March 14, 2013
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
OXFORD, Ohio - All season long, through lots of growing pains and frustration, Michigan State players often talked about improving every week and trying to be playing its best hockey late in the season.
For sure, the Spartans wished it hadn't taken so long but right now Michigan State is playing as well as it has all year.
That's was huge reason for the Spartans' upset of Alaska last weekend in a CCHA first-round playoff series, and it's why MSU is hopeful of shocking the college hockey world again, this time against CCHA regular-season champion Miami this weekend in Oxford, Ohio.
The Spartans are a huge underdog against the No. 3-ranked RedHawks, but they believe another upset is not just a pipe-dream.
MSU is suddenly playing with some swagger and confidence and with a high compete level that helped this last-place team defeat sixth-place Alaska in a best-of-three series, 2-1, winning the deciding game, 4-3, early Monday morning.
"I thought we showed our character and a will to win. We've learned a lot through some tough losses this year,'' Spartan captain and junior right wing Greg Wolfe said. "Our attitude last weekend was that we were not leaving Alaska without a series win.
"It's more of a mindset and that's what we need to bring to Miami. We have the confidence that we know we can play like that. So there's no reason we can't come out with another series win.''
The Spartans (13-23-3 overall, 9-18-1 CCHA) and Miami (22-9-5, 17-7-4) meet at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and if necessary on Sunday at Steve Cady Arena in Oxford. The RedHawks last weekend had a first-round bye.
Last weekend, MSU edged Alaska 2-1 in overtime in Game 1 of the first-round series on Friday. Freshman Matt DeBlouw scored the winner, ending a 10-game goal drought. But the Nanooks evened the series with a 4-1 victory on Saturday.
That set up the Spartans' most dramatic, do-or-die win in several seasons.
On Sunday, MSU broke a 1-1 tie with two quick goals in the second period, and extended its lead to 4-1 on Anthony Hayes' goal in the first minute of the third period. The Nanooks were held in check until the final three minutes, when they struck for goals at 17:30 and 18:49 to cut MSU's lead to 4-3 and make for a pressure-filled ending. But the Spartans survived and claimed their first playoff series win since 2007.
MSU had lost 10 straight CCHA playoff games, going back to the 2008 season and five consecutive series.
For the seniors, the two victories were especially rewarding.
"It's awesome. Playing here the last three seasons, we haven't had much of a postseason,'' senior forward and assistant captain Chris Forfar said. "Going up to Alaska again was rough on our bodies, but we came out with two wins against a good team.''
Hayes, another senior who serves as an assistant captain, was thrilled to be finally part of a team that won a playoff series and still has a chance to make it to Detroit for the CCHA Championship.
"It was great to experience this with this group of guys,'' he said. "It was good to see a consistent effort from everybody for three straight nights. We had all 20 guys show up. We didn't do the Jekyll and Hyde thing that we've been doing all season.
"It was a huge testament to our team seeing that everybody was able to stay tuned in and concentrated on the right things - like the way everyone stayed composed when Alaska scored those two late goals.''
Hayes said nobody got uptight or freaked out on the bench in the last minute, with the Spartans holding a one-goal lead and Alaska desperate to keep its season going.
"Everybody remained confident,'' he said. "And that was something that earlier in the season we might not have been able to pull off. We've been a fragile team for so long, but I think we're starting to create an identity, and we're no longer fragile.
"We can take some ups and downs and continue to perform at a high level. That's something I'm proud of about this team for. That's a huge step that we've made.''
The Spartans have taken huge steps over the last month. Since Feb. 8, MSU is 6-4 with a victory over Bowling Green, splits against Northern Michigan, Alaska and Western Michigan and going 2-1 at Alaska in the CCHA playoffs.
"Over the last month, we've seemed to find ourselves. We've switched up our strategy a little in that we're more committed to playing defense,'' Wolfe said. "Our team defense was really good at Alaska, especially the play by the defensemen. That had some strong games, making good plays and making it easier on the forwards.
"We've switched things up in our zone and started to pack it in a little more, and that's actually helped our offense. We're kind of cheating back to the front of the net and getting in shot lanes, instead of chasing guys around.''
The Spartans will need excellent defense and goaltending and an opportunistic offense to upset one of the best teams in the nation. The RedHawks have some speedy, highly skilled forwards, but they're known more for their defense.
Miami's 1.67 goals-against average is the best in the CCHA and second in the nation, just behind Quinnipiac's 1.59. The RedHawks have allowed only 58 goals in 36 games. The Spartans have given up 107 in 39 games for an average of 2.74, 8th in the CCHA and 31st nationally.
Offensively, Miami averages 2.53 goals a game, fifth in the CCHA, and that's a little surprising considering the RedHawks boast two of the top scorers in the league in freshman Riley Barber and sophomore Austin Czarnik. Barber leads the CCHA in overall scoring with 15 goals and 21 assists for 36 points, while Czarnik is tied for fourth with 11 goals and 22 assists for 33 points.
Barber and Czarnik were named to the CCHA All-Conference First Team.
The RedHawks have national championship hopes despite freshmen playing major roles. They usually having eight rookies in the lineup each game, including in goal in either Ryan McKay (1.17 goals-against average, .957 save percentage, 10-42 record) or Jay Williams (1.89 GAA, .926 save percentage, 12-5-3).
Miami had three players named to the All-CCHA Rookie Team - Barber, McKay and defenseman Matthew Caito.
"Miami plays hard and with great intensity. We have to match that intensity on the road," MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "This week, it's less about strategy than getting our minds and bodies ready to play.
"Miami plays really hard along the boards. They're skilled enough to move up and down the ice and make plays, and yet they're strong enough and talented enough to grind things down low.
"They're very predictable on defense, and I'm saying that as a compliment. They're so good defensively. They aren't easy to play against.''
The Spartans and RedHawks played a series in Oxford four months ago in mid-November. The teams played to a 2-2 tie in the series opener, with MSU coming back from a 2-0 deficit midway through the second period. In the second game, the RedHawks blanked MSU, 2-0, with Williams getting the shutout.
"We're a lot different team now than we we're back then, and they are, too,'' Anastos said.
Despite the RedHawks high-end skill on offense, Miami has been shut out six times -- more times than any team in the CCHA. MSU and Western Michigan have been blanked five times.
So how do the Spartans put themselves in position to win two games and earn their first trip to the CCHA Championship in Detroit since 2007?
"Miami is a deep team, with a lot of good players and not many holes on their roster,'' Wolfe said. "We need our whole team going again this weekend. It can't be just a few guys.
"Defensively, we have to do the same things we did in Alaska. We have to cheat a little in the defensive zone and make sure we have the basics covered, and then offensively it's getting the puck to the net, with bodies in front. We have to put pressure on their goalies.''
The RedHawks, who didn't clinch first place until the last night of the season with a 4-2 win over Ohio State, are 10-3 since mid-January.
"We're going to have to continue to play with the high compete level we've had over the last few weeks,'' Hayes said. "Regardless of how the tempo is going, whether we're up by a couple of goals or down by a couple goals, we have to keep that compete level as high as it's been all season.
"We have to be consistent and keep our emotions in check. We're not concerned about playing a spoiler's role. We're just looking to have success for our program.''
And the more solid performances, victories and series wins, the better it is for a group of players benefiting from the experience and a program going through a rebuilding process.
"Any level of success you have becomes a building block to what you're trying to achieve,'' Anastos said. "It was really important to go (to Alaska) under difficult circumstances, fight through some things and find a way to win.
"That is very important for us as a building block to getting where we want to get to. You have to learn how to win.''
LOOKING BACK: The Spartans and RedHawks are meeting in the second round of the CCHA playoffs for the second consecutive season. Last year, Miami finished fourth and MSU was fifth, each earning first-round byes.
The two teams played in Oxford and it was no contest. The RedHawks were in complete control, winning 6-0 and 4-1. Miami went on to the CCHA Championship in Detroit but lost in the semifinals to Western Michigan, 6-2. The Spartans still had shot at an NCAA berth, and after all the conference tournaments finished, MSU learned it had earned an at-large berth.
Both the Spartans and the RedHawks played in the NCAA East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn. MSU lost to Union 3-1, and Miami got upset by UMass-Lowell 4-3 in overtime. Union then defeated UMass-Lowell 4-2 to earn its first trip the NCAA Frozen Four in Tampa. Union lost to Ferris State 3-1 in the NCAA semifinals.
Miami has qualified for the NCAA Tournament for seven consecutive seasons and eight of the last nine. Sitting at No. 3 in the latest PairWise Rankings, the RedHawks' streak is a cinch to climb to eight in a row and nine of the last 10.
GOALTENDING DECISION: The Spartans have two goaltenders playing at a high level in junior Will Yanakeff and freshman Jake Hildebrand. Yanakeff got his game and confidence back three weeks ago during MSU's first visit to Alaska. He played two outstanding games in a 1-0 win and 4-1 loss to the Nanooks.
Hildebrand played in both games of the Spartans' final regular-season series against Western Michigan, March 1-2, because Yanakeff suffered a lower-body injury in practice that week. In the second game, Hildebrand earned his first career shutout as the Spartans blanked the Broncos, 1-0.
In the playoff series at Alaska last weekend, Anastos went with Yanakeff in goal in the first game - a 2-1 win in overtime - and came back with him in the Game 2. Yanakeff played well in a 4-1 loss, but Anasatos came back with a well-rested Hildebrand in Game 3. Hildebrand responded with a strong, 27-save performance in the memorable 4-3 series-clinching victory.
So, what does Anastos do this weekend?
He and his coaching staff will watch both goaltenders in practices leading up to Friday's game, discuss the variables and then make a decision as to who they believe gives the Spartans the best chance to win the series opener.
"We really don't know at this point,'' Anastos said during media interviews on Tuesday. "We'll come up with a decision for Friday, and that dictates what happens on Saturday.
"Will has re-established his confidence and his play. We have two goalies ready to play.''
CCHA LINEUP: In others CCHA second-round series, No. 2-seed Notre Dame hosts No. 7 Bowling Green, No. 3 Western Michigan plays No. 6 Michigan in Kalamazoo, and No. 5 Ferris State plays at No. 4 Ohio State.
The Broncos won the Mason Cup as playoff champions last season, defeating Michigan 3-2 in the championship game.
The Final CCHA Championship is next Saturday and Sunday afternoons at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
ANOTHER SPARTAN IN THE NHL: Former MSU forward Chris Mueller was called up to the NHL's Nashville Predators on Wednesday from the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League.
Mueller, a Spartan from 2004-08 and a member of the 2007 NCAA championship team, is Milwaukee's second-leading scorer with 18 goals and 18 assists for 36 points in 55 games. He played in 15 games for the Predators in 2010-11 and had three assists, and appeared in four games with Nashville in 2011-12 and did not have any points.
Mueller will be the 14th Spartan to play in the NHL this season.