Neil's Notebook: Special Teams Push Spartans to Victory
March 15, 2014
By Neil Koepke
EAST LANSING - Michigan State's special teams have not been very special this season. They've been very disappointing.
The power play has struggled to score goals and penalty killing hasn't been nearly as effective as the Spartans hoped.
On Friday night, Michigan State was perfect on the power play and perfect killing penalties in the opening game of a Big Ten series with Wisconsin.
For one of the few times this season, the power play was the reason the Spartans came away with a victory as they scored three goals with a man advantage in a 5-4 overtime win over the No. 5 Badgers.
In front of an announced crowd of 4,406, Lee Reimer's power-play goal 46 seconds into overtime gave MSU back-to-back victories over top-ranked teams for the first time this season.
Last Saturday, the fifth-place Spartans (11-16-7 overall, 5-8-6-4 Big Ten) overcame a 2-0 deficit and defeated then-No. 11/12 Michigan, 4-3. On Friday, Wisconsin (21-10-2, 12-6-1-0) saw its four-game winning streak come to an end.
The Spartans' power-play went 3-for-3, with power-play goals in the first and third periods and overtime. They skated off Wisconsin's only power play in the second period.
"It's important for our confidence and because we haven't won many games during the season as a result of special teams,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "Tonight, our special teams contributed. Wisconsin had only one power play, so we stayed out of the box and that's a good things.
"And being 3-for-3 on the power play was outstanding. This should be a nice confidence boost for our special teams.''
MSU has now scored five power-play goals in its last three games, with one man-advantage goals in both games against Michigan.
The Spartans were 0-for-16 in the four games before the U-M series and only 4-for-44 in the 13 contests before last weekend. In a recent seven-game stretch, MSU allowed nine power-play goals, including two against Ohio State, two in both games at Wisconsin and two last Friday at Michigan.
The Spartans, who saw the Badgers rally from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game with two goals within 4 minutes and 6 seconds in the second period, got a break in the last minute of the third period. Wisconsin senior forward Tyler Barnes was called for slashing at 19:37.
The power play carried over into overtime and MSU clicked again with a grinder-type goal that developed in the left corner in the Wisconsin zone.
Greg Wolfe knocked the puck off the dasher boards, it landed at his feet and eventually bounced to Brett Darnell, who tapped it into the left circle toward Reimer.
Reimer, with a Badger behind him, drove to the net, and with the puck bouncing around, he went to his backhand and flipped it into the left corner, touching off a wild victory celebration in the right corner.
"I cycled the puck down to Wolfe, Darnell was battling with a guy and it kind of popped out into the (left circle). I went to the net and was able to get my shot off,'' Reimer said. "I kind of fanned on the shot but it still got up and over (goalie Joel Rumpel's glove).''
Said Wolfe, Reimer's linemate: "That's an overtime goal. It's kind of a hard-work goal on a power play. We got in there quick, I found Darnell, he found Reimer and he didn't make a mistake.
''That's probably the most patient we've been on the power play all season. On one power play, we were trying to get (DeBlouw) a good shot. He's got a bomb (of a shot) and he just rang one off the post before (he set up Berry).''
Only once this season has MSU scored three power-play goals in a game - against Princeton, going 3-for-7 in an 8-2 win on Dec. 2. The Spartans have clicked for two power-play goals in a 5-2 loss against Michigan on Jan. 24 and in a 2-2 tie vs. Ohio State on Feb. 8.
"A lot of games in college hockey come down to special teams. When your power play is going well, it helps a lot," said Berry, who had two goals, his 8th and 9th of the season. "That kind of won us the game tonight.
"I think we have more skill out there and we're just clicking. We're finding each other and we're getting everyone to touch the puck.''
Michigan State's power play is converting on 15.7 percent (21 goals, 134 opportunities) of its chances, which ranks 43rd nationally among 59 teams. The penalty kill is only 79.4 percent effective (27 goals allowed, 131 opponents' power plays), ranking 47th.
"I don't know if the special teams having success was because of the (new) line combinations, but they seemed to have found some chemistry,'' Anastos said. "Wisconsin's a good defensive team and has a darn good goaltender. The puck went in for us and that's a good sign.''
After going 11 games scoring two or fewer goals, the Spartans are suddenly on a tear, with nine goals in their last two games. MSU is 10-1-1 in games in which it has scored three goals or more.
On Friday, the Spartans made solid plays on offense with a higher skill level, resulting some of the best goals of the season.
Haag's goal came off a nice pass and quick shot. Berry got a step on the Badger defense and made a good play to beat goalie Rumpel in the second period after being set up with a good pass from Haag.
"Our first period was really good, even though it didn't start so well again,'' Anastos said, referring to the Badgers taking a 1-0 lead two minutes into the game.
"I thought we could have had four goals (instead of two). We had some really good chances. In the second period, you know they were going to come on and we weathered the storm to a certain extent but they climbed back into it.
"We got back on the offensive more in the third period. With the ebb and flow of the game, we did some good things but there were some mistakes that we made that we had to overcome. Some cost us goals, but our overall effort was strong.
"I don't like to give up four goals, but as long as we have more, especially considering our struggles to score, I'm looking at it as a positive.''
EARLY TURNAROUND: The Spartans and Badgers will close out the series and regular season at 4 p.m. Saturday at Munn Arena. It's Senior Night and six MSU seniors will be saluted in ceremonies beginning at 3:45 p.m. Departing seniors include forwards Greg Wolfe, Lee Reimer and Dean Chelios, defensemen Jake Chelios and Nickolas Gatt and goaltender Will Yanakeff.
FIRST FOR HOOMAIAN: Sophomore forward Justin Hoomaian scored his first career goal as a Spartan at 9:42 of the first period when he got to a loose puck in front of the net and wristed it into the left corner to tie the game 1-1. Dean Chelios also followed through with a shooting motion but he never touched the puck.
Hoomaian, playing on the fourth line and seeing limited action, was the only Spartan to win more faceoffs than he lost. He went 3-1 on faceoffs. Hoomaian, a walk-on from Canton, has played in nine games, including the last two - victories over Michigan and Wisconsin.
FOURTH PLACE STILL IN SIGHT: The victory kept alive MSU's hopes for overtaking Ohio State and finishing in fourth place. The Buckeyes on Friday stayed two points ahead of the Spartans with a 4-2 win at Penn State.
If MSU defeats Wisconsin and Ohio State loses at PSU on Saturday, the Spartans would finish with 28 points to 27 for OSU. The reward for placing fourth? It's better saying you finished in fourth place than fifth and, as the higher seed, you get the final change for the No. 4 vs. No. 5 quarterfinal matchup in the Big Ten Tournament next Thursday.
The Spartans and Buckeyes will meet at 8 p.m. on Thursday at Xcel Energy Arena in St. Paul Minn. In the first quarterfinal, second-place Michigan faces No. 6 Penn State at 3 p.m.
BERRY'S BACK AND DELIVERS: Junior forward Matt Berry sat out last Saturday's win over Michigan because he was sick and had some groin issues that he's dealt with all season, after off-season surgery. But he was back in the lineup on Friday, and even if he wasn't 100 percent, he played with lots of energy and his skill played a key role in an important victory.
"He's an important guy to have in the lineup and an important guy to be playing hard,'' Anastos said. "He gave us what he had and scored two goals, one on the power play. He's one of those guys that thrives when he gets one early. He made a nice shot on that breakaway goal.''
Berry, who missed MSU's first eight games of the season, and 12 of the first 14, has nine goals and seven assists for 16 points in 21 games. He led the Spartans in scoring last season with 15 goals and 31 points in 41 games.
"I kind of figured after last week that I'd be playing this weekend,'' Berry said. "I just had to work it out, take a day off and get some rest. I started skating (early in the week) and it felt better.
"I don't feel it every shift, but when you come off, you feel it, having a sore groin. You just try not to let it bother you and kind of tune it out. After a game, it's bad sometimes and other times, it's not as bad. It depends how the game goes.''
Berry said he's perked up by MSU's recent offensive surge.
"It's really good in the locker room when we're scoring four or five goals, compared to the stretch when we had like six goals in four or five games,'' he said. "It was one or two goals for a long time. We're starting to get over that hump.''
HILDEBRAND REBOUNDS: Even though he gave up four goals, sophomore Jake Hildebrand showed flashes of his usual high-level form with a few excellent saves among his 27 stops, especially in the second period.
Wisconsin's first goal came on a deflection on a shot from the right point, and the second and third were the result of MSU turnovers that turned into odd-man rushes for the opportunistic Badgers.
Last weekend, Hildebrand gave up eight goals against Michigan - five in two periods on Friday in a 7-1 loss and three in one period on Saturday in MSU's 4-3 victory.
"He was tracking the puck better,'' Anastos said. "I haven't seen all their goals back, but on the first one, their guy tips the puck out of mid-air. That puck had eyes. It was a hard puck to play.
"Wisconsin made a good play on the 2-on-1 when we made a turnover at the blue line. You never want to see four goals go in your net, but they had to earn their goals.''
DEBLOUW BEST PLAY: Matt DeBlouw, a sophomore forward, is becoming a force on the power play with a great shot from the point. Last Saturday against Michigan, his slap shot from the right point on a power play was deflected into the net by Lee Reimer late in the second period to cut MSU's deficit to 3-2 and get the crowd into the game.
On Friday against Wisconsin, DeBlouw hit the right post on a power play and a few seconds later, he looked like he was shooting, but instead sent a pass to the left of the net to a wide-open Berry for a defection goal.
But DeBlouw's best play of the game might have been a defensive move to thwart a 2-on-1 rush in the final seconds of the third period, and the Spartans on a power play. He got back fast and was in good position to bottle up the rush.
"Matt had a good game and the play on the 2-on-1 might have been his play of the game,'' Anastos said. "He played that situation well. Late in the game, the ice isn't great and the puck starts to bounce. We were fortunate.''
REIMER'S GOAL PREVENTS SHOOTOUT: Michigan State has played seven ties this season and it looked like Friday's game would end that way too, with another shootout on the horizon.
But Lee Reimer was in the right place at the right time and made a nice move to get to the net and his backhander gave the Spartans their first overtime win of the season. MSU was 0-1-7 in eight overtimes this season. It was Reimer's eighth goal of the season, fifth in his last nine games and second against Wisconsin.
"That's a big goal for him,'' Anastos said. "There were parts of his game that were pretty good and parts of the game when he was fighting the puck a little. But he hung in there and worked hard all game.
"On the winning goal, he was very tenacious in staying on the puck. The puck was bouncing around. It was sure nice to see the puck go in.''
Michigan State's last overtime win was in the first game of a CCHA first-round playoff series last season at Alaska - a 2-1 victory on March 8, 2013. The Spartans' last OT win at home was on Jan. 7, 2011 - a 4-3 decision over Michigan.
So, Friday's extra-period thriller was Anastos' first OT success at home in three seasons as coach.
HAIL TO THE CHAMPS: Minnesota clinched Big Ten's hockey's first regular-season championship on Friday with a 3-2 victory in overtime at Michigan. Kyle Rau scored a power-play goal at 2:44 of OT to wrap up the title. Only Wisconsin could have overtaken the Gophers, who entered the weekend with a five-point lead.
Wisconsin would have had to sweep Michigan State and have Minnesota lose two games or lose one game and tie and lose in a shootout to finish ahead of the Gophers. The Gophers are now 3-0 vs. the Wolverines this season.
SPARTAN POTPOURRI: Spartan captain Greg Wolfe, who plays in his last game at Munn Arena on Saturday, had three assists on Friday - all on power plays. Wolfe continues to lead MSU in scoring, now with 12 goal and 17 assists for 29 points. ... The Spartans blocked 22 shots against Wisconsin, while the Badgers had 16 blocks. MSU defenseman John Draeger led his team in blocks with four, while fellow defensemen Travis Walsh, Jake Chelios and RJ Boyd had three blocks apiece. ... Matt DeBlouw and Matt Berry led MSU in shots on goal with five apiece. Villiam Haag and Michael Ferrantino each had four shots. ... Brent Darnell, who set up the Spartans' winning goal by Mackenzie MacEachern against U-M last Saturday, assisted on Reimer's game-winner on Friday. ... MSU's victory ended Wisconsin's unbeaten streak against the Spartans at eight games (7-0-1). It was MSU's first win over the Badgers since Nov. 26, 2004 - a 4-0 triumph in Madison in the College Hockey Showcase. Wisconsin's five game winning streak over MSU and a four-game unbeaten streak (3-0-1) at Munn Arena also ended. The last time the Spartans defeated the Badgers at Munn Arena was in a 2-1 victory on Nov. 30, 2001.
at the official