saves the rest of the way as MSU scored two quick goals midway through the final period and held on for a much-needed victory.
Over the last four years, the Spartans have compiled a record of 58-76-18. They made finished fifth in the CCHA and made the NCAA Tournament in 2012. MSU lost to Union 3-1 in the NCAA East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn.
All of the seniors, except for Gatt, were recruited by former Spartan coach Rick Comley. Dean Chelios played two seasons under Comley, while Wolfe, Reimer, Yanakeff and Jake Chelios played one season for Comley and three for Anastos.
"They certainly haven't had the level of success that you'd love to have as you come through, with championships,'' Anastos said. "But they know they were part of the process to get there and hang some banners.
"They embraced change, they did everything we asked them to do. They've left a building block as part of the foundation we're building, something we think we'll be very special. I'm appreciative of their contributions. I'm not sure how much they'll realize that until that day comes.''
With two regular-season games and the Big Ten Tournament remaining, Wolfe has 34 goals and 50 assists for 84 career points in 144 games. Reimer has played in 136 games and has 23 goals and 50 assists for 73 points.
Gatt has played in 51 games over the last two seasons in a defensive role and hasn't registered a point.
Yanakeff has played in 57 games, has a 26-24-3 record, a 2.55 goals-against average, a .918 saves percentage and four shutouts. He had his best season as a sophomore with a 13-9-1 record and played in the NCAA Tournament. Yanakeff's record against Michigan is 4-3.
With Dean Chelios redshirting last season because of a shoulder injury, he and his brother, Jake, got to spend four years together as MSU students and three as teammates on the ice. In addition, their father, Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman and former Red Wing Chris Chelios, was on hand to watch most of their games and provide specific advice and guidance.
"They've been fun to coach. They both have embraced our coaching staff and they'll do anything you ask them to,'' Anastos said of Dean and Jake. "Their teammates love them, and in different ways, they've provided good leadership.
"With the name they carry, they garner attention because of their dad's success as an athlete. They've always carried themselves in the right manner. Both are their own person and have their own identity. Their dad plays a role and it's a healthy dynamic. In my estimation, Chris is the greatest American ever to play the game. To have access to that resource is a great benefit.''
It's fitting for the Chelios brothers that their last home game is against Wisconsin, a school that also recruited both Dean and Jake. Chris Chelios played two years at Wisconsin, winning the NCAA title in 1983.
BUILDING MOMENTUM: Although the Spartans are locked into playing Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament next week, Coach Tom Anastos considers the regular-season ending series against No. 5 Wisconsin as important in building momentum and confidence.
And besides, it's better to say you've finished in fourth place rather that fifth, right? MSU is two points behind the fourth-place Buckeyes, who play at Penn State this weekend.
If the Spartans win one or two games, they'll at least be in position to move ahead of OSU. If they finish fourth, they'll be the "home" team against the Buckeyes in the Big Ten tourney in St. Paul, Minn., which means they'll have the last change in putting players on the ice.
Coming off a dramatic 4-3 win over Michigan last Saturday, a victory against the Badgers would further boost MSU's mindset heading to St. Paul.
"It's important from the perspective that it means you've beaten another good team and that would help you build confidence and keep your game going in a matter that you're continuing to grow in confidence,'' Anastos said of the series against the Badgers.
Wisconsin, which has clinched a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament, can still overtake first-place Minnesota and win the regular-season championship. The Badgers are five points behind the Gophers, who play at Michigan. A Wisconsin sweep and two losses or a loss and a shootout loss by Minnesota would lift the Badgers into first place.
FAMILIAR OPPONENT: Three weeks ago, MSU and Wisconsin met for the first time this season with a series in Madison. The Badgers took advantage of Spartan penalties to sweep the visitors, 5-2 and 2-0.
Wisconsin (21-9-2 overall, 12-5-1 Big Ten) has won five games in a row and is 7-1 in its last eight games. The Badgers are coming off a 4-2, 3-2 in overtime sweep at Penn State.
The Badgers have nine seniors and they're getting balanced scoring and standout goaltending. They don't go up-and-down the ice with the wide-open style employed by Minnesota and Michigan, but they do have some skilled, experienced forwards who can score and they get offensive production from their defense.
"Wisconsin's a top team in the country and they're playing very well,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "They're coming off a successful weekend at Penn State and they're playing for a lot coming down the stretch.
They're playing for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament and they're still in the hunt to win the conference.
"They're a team of skill and talent and a team of experience. They're very disciplined with their style of play. At times, that can be frustrating for the other teams. We have to make sure we prepare for that. They're definitely a national (title) contender.''
The Badgers have six players with 19 points or more and four with 10 goals or more. Wisconsin averages 3.22 goals per game, which is tied with Ohio State for 13th place nationally.
Senior Mark Zengerle leads the Badgers with nine goals and 27 assists for 36 points. Senior Michael Mersch has a team-high 20 goals and 11 assists for 31 points.
Sophomore Nic Kerdiles, arguably the Badgers' top NHL prospect (Anaheim Ducks), is third in team scoring with 13 goals and 17 assists for 30 points in only 23 games. He's missed nine games due to injury.
Last weekend at Penn State both Zengerle and Kerdiles, who play on the same line, had two goals and four assists for six points in the two games. They were named the Big Ten's First Star (Zengerle) and Second Star (Kerdiles) from last week's games.
Other Wisconsin scoring threats include senior Tyler Barnes (11-12-23), junior defenseman Jake McCabe (7-16-23) and junior Joseph LaBate (10-9-19).
Wisconsin has been getting outstanding goaltending from junior Joel Rumpel, who has the third-best goals-against average in the nation at 1.83 and the third-best record at 18-4-1.
Rumpel, a 6-foot-3, 185-pounder from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, who celebrates his 23rd birthday on Friday, has a .937 saves percentage, which is No. 2 in the nation. He played in only two of his team's first nine games, but now has played in 16 consecutive contests.
Wisconsin has nine NHL draft picks on its roster, but Rumpel is a free agent.
RIVALRY RENEWAL: Wisconsin is playing its first two-game series in East Lansing since Nov. 2-3, 1979, when both teams were members of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The Badgers won the first game, 6-4, and the Spartans earned a split with a 5-4 win in the series finale. Ron Mason was in his first season as MSU coach. The legendary Bob Johnson coached the Badgers.
After the 1980-81 season, MSU, Michigan, Michigan Tech and Notre Dame left the WCHA and joined the CCHA. Starting with the 1981-82 season, Michigan State and Wisconsin played only once through 1992-93. That was a 4-3 Badgers win in the 1987 Great Lakes Invitational.
The two schools started playing each other again in 1993 with the formation of the College Hockey Showcase, which brought together MSU and Michigan and the two Big Ten teams in the WCHA, Wisconsin and Minnesota. But it was only one game - Minnesota one night, Wisconsin the next over Thanksgiving weekend.
From 1993 to 2002, MSU held a 11-2 edge over the Badgers. But then the series turned in favor of Wisconsin, which has an 8-1-1 edge over the Spartans during the last 11 seasons.
Until this season and Wisconsin's 5-2 and 2-0 sweep three weeks ago in Madison, the teams had not played since the Showcase ended in 2010. MSU did play Minnesota in nonconference series over the last two seasons, but not Wisconsin.
Michigan State is winless (0-5-1) in its last six games against the Badgers. The Spartans' last victory was more than nine years ago -- a 4-0 shutout by goalie Dominic Vicari on Nov. 26, 2004,in the College Hockey Showcase at the Kohl Center in Madison.
Wisconsin is 3-0-1 in its last four games at Munn Arena. The last time the Spartans defeated the Badgers at home was on Nov. 23, 2001 - a 2-1 victory.
Overall, MSU holds a 46-44-3 edge in the series against Wisconsin, which started with a 9-2 Spartan win on Dec. 11, 1964. The Spartans won the first nine meetings from 1964-1967 when the Badgers were just starting their program.
GOALTENDING PLANS? Coach Tom Anastos said he and his coaching staff haven't decided on how they'll use their goaltenders against the Badgers.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we played both guys on the weekend,'' Anastos said. "I think it's important that Jake (Hildebrand) gets his confidence to where it needs to be, and it was nice to see what Will (Yanakeff) did (against Michigan last Saturday).''
Hildebrand started both games against the Wolverines, but, for various reasons, he was replaced by Yanakeff - after two periods and MSU down 5-1 on Friday and after one period and the Spartans trailing 3-1 on Saturday.
Yanakeff, who had not played since Nov. 9 at Michigan Tech, allowed two goals on Friday in the 7-1 loss, but was unbeatable on Saturday as the Spartans rallied for a 4-3 victory. Yanakeff made 24 saves in 40 minutes of play and evened his record at 2-2 for the season.
A few times this season, Anastos said at his weekly press conference that Yanakeff would start a certain game on the weekend. But Yanakeff then suffered a freak injury - toe, leg of off-ice concussion - and that would negate his start.
"I'm not going to come out and say who's going to play because every time I do that, it never plays out. So, we'll wait,'' Anastos said. "I just want to have two guys who are playing well.''
Even though most of the eight goals allowed by Hildebrand over six periods against U-M weren't his fault, Anastos didn't feel he was seeing the puck as well as usual and thought the goals on Saturday went in too easy.
But the Spartan coach is confident his sophomore goaltender, who's been outstanding almost all season, will bounce back and be ready for next week's Big Ten Tournament.
"I'm sure that he's a bit down. I talked to him (early this week) and told him we haven't lost any confidence, and that he should just go out and play and put all that stuff behind him,'' Anastos said. "I'm confident that he'll rebound. He works very hard.''
Saturday is Senior Day so it's possible that Hildebrand would start on Friday and Yanakeff make his final start at home on Saturday.
Hildebrand has played in 30 games this season, he has an 8-14-7 record, a 2.41 goals-against average and a .925 saves percentage. Only 13 goaltenders have played more minutes than Hildebrand's 1,766 in 30 games starts.
BIG TEN POTPOURRI: In addition to the MSU-Wisconsin series, the conference's first regular season closes out with Minnesota playing at Michigan and Ohio State visiting Penn State. In previous series, the Gophers swept the Wolverines in Minneapolis and the Buckeyes won two from the Nittany Lions in Columbus.
Minnesota and Wisconsin will finish first or second and earn first-round byes in the tournament. Michigan is locked in for third place and will play Penn State in the quarterfinals next Thursday. The Michigan-Penn State winner plays the No. 2 seed - most likely Wisconsin - on Friday, while the MSU-Ohio State survivor meets the No. 1 seed, most likely Minnesota on Friday. ... Ohio State junior forward Ryan Dzingel holds a one-point lead in the Big Ten scoring race with 21 points - 10 goals, 11 assists. Wisconsin senior forward Mark Zengerle is a point back with seven goals and 13 assists for 20 points, while Badger teammate Nic Kerdiles is two points behind Dzingel, with eight goals and 11 assists for 19 points. Michigan freshman forward JT Compher is fourth in scoring with 18 points (8-10), and Wisconsin senior forward Michael Mersch is fifth with 17 points (12-5). Mersch is the top goal-scorer in conference play. ... Dzingel is also the overall scoring leader with 18 goals and 22 assists for 40 points, four more than Zengerle (9-27-36). Mersch leads the conference with 20 goals, nine on the power play. ... Minnesota's Mike Reilly is the highest-scoring defenseman with eight goals and 20 assists for 28 points. The Spartans' Jake Chelios is third with 20 points (2-18). .... The Big Ten award winners will be announced on Tuesday, one day before the teams converge on St. Paul for the Big Ten Tournament.
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