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Neil's Notebook: Early Deficit Too Much to Overcome

Lee Reimer

March 16, 2014

By Neil Koepke staff writer

EAST LANSING - Michigan State has had a few bad first periods this season, but none as horrible as its opening 20 minutes against Wisconsin on Saturday night at Munn Arena.

Just a few minutes after the Spartans and their fans saluted six seniors, Michigan State had its worst first period in 35 regular-season games.

From the opening faceoff to the end of the period buzzer, there was nothing good about the period.

Before the game was three minutes old, the Spartans were down 1-0 -- the fifth consecutive game that they've allowed an early goal.

Before the game was five minutes old, MSU was two goals down.

Things got even worse later in the period. Wisconsin made it 3-0 at 14:52 and just 1 minute and 39 seconds later, the Spartans found themselves facing a 4-0 deficit.

But on Senior Night and in the final regular season game of the season, the Spartans fought back, made a game of it, and almost tied it in the third period. But the Badgers held on for a 4-3 victory in front of an announced crowd of 4,822.

"We dug ourselves a hole we couldn't dig out of,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "When the puck drops, you have to figure out how to be ready. Clearly, Wisconsin was ready. They had a very dominant first period but the game changed totally in the second period.

"I'm disappointed. You want to win your last game here, you want to win the last game for the seniors and I thought we left something on the table.''

Goals by Matt Berry early in the second period, Dean Chelios late in the second and Villiam Haag five minutes into the third period made it a one-goal game and set up an exciting finish.



"On the bright side, this again showed our resiliency to keep coming back,'' Anastos said. "It also showed we competed hard in the last 40 minutes, but it leaves you wanting in that other 20 minutes.''

Despite several quality scoring chances late in the third period, with a lot of pucks bouncing around the net, the Spartans couldn't come all the way back from their four-goal deficit and the night ended on a sour note.

All because of the first 20 minutes.

"We came out flat and they were putting up some good shots and capitalized on everything they did,'' senior left wing Dean Chelios said. "When you start in a 4-0 hold against a team like Wisconsin, it kind of gets you down.

"But we came into the (intermission) and said `let's worry about the next shift and just play hard'. I thought we played pretty well for the last 40 minutes. "If we play that way in the Big Ten Tournament, we can do well.''

If the Spartans, who won Friday's series opener 5-4 in overtime, would have swept the Badgers, they would have finished in fourth place in the Big Ten, one point ahead of Ohio State, which lost 4-2 Saturday at Penn State.

But MSU came up two goals short of a victory and it ends the first season of Big Ten play in fifth place, two points in back of the fourth-place Buckeyes.

The goals went in fairly easy and often for Wisconsin, which scored four times on nine shots in the first period.

Badger freshman forward Nic Kerdiles started the Spartans' nightmare with a power-play goal at 2:55. From the top of the right circle, Kerdiles one-timed a perfect feed from Mark Zengerle past MSU senior goaltender Will Yanakeff.

Badgers senior Gavin Hartzog, a former forward who's not back on defense and was playing in his first game this season, wristed a harmless-looking shot from the left point through a screen and the puck eluded Yanakeff at 4:27.

Sean Little scored on a rebound from the left edge of the crease at 14:52 and freshman Grant Besse made it 4-0 when his low wrist shot from the left circle hit the right post and caromed into the net at 16:31.

"They came out with a bit of an edge after what happened on Friday night with that late penalty call (that gave us a power play in overtime),'' MSU senior defenseman Jake Chelios said. "They came out flying and we didn't respond until the second period.''

Yanakeff, who played very well last weekend against Michigan in taking over for regular starter Jake Hildebrand, wasn't in sync in the first period of his final home game. But he battled through it and played well in the second and third periods, as did his teammates.

"I was excited to get the start tonight but obviously I wasn't expecting it to be 4-0 after the first period,'' said Yanakeff, who finished with 18 saves in his fourth start of the season.

"It was one of those nights for me. I wasn't seeing the puck very well and a few (shots) I didn't see but there's no excuses. You have to get in the way sometimes. But these guys came back and played hard in the second and third periods and that was good to see.

"I thought we were going to tie it. The way the puck was bouncing, it could have gone either way.''

Anastos said he considered a goaltender change after the first period, but after talking with Yanakeff, he stuck with him and allowed him to bounce back.

"I talked to him during the intermission and I wanted to give him the opportunity to play and not let this be the last taste in his mouth,'' Anastos said. "But we had to focus on making whatever changes were necessary to win the game.

"I talked to him one-on-one and he assured me that he was eager and hungry and could overcome the first period. And he did. You could see it in his eyes. He didn't want that to be it.''

So Anastos kept Jake Hildebrand on the bench and stayed with his senior on Senior Night.

As a group, the Spartans were a totally different team in the second and third periods and had the Badgers on the run.

"We did a way better job of possessing the puck, getting in on the forecheck, moving the puck out of our zone, with the exception of a two or three instances in which we got trapped in our zone,'' Anastos said. "It was a much better game.''

The Spartans started their comeback with Berry's power-play goal just 1:26 into the second period with one of the most bizarre goals of the season.

Berry's shot from the left circle deflected off the stick of Badgers goalie Joel Rumpel and bounced out front where it was swatted away from the net by Wisconsin defenseman Frankie Simonelli. But the puck hit the helmet of Badger forward Michael Mersch about six feet outside the crease and bounced back toward the net and floated over Rumpel's right shoulder and into the net.

After freshman Joe Cox missed a penalty shot at 5:45 - he was tripped up on a rush to the net by Wisconsin defenseman Kevin Schulze - MSU cut its deficit to 4-2 when Dean Chelios scored from 40 feet out in the right circle at 9:50.

Haag made it really interesting when he beat Rumpel, driving in from the left circle, to the far right corner of the net at 5:25 of the third period. The Spartans pushed for the tying goal and another miracle finish but couldn't convert some good chances around Rumpel.

"The main thing that changed was our tenacity,'' Anastos said. "We played with a sense of urgency, we played in groups of five that moved up and down the ice, we played physically, we moved our feet, went to the net and did all the little things we need to do to have success.

"We didn't make any strategic changes. It was our commitment at a higher level.'' If that commitment had been visible in the first period, the Spartans would likely be celebrating a successful Senior Night and enjoying a three-game winning streak against two top-ranked teams.

SENIORS SAY GOODBYE: Six senior players and senior manager Tim Magee were saluted in Senior Night ceremonies before the game. Greg Wolfe, Lee Reimer, Dean and Jake Chelios, Nickolas Gatt and Will Yanakeff were introduced and took the traditional senior skate around the rink before their last game at Munn Arena.

TOURNEY TIME: The fifth-place Spartans are matched up against fourth-place Ohio State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament in St. Paul, Minn. MSU and OSU collide at 8 p.m. on Thursday. The winner plays No. 1 seed Minnesota at 8 p.m. on Friday.

In Thursday's quarterfinal opener, No. 3 seed Michigan plays No. 6 Penn State at 3 p.m. The winner meets No. 2 Wisconsin at 3 p.m. on Friday. The championship game is at 8 p.m. on Saturday.

Minnesota and Wisconsin appear to be locks to make the NCAA Tournament, no matter what they do in the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan could be on the bubble if they would lose to Penn State or beat Penn State and lose to Wisconsin.

MSU, OSU and Penn State have to win the championship to earn the conference's automatic NCAA bid to keep playing after next weekend.

BADGERS PLAY OVER ADVERSITY: Wisconsin started Saturday's game without one of its top defensemen due to injury and then lost its top scorer to a game misconduct seven minutes into the game, with the Badgers up 2-0.

Junior defenseman Jake McCabe, an alternate captain, sat out Saturday's game after taking a shot off his helmet in the third period on Friday. He suffered a deep laceration behind his left ear.

Wisconsin lost standout senior center Mark Zengerle (9-30-39) to a major penalty and game misconduct for a checking-from-behind penalty (against Villiam Haag) at 6:49 of the first period.

But the Badgers were able to extend their lead to 4-0, and then held on and didn't panic in the final 10 minutes, while protecting a one-goal lead and a desperate Michigan State team applying pressure.

Goaltender Joel Rumpel, who gave up five goals on Friday in a 5-4 overtime loss to MSU, made 29 saves, including 14 in the second period and 12 in the third.

Senior Gavin Hartzog, a one-time forward converted to defense this season, played his first game of the season Saturday and scored a goal on his first shot five minutes into the first period.

"In the end, we were asking an awful lot from people to play different roles,'' Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said.

BIG TEN POTPOURRI: Spartan senior captain Greg Wolfe finished tied for fifth in the Big Ten scoring race with five goals and 14 assists for 19 points in 20 Big Ten games. Ohio State junior forward Ryan Dzingel won the conference scoring title with 12 goals and 12 assists for 24 points, one more point than Wisconsin's Mark Zengerle (7-16-23).

In overall scoring, Dzingel led the Big Ten with 20 goals and 23 points for 43 points in 34 games. Wolfe tied for ninth with 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points. Zengerle was second in overall scoring with nine goals and 30 assists for 39 points. ... Minnesota junior goaltender Adam Wilcox had the best goals-against average at 1.64, with a .941 saves percentage and 13-2-3 record. MSU's Hildebrand was No. 4 with a 2.60 GAA, a .924 saves percentage and a 4-8-6 record. In overall games, Wilcox is No. 1 with a 1.91 GAA, a .930 saves percentage and a 23-4-6 record. Hildebrand is fifth overall (2.46 GAA, .923 saves percentage, 9-14-7 record). In the final Big Ten regular season game, Michigan dominated top-ranked Minnesota, 6-2, at Yost Arena, to earn a series split. The Gophers topped the Wolverines, 3-2 in overtime on Friday. Minnesota, the Big Ten regular season champion, won the season against U-M, 3-1.

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