Neil’s Notebook: Familiar Foes Square Off in B1G Tourney Quarterfinals
Neil Koepke previews Thursday's quarterfinal matchup with Ohio State.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
ST. PAUL, Minn. – For the last month, Michigan State has been on a mission to be playing its best hockey of the season entering the Big Ten Tournament.
For sure, the Spartans haven’t been great over the last 12 games. But they’ve been competitive, beat a couple top teams, swept a series, and they’ve found a way to be difficult to play against.
Now it is Showtime.
It’s time to be that crazy underdog that lifts its game to a high level, pulls off some upsets and has some fun in extending its season as long as possible.
The Big Ten Tournament is what Michigan State has been focusing on since mid-January, when the season had turned sour and the rallying point was being a different team in mid-March.
The Spartans, 5-5-2 since ending their dreaded eight-game losing streak, begin postseason play against familiar rival Ohio State at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday in the Big Ten quarterfinals at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
If MSU (10-22-4, 6-12-2-1) defeats the Buckeyes (13-17-4, 8-8-4-1), it’ll face regular-season champion Minnesota (19-16-0, 14-6-0) at 8:30 p.m. on Friday.
“We’re all pretty excited. The tournament looks pretty wide open,’’ MSU senior captain and center Mike Ferrantino said. “The last few weeks have shown that anybody can beat anybody else in this league on any given night, so that should make for some fun hockey.
“I like where we’re at as a team. We’ve come together at the right time, and we’re playing our best hockey and have figured out what we need to do to win games.’’
In the other bracket in the Big Ten tourney, No. 3 seed Penn State plays No. 6 Wisconsin at 5 p.m. on Thursday, with the winner facing No. 2 Michigan in the semfinals at 5 p.m. on Friday. The championship game is at 8 p.m. on Saturday.
Michigan State and Ohio State are playing for the third time in seven days. The Spartans lost to the Buckeyes in a crazy, wide-open affair, 6-5 in overtime, last Friday, before the teams played to a 1-1 tie on Senior Night on Saturday, with MSU winning the shootout, 1-0.
In the four-game series this season, Ohio State holds a 2-1-1 edge with each team scoring 11 goals. In late January, MSU won 4-2 at OSU, with the last goal scored into an empty net, and lost the series finale, 2-1.
“Our four games against Ohio State statistically have been very tight. We’ve looked at a lot of detailed statistics and in most categories, (the numbers) are virtually the same,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “Whether it’s time of possession, shot attempts, grade A scoring attempts, it’s very, very close.
“They certainly know our team and we have a pretty good idea on what we can expect to see from them.’’
The Buckeyes, undefeated in their last seven games (5-0-2) are the ninth-highest scoring team in the nation, and No. 3 in the Big Ten, averaging 3.59 goals-per-game. But defensively, they’re ranked No. 53 nationally and fifth in the conference, averaging 3.47 goals against.
It’s a high-risk, high-reward type of game.
In its four previous series before last weekend, Ohio State found itself in some high-scoring contests:
A 5-4 overtime loss and 4-3 defeat at home against Minnesota;
A 6-1 loss and 7-4 win at Penn State;
A 4-4 tie and 7-4 victory at home against Wisconsin;
A 7-5 overtime victory at Michigan and a 6-5 overtime win in a home game at Nationwide Arena in Columbus.
Before Christmas, the Buckeyes had a 3-11 record.
Starting with the Florida Classic in Estero, Fla, near Fort Myers, they turned their season around. Since Dec. 28, OSU is 10-6-4 and it hasn’t lost since Feb. 20 at Penn State.
“They’re really a fast team and they love playing on the rush and scoring goals off the rush,’’ MSU senior defenseman Travis Walsh said. “It’ll be a fast-paced game and we have to try to slow them down.’’
What did the Spartans do from last Friday’s game to Saturday to limit the goal-hungry Buckeyes to one goal – and that was a fluke due to a weird bounce off the backboards?
“We were just smarter on the puck, smarter in our decision-making,’’ Walsh said. “We didn’t take as many chances and give them free odd-man rushes and things like that. We made them work for their chances. We have to be smart with the puck.’’
Spartans senior goaltender Jake Hildebrand’s career record against OSU is 4-7-4 but his numbers are very good. He has a 2.02 goals-against-average vs. the Buckeyes and a stellar .934 saves percentage.
“They’re a fun team to play against. They’re a highly skilled team, and every game we’ve played against them this year has been a one-goal game,’’ Hildebrand said. “This (situation) kind of reminds me of two years ago when three games (vs. OSU) went into overtime and then to a shootout and then we played them again in the Big Ten and lost in overtime.’’
In 2013-14, MSU lost the first meeting of the season, 5-3, and then it was three consecutive ties – 1-1 at OSU, 2-2 and 2-2 at Munn Arena. The Spartans won the first shootout and lost two at home. In the conference tournament, MSU took a 1-0 lead in the first period but found itself tied 1-1 when Ohio State scored late in the second.
After a scoreless third period, the Buckeyes scored at 4:23 of overtime on freshman defenseman Drew Brevig’s goal to win it 2-1.
“They have guys that can fly. They have speed and come at you hard off the rush and in transition,’’ Hildebrand said. “We have to slow them down. With the players they have, if you give them time and space, they’re going to hurt you. We have to limit that time and space.’’
Ferrantino said his team will have to play a smart, defensively sound game, like it did last Saturday, to contain OSU’s offense and give itself the best chance to win.
“We played a lot better defense with a lot better attention to details,’’ he said.
“The majority of their chances and goals come off the rush. They do a good job of pushing the pace with speed, back you off and look for the late guys. So they create that gap and separation.
“Backchecking will really be the key to making sure we’re tight to guys and we don’t let them loose.’’
After the disappointing stretch from mid-November to mid-January, Michigan State has been resilient in turning its game around the last two months. The team stayed together, worked hard to become more competitive and it has finally realized some success.
Over their last 13 games, the Spartans have been in position to win 11 of those contests. The only two in which they were heavily outplayed were the 4-1 loss at home against Michigan, Feb. 6, and the 6-1 defeat at home vs. Penn State, Feb. 13. In the others, MSU was in position to have success and played well enough to come away with wins.
“Our team knows the level we’re capable of playing, and if we play to that level, our team knows it can beat anybody we play,’’ Anastos said. “At the same time, that’s the challenge – finding that level of play and that consistency that gives us that chance.
“Our confidence level is much better than it was six-eight weeks ago. Now it’s a matter of playing with a sense of urgency. And execution is going to be important. We have to have a simplistic level of execution to keep our game really simple and try not to change the world and just play the game.
“When we do that, that makes us a hard team to play against and that’s what we want to be. That gives us the best chance to win.’’
SCOUTING THE BUCKEYES: Ohio State has six forwards with 10 goals or more. That’s second in the Big Ten to Michigan, which has seven. Penn State has five and Minnesota just has four.
Nick Schilkey, a junior right wing from Marysville, Mich., tops the Buckeyes in scoring with a team-high 19 goals and 22 assists for 41 points. Schilkey was selected to the All-Big Ten Second Team.
Junior right wing David Gust is the second-highest scorer with 10 goals and 24 assists for 34 points, and he’s followed by sophomore Matthew Weis (10-20-30), freshman center Mason Jobst (11-17-28), senior right wing Anthony Greco (12-10-22) and junior defensemen Josh Healey (5-14-19) and Drew Brevig (3-15-18).
Freshman left wing John Wiitala is OSU’s sixth 10-goal-plus scorer with 10 goals and seven assists for 17 points.
Healey, meanwhile, was selected All-Big Ten First Team defenseman.
In goal, junior Christian Fry is 8-10-3, with a 2.88 goals-against average and a .910 saves percentage. Matt Tompkins, a junior and now the backup, is 5-7-1, with a 3.87 GAA and a .888 saves percentage.
MSU’s top scorer against the Buckeyes this season is junior Mackenzie MacEachern with three goals and two assists for five points in four games. He’s also his team’s career leader vs. OSU in only three seasons, with four goals and eight points in 13 games.
During their careers, Ferrantino has one goal and six assists for seven points vs. OSU, while defenseman Travis Walsh has no goals and six assists. He’s followed by Cox (2-3-5), Keller (3-1-4), Thomas Ebbing (1-3-4) and Villiam Haag (1-2-3).
“These games will come down to who executes the best at key moments,’’ Anastos said. “You don’t know when those moments will come so you have to be ready for as long as the game is played.’’
PENALTY KILLING SIZZLES:The ability to consistently stymie the opposition’s power play has been one of Michigan State’s bright spots all season. Entering the postseason, the Spartans’ penalty-killing units are performing at a high level.
MSU hasn’t allowed a power-play goal in the last five games and skated off 16 consecutive power plays to wrap up the regular season.
The Spartans’ penalty killing ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten and No. 6 in the nation with an 86.2 percent efficiency.
Since mid-January, MSU has had great success against four teams with power plays ranked in the top 15 in the nation:
MSU’s penalty kill went 5-for-5 in a series at Minnesota (ranked No. 15); 7-for-7 at Ohio State (No. 10); 7-for-8 against Michigan (No 4) and 4-for-4 vs. Ohio State (No. 9) at Munn Arena last weekend.
The last power-play goal allowed by MSU was against Wisconsin, in a 4-3 victory in Madison on Feb. 19.
MSU’s penalty-killing units include Joe Cox and Thomas Ebbing, Mackenzie MacEachern and Matt DeBlouw, with occasional help from Michael Ferrantino and Ryan Keller, along with defensemen Travis Walsh, John Draeger, Rhett Holland, Zach Osburn and Carson Gatt.
The penalty-minutes leader? Defenseman Rhett Holland is tops with 55 minutes, including one five-minute major and one 10-minute game misconduct. Stenglein is second in penalty minutes with 35, and he also has a major and a misconduct among his minutes.
SENIOR NIGHT CEREMONIES A HIT: The Spartans honored nine seniors, two senior managers and a student video coach during a ceremony following last Saturday’s 1-1 tie and shootout win over Ohio State.
Traditionally, MSU honored its seniors before the Senior Night game. With so many seniors, Coach Tom Anastos consulted with the players about changing the format to after the game, and they agreed.
“I thought it went great. It’s such an emotional time for the players and their families that you can relax and enjoy it better after the game,’’ senior center and captain Mike Ferrantino said.
“I’m really happy we did it after the game,’’ senior goalie Jake Hildebrand said. “This made it easier on the families.’’
Senior defenseman Travis Walsh liked the ceremony after the game because it allowed more time for families to enjoy the moment. While parents were on the ice with the players as they were introduced, brothers and sisters and family friends were able to come on the ice after the official ceremony ended. They were able to mingle, take pictures and enjoy the atmosphere of celebration.
“It was a lot of fun. It was awesome,’’ Walsh said. “There were still a lot of fans that stuck around and a better crowd than we’ve had previously maybe because of that.
“Parents and families got to come on the ice afterward and take pictures. For me, it’s been great four years, and hopefully we can make it last a little longer.’’
Phillips, the No. 3 goalie, made his career debut by playing the last 1:37 of the first period. He made one save so he ends his career with a career goals-against average of 0.00 and a 1.000 save percentage.
In addition to the nine players, senior managers Matt Griffin and Joe Marsalese and video student coach Branden Carney, a former player whose career was cut short by injury, were also introduced and saluted for their contributions to the program.
BIG TEN AWARDS: MSU defenseman Zach Osburn was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team, while goalie Jack Hildebrand was an honorable mention All-Big Ten.
Michigan freshman left wing Kyle Connor was named Player of the Year and earned spots on the All-Big Ten First Team and the All-Freshman Team.
Here are the 2015-16 All-Big Ten Teams and award winners:
All-Big Ten First Team: Forwards – Kyle Connor, freshman, Michigan; Tyler Motte, junior, Michigan; JT Compher, junior, Michigan; Defense – Zach Werenski, sophomore, Michigan; Josh Healey, junior, Ohio State; Goaltender – Eric Schierhorn, freshman, Minnesota.
All-Big Ten Second Team: Forwards – Hudson Fasching, junior, Minnesota; Nick Schilkey, junior, Ohio State; Justin Kloos, junior, Minnesota; Defense – Vince Pedrie, freshman, Penn State; Mike Brodzinski, junior, Minnesota; Goaltender – Eamon McAdam, junior, Penn State.
All-Freshman Team: Forwards – Kyle Connor, Michigan; Luke Kunin, Wisconsin; Mason Jobst, Ohio State; Defense – Zach Osburn, Michigan State; Vince Pedrie, Penn State.
Player of the Year: Kyle Connor, forward, Michigan
Goaltender of the Year: Eric Schierhorn, Minnesota
Scoring Champion: Kyle Connor, forward, Michigan
Defensive Player of the Year: Zach Werenski, defenseman, Michigan
Freshman of the Year: Kyle Connor, forward, Michigan
Coach of the Year: Red Berenson, Michigan
Big Ten Sportsmanship Award Honorees: Mike Ferrantino, Michigan State; Kevin Schulze, Wisconsin; Luke Juha, Penn State; Jake Bischoff, Minnesota; Craig Dalrymple, Ohio State; Boo Nieves, Michigan.