March 19, 2013
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
East Lansing, Mich. -- Twice over the last 53 weeks, Michigan State's bid to make it to Joe Louis Arena in Detrot for the CCHA Championships came to an end at Miami University's Steve Cady Arena in Oxford, Ohio.
But the two second-round playoff series couldn't have been more different. And the same could be said for Coach Tom Anastos' assessment of the series.
A year ago, Anastos was disappointed, upset and embarrassed after his Spartans were outworked and dominated by Miami in a convincing 6-0, 4-1 sweep.
This year, MSU made the RedHawks sweat and worry. And with one period to go in Sunday's deciding Game 3, the Spartans trailed 2-1 and their improbable dream of pulling off an upset and landing in the CCHA semifinals was still alive.
Miami, however, showed why it finished first in the CCHA and is ranked No. 3 in the nation. The RedHawks bottled up the Spartans and went on to end MSU's exciting playoff run with a 4-1 victory.
In two road playoff series, the Spartans won the first game and lost the second. At Alaska two weeks ago, MSU won Game 3 and advanced to the second round. The Spartans shocked Miami, 3-0, in the series opener on Friday and led 1-0 early in Game 2 on Saturday.
But the RedHawks (24-10-5) rebounded, using their strengths -- an impressive mix of speed, skill, a strong work ethic and toughness -- and won the next two games 4-1.
After Sunday's loss, in the same hallway near the Spartans' locker room that Anastos a year ago tried to be tactful about his disappointment with his team, the second-year coach was upbeat about what he learned about his team and where he believes the program is headed.
"The results stink. They hurt. It's disappointing. Losing is never satisfying. But there are things that came out of this playoff run that we can build on,'' Anastos said. "This was a real building block to where we're trying to get to.
"The big measuring stick for me is we came here last year as a very experienced team and didn't compete nearly as well as this team did. That's a huge step from one year to the next. We raised our compete level.''
Last year, MSU finished fifth in the CCHA and Miami was fourth. The series wasn't even close and the Spartans couldn't come close to matching the RedHawks' compete level.
This year, MSU finished in last place - 11th - and Miami was first. Not many people gave the Spartans a chance to knock off the RedHawks, but MSU played a great game on Friday, taking advantage of a Miami team that looked sluggish after being off for two weeks with a first-round bye.
The RedHawks had to be at their best to rebound and avoid getting upset and sitting home for the CCHA Championship.
"We asked our guys to empty the tank (Sunday) and I thought we did. We gave it every ounce of energy we had,'' Anastos said. "We played with tons of toughness.
"I couldn't ask the guys for a better effort, especially considering our circumstances - six games in 10 days and all the travel (two trips to Alaska) we had.
"We played well and very hard. Miami is one of the top teams in the country because they're tough to play against. We were nose-to-nose with them from the start of this series to the end.''
There were several bright spots for the Spartans, including solid contributions by four seniors - forwards Anthony Hayes, Chris Forfar and Kevin Walrod and defenseman Matt Grassi - playing their finals games at MSU.
"Miami has a chance to compete for a national championship and yet we had players emerge in this series,'' Anastos said. "I'm bullish on our future. It's very bright. These players got better and better and our seniors finished strong. Those guys are committed to doing things off the ice that have to be passed down to the younger players.
"Matt DeBlouw played his best at the end (of the season) and you could see his confidence grow. He played really well here this weekend. Ryan Keller had an excellent series and he gained lots of experience.''
The Spartans bowed out with a 14-25-3 record. They were especially competitive in the last six weeks of the season, going 7-4 from mid-February until the Saturday and Sunday losses to the RedHawks.
"Toward the end of the season, we were playing our best hockey. We have to establish the trademark of playing your best at the end of the season and going much deeper than we did this year,'' Anastos said.
"We gained tons of experience, dealing with critical changes -- momentum and adversity - in the six games that we played. That will help our players.''
In the last two games against the RedHawks, the Spartans were hurt by their season-long weakness - offensive inconsistency and lack of high-end offensive talent.
But MSU should be better offensively with the expected improvement of players such as DeBlouw, sophomores Matt Berry, Tanner Sorenson and Brett Darnell, better seasons by juniors Greg Wolfe and Lee Remier, and three or four incoming freshmen with the potential to play among MSU's top six forwards.
"The important thing is to use the offseason to get us better for the start of next season,'' Anastos said. "The guys returning have to work hard to get better, and we have recruit and upgrade our talent level.
"We'll get a lot better and take a big step next year.''
Next year, the Spartans will be in the Big Ten, battling the likes of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Penn State, as well as CCHA leftovers Michigan and Ohio State, instead of Miami, Notre Dame and other longtime CCHA rivals.
Sunday's season-ending defeat was particularly tough on the seniors, of course, but it also impacted players returning next year who were eager to play in their first CCHA tourney in Detroit.
"I think the whole season we were down on ourselves, but coming into the playoffs we kept talking about getting hot at the right time and that any team can get there,'' junior defenseman Jake Chelios said. "Our seniors really pulled together at the end of the season
"I think we really layed it on the line the last couple of weekends and into the playoffs. I think we're proud of what we accomplished but not satisfied by how it ended.
"After putting so much effort into it, it's done. The seniors tried hard and it could be the last game for some of them. It's bittersweet to play so well and we're kind of happy about that but in the end, our season is done.''
Chelios also noted how much harder the Spartans competed against Miami this season than last year, despite playing more playoff games and dealing with a grueling travel schedule.
"We didn't get a sniff when we played them last year, and we're up against a team that always plays us hard,'' he said. "We never stopped battling and all it (took) was one shot. That could have changed the momentum (and outcome). It's tough.
"Coming back next year with a core group here will be great, instead of having 12 new guys coming in. Our freshmen class really improved.''
Wolfe, the Spartans' captain, said he believes the character the team showed in never giving up on the season, despite plenty of negatives, will be apparent next year, too.
"The last month-and-a-half showed the younger guys what it takes to be a contender,'' he said. "We have more returning players than we've had since I've been here.
"There's no reason we can't be a top team next year.''