Neil's Notebook: Energized Spartans Ready for Big Ten Tourney
March 19, 2014
By Neil Koepke
ST. PAUL, Minn. - Suddenly, Michigan State is scoring more goals and the go-to guys on offense are gaining some confidence.
The Spartans' offensive surge is still in its youthful stages - 12 goals over the last three games - but the way MSU had been struggling to create chances, this is still a huge breakthrough.
After scoring four goals against Michigan in a 4-3 victory two weeks ago and five and three in a 5-4 win and 4-3 loss last weekend against Wisconsin, the Spartans are entering the inaugural Big Ten Tournament with some offensive flair.
Michigan State (11-17-7 overall, 6-9-5-4 Big Ten, 5th in the conference), is hoping its increased offensive output continues against fourth-place Ohio State (16-13-5, 6-9-5-4) in a Big Ten quarterfinal at 8 p.m. on Thursday at Xcel Energy Center. The winner gets the dubious task of trying to upset the No. 1 seed - top-ranked Minnesota - at 8 p.m. on Friday in the semifinals.
Of course, the Spartans increased goal-scoring will only be a positive factor unless the defense and goaltending play at higher level than they did in the final two weeks of the regular season.
"I think we're doing a better job in the neutral zone, and we're entering the (offensive) zone with some possession, we're making good decisions and we've made better choices,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "Part of that is that our younger guys are gaining experience, and our defensemen are getting a little bit of confidence in moving the puck.
"We're not where we desire to be, but we've improved.''
For 11 consecutive games, dating back to Jan. 23, the Spartans didn't score more than two goals in any game. Finally, they broke loose against two solid defensive teams, both highly ranked.
Forwards Matt Berry, Greg Wolfe and Michael Ferrantino are leading the way by creating quality scoring chances and finishing with a nice touch around the net.
Berry has four goals in his last three games and has five goals and nine assists in the past eight contests.
Wolfe, the Spartans' senior captain, has seven points (one goal and six assists for seven points.
Ferrantino, the energetic sophomore center, has a goal and two assists in the last three games and three goals and four assists in the last eight. Meanwhile, freshman Villiam Haag and Mackenize MacEachern have contributed clutch goals against Michigan and Wisconsin, respectively.
"We're scoring against good teams with good defenses and good players,'' Anastos said. "That should be helpful with the players' confidence. You see our young guys emerging. I like their play. You see how Mike Ferrantino's game has been raised to a pretty high level, and in many ways, he's outperformed our initial expectations.
"Berry is starting to play really well, with good consistency and offensive productivity. Both Reimer and Wolfe are contributing more and more offense.
"You look at the freshmen and how they keep getting better and better. It's not always about game results. Haag had two nice goals against Wisconsin and MacEachern scored a big goal against Michigan to win the game.''
The Spartans scored nine goals in four games against Ohio State, which scored 10. First, there was a come-from-behind 4-3 Buckeyes' victory in Columbus. What followed were three straight 2-2 ties, including one in which the Spartans lost a 2-0 lead in the last two minutes and ended up losing to OSU in the shootout. MSU is 2-1 in shootouts against the Buckeyes.
The good news for the Spartans and Buckeyes is that this game won't end in a tie. They'll play to a winner.
Anastos said he wasn't surprised the MSU-OSU series being so and three games decided by a shootout - the Spartans won one on the road and the Buckeyes captured two shootout wins in East Lansing
"The goaltending has been, for the most part, pretty solid on both sides,'' Anastos said. "I think the teams are different in what their strengths are. They have some experience that we don't.
"Some of their guys that have emerged offensively, we saw them two years ago when they were freshmen and you could see they were going to be good players.''
Ohio State's outstanding junior class includes forward Ryan Dzingel, Max McCormick, Nick Oddo, Tanner Fritz, Darik Angeli and defensemen Al McLean and Justin DiSilva. Dzingel, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, led the conference in scoring in overall and Big Ten games with 20 goals, 23 assists for 43 points and 12 goals over and 24 points in conference play. McCormick has 11 goals and 31 points.
Since before the last MSU-OSU series, Feb. 7-8, in East Lansing, Ohio State's record is 2-4-4. Over the last 10 games, MSU is 3-4-3.
In the last two weeks, the Buckeyes lost and tied against Minnesota (winning the shootout) and won and lost last Friday at Penn State.
"We feel pretty comfortable from the perspective of what we're going to see. That's a good team that's playing with confidence,'' Anastos said. "They certainly have good skill, the goaltending is very strong and they have a good power play.
"We've had some good efforts against them but still haven't been able to beat them. We'll have to defend well - that has to be an important part of our game.''
Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik said Michigan State is much more dangerous that it was the last time the teams met in early February.
"Our teams are pretty similar when it comes to the three (tie) games,'' Rohlik said. "They don't give you much and their goaltender has been good all season and they block a lot of shots. Now, they're scoring more goals and they're a dangerous team.''
WHO'S IN GOAL? Spartans coach Tom Anastos said he has a goaltending plan for the Big Tournament but wouldn't real his starter for Thursday's most important game of the year. He'll tell the starter that he's playing on Wednesday. But all signs point to sophomore Jake Hildebrand, who's been the Spartans' No. 1 goalie since early in the season. Hildebrand started 28 straight games before senior Will Yanakeff started last Saturday on Senior Night, in a 4-3 loss to Wisconsin. Yanakeff replaced Hildebrand in both games against Michigan - after two periods in a 7-1 loss in Ann Arbor and after the first period in the series finale, in which the Spartans overcame a 2-0 deficit and rallied for a 4-3 victory.
Hildebrand was back in goal last Friday in a 5-4 win over Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, Ohio State is expected to play freshman Christian Fry, who just joined the team before Christmas after starting the season in the USHL. Fry started the series opener at Penn State's last weekend and fellow rookie Matt Tomkins played in the second game.
Fry, who's from Arlington, Texas, has played in 13 games, has a 7-3-3 record and a .909 saves percentage. Tomkins, from Edmonton, Alberta, has appeared in 17 games, has a 6-7-2 record, with a 2.78 GAA and .911 saves percentage
BIG TEN POTPOURRI: No. 3 seed Michigan and No. 6 Penn State open the conference tournament with the first quarterfinal at 3 p.m. on Thursday. The winner faces Wisconsin at 3 p. m. on Saturday.
Based on the latest Pairwise Rankings, Minnesota and Wisconsin are in the NCAA Tournament, no matter what happens this weekend. However, Michigan could be in danger of missing the NCAA tourney for the second straight year.
If the Wolverines lose to Penn State and there are some upsets in one or two of the other conferences, it's possible U-M would be left out of the 16-team tournament field. So, MSU, OSU and Penn State aren't the only teams playing with desperation this weekend.
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