March 21, 2014
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
ST. PAUL, Minn. - Michigan State and Ohio State have this thing about not deciding a game in three periods.
They're so close in so many aspects of the game that 60 minutes hasn't been enough to determine a winner in the last four games. Three have gone to a shootout in Big Ten play.
Finally, one was settled in overtime.
But it didn't end well for the Spartans, who saw their season come to a close on Thursday with a heart-breaking defeat in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals at Xcel Energy Center.
A brilliant toe save by Buckeyes' goaltender Christian Fry midway through the third period set up OSU's 2-1 overtime victory over the Spartans. Freshman defenseman Drew Brevig's shot from 35 feet out in the slot at 4:23 of overtime lifted the Buckeyes into the Big Ten semifinals on Friday against Wisconsin.
In five games against Ohio State this season, Michigan State went 0-2-3, with the last four going into overtime, and three ending up in shootouts - MSU won the first, OSU won the last two.
The only game that was decided in regulation was the first meeting - a 4-3 come-from-behind victory by Ohio State on Jan. 10 in Columbus.
"This has been a very resilient group. We have had some tough losses and some tough ties and fought through some injuries,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "But these guys came to the rink every day and played really hard.
"More than anything else, I was hoping that they could have some postseason success right here. I'm very disappointed for our team and for our seniors, in particular.''
The Spartans, who played 10 overtimes games (1-2-7), end their season with an 11-18-7 record. The Buckeyes, with a 17-13-5 overall record, moved on to play No. 6-ranked Wisconsin (22-10-2) in the first Big Ten semifinal at 3 p.m. (EDT) Friday. In the second game, No. 1 ranked Minnesota faces Penn State, a 2-1 double-overtime winner over No. 12 Michigan, at 8 p.m. on Friday.
Two plays that Spartans' players, coaches and fans will be lamenting long into the off-season were great scoring chances by freshman forward Villiam Haag and junior forward Matt Berry.
Midway through the third period, Haag had a glorious opportunity to lift MSU into a 2-1 lead when took a pass from Berry from behind the net in the corner and his quick shot to the right corner of the net was stopped by the left toe of OSU goaltender Christian Fry. The Spartans' Michael Ferrantino was stopped on the rebound.
Earlier, in the second period, Berry got the puck from Haag, drove to the net and his shot clanked off the goal post, and the rebound bounced over the stick of an onrushing Ferrantino.
If the puck goes in, the Spartans are up 2-0, despite being outplayed by the Buckeyes at that point in the middle period.
As luck would have it - mostly bad for the MSU - Ohio State tied it at with 3:34 left in the second period on Tanner Fritz's goal off a second rebound. Instead of being up 2-0, if Berry's shot had bounced the right way, the Spartans were suddenly entering the third period tied 1-1.
"I got a great pass from Matt (Berry) from the corner and (the goaltender) stepped up on me. I tried to go for the corner,'' Haag said. "I didn't know at first if I lost the puck or he made a great save, but the puck doesn't cross the goal line and right now that's a big disappointment.
"If that goes in, maybe we're celebrating right now, instead of feeling really bad.'' The Spartans took a 1-0 lead just 4:04 into the game on senior captain Greg Wolfe's 13th goal of the season, from the right circle. Ohio State didn't get a shot on goalie Jake Hildebrand until 9:31 into the game.
"We started the game great. We came out with a lot of energy and were pushing it all over, and I don't know what happened in the second period,'' Haag said. "We lost our edge and speed, and let them back into the game. We played a pretty good game and we were hoping the bounces would be on our side but in the end, they weren't.''
On the winning goal in overtime by Brevig, there was a hectic scramble for the puck in the slot and it came loose several times as Hildebrand tried to smother it. He even got bumped by a Buckeye. His mask almost came off and he lost his stick in the process.
That's why after Brevig's shot sailed over Hildebrand's catching glove and into the right corner of the net, the officials reviewed the goal on the monitor in the penalty box to determine if there was goaltender interference. They ruled that there wasn't and the goal was awarded.
And the Spartans' season was officially over.
"I remember the puck bouncing around (the crease) and I went to cover it and their guy knocked me off the puck, and I think he kicked me in the back of the head,'' Hildebrand said. "As he did, my mask came halfway off. I tried to get (the mask situated) and they shot the puck and it went in.''
If Hildebrand's mask had come off, play would have been stopped immediately, and perhaps the game doesn't end at that point.
"Things like that happen but it's frustrating,'' Hildebrand said. " We saw that call in the third period and we got a penalty (to Matt Berry for charging into OSU goalie Fry). It happened twice in overtime - where they knocked (the puck) away when they ran into me.''
Hildebrand, MSU's most valuable player most of the season, wasn't in sync in his last three starts - giving up five and three goals against Michigan -- and being replaced in a loss and victory over the Wolverines-- and allowing four in an overtime win vs. Wisconsin last Friday.
But Hildebrand was back to his usual stellar form on Thursday against the Buckeyes. He made 32 saves, including five in overtime, and gave his team a chance to win, something he's done all season.
But the 5-foot-11, 183-pound sophomore from Butler, Pa., wasn't focusing on many positives as he reflected on Thursday's contest.
"I think the only thing you can take out of a game like this is the sour taste it leaves in your mouth,'' he said. "And the feeling in your stomach - that you don't want it to happen again.''
Hildebrand made seven saves in the first period, 12 in the second in which OSU came on strong and outplayed the Spartans, and nine in the third.
OSU's Frey, a freshman who joined the team in mid-December, made 27 saves and only one in overtime. But his toe save, among his nine stops in the third period, is the one that probably saved the game for the Buckeyes.
"Our team came on really strong,'' Hildebrand said. "I've been giving up a lot of goals early and I wanted to focus on that and make sure it didn't happen. Our guys took it out of my hands. Ohio State didn't have a shot until halfway through the first period.''
Anastos thought his team, after a strong start, sagged a bit in the second period and lost some energy because of some penalty kills.
"When you take a couple of penalties, it takes you out of your rhythm and you use up a lot of energy from key guys,'' he said. "If we had more depth in our penalty killing, it might be different.''
Ohio State was 0-for-4 on the power play, while MSU was 0-for-1.
"When you have a lot of zone time, you spend so much energy from some key guys,'' Anastos said. "If you spend a lot of time in your zone, it uses a ton of energy from your defense and the forwards that we were using.
"But our effort was really good. I didn't think we had a lot of really good performances (other than Hildebrand), but it wasn't because of a lack of effort.''
The Spartans dominated most of the first period, building an early 1-0 lead and had several good chances to boost their lead to 2-0 or 3-0. But goalie Frey made several clutch saves and the Spartans failed to execute.
"In the first period, we possessed the puck, but in the second and third, we were chasing it a little more, which is kind of an energy drain," Anastos said. "But our guys were laying out and we made it difficult (for Ohio State) to get the puck through.
"At the end, it was a mad scramble. Our guys were out on a long shift and were tired. There was a scramble and the puck went in.''
Wolfe, who ends the season as MSU's leading scorer with 13 goals and 18 assists for 31 points, said his team "had nothing to hang their heads about.''
"We fought all night, and I think this team has shown a ton of resilience all season. We've been battling hard week in and week out, and sometimes you get the bounces and sometimes you don't.''
SENIORS BOW OUT: Four seniors played in their last games for Michigan State on Thursday - forwards Greg Wolfe, Lee Reimer and Dean Chelios and defenseman Jake Chelios. Senior goaltender Will Yanakeff served as Hildebrand's backup, while senior defenseman Nicholas Gatt was a healthy scratch.
QUICK LOOKBACK: Despite a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten and an 11-18-7 record, coach Tom Anastos said his team made major strides from last year.
"Our record doesn't show it but I think our team made huge progress from last season to this year,'' he said. "We had the large turnover in 2012 and we got better throughout last season. This year, we limped from the start, with a couple of key injuries that hit our team hard, with not having a lot of depth.
"As I told our team, this is a miserable feeling to end your season, but sometimes you have to look at statistics in a certain way. But I know that we took a big step with our team getting better. A lot of our guys gained valuable experience.''
Wolfe, who served as captain the last two seasons, agreed with Anastos about what MSU experienced and how it will help in the future.
"We battled hard all night. With the early lead we had the momentum and we responded after our first goal but just couldn't get (the second goal),'' Wolfe said.
"Hildy had a great game tonight. He held us in there when we needed him the most. On the last goal, we had three guys in the middle of the ice trying to block that shot, and that kind of speaks to the character of the team. Guys were sacrificing all night, and if nothing else, that's a great positive for the guys that are going forward.''
SEMIFINAL MATCHUPS: Big Ten No. 1 seed Minnesota and No. 2 Wisconsin will be favorites in Friday's tournament semifinals against No. 6 Penn State and No. 4 Ohio State, respectively.
The Gophers went 3-0-1-0 against Ohio State while the Badgers swept the Nittany Lions, 4-0.
Penn State advanced to the semifinals with a 2-1 double overtime upset over No. 3 seed Michigan in the Thursday's first quarterfinal. For the Nittany Lions, it was their third victory over the Wolverines in five games. Penn State has won only eight games all season, three coming against Michigan - 4-0 at PSU on Feb. 8, 5-4 in overtime on Feb. 21 in Ann Arbor and Thursday's overtime thriller.
NCAA BUBBLE: The Big Ten appeared to be on the verge of getting three of its six teams in the NCAA Tournament, which starts next weekend at four regional sites. But with Michigan's loss to Penn State on Thursday, the Wolverines are clearly on the bubble and will have to sweat out the results of college hockey's five other conference tournaments to determine if they'll be included in the 16-team field.
Michigan can still make the tournament if there aren't any stunning upsets in four conferences - Hockey East, ECAC, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
After Thursday's Big Ten games, the Wolverines are tied for No. 16 in the PairWise Rankings and that would not get them into the tournament. They need to finish in the top 15 in the PWR because the playoff champion of Atlantic Hockey - Mercyhurst, Niagara, Robert Morris or Canisius - will have a low PWR and will be seeded No. 16.
Things will change with every game that's played over the next two days, and U-M won't know its fate until the last game is finished on Saturday night.
The NCAA Tournament field and matchups will be officially announced on the NCAA Hockey Selection Show at noon on Sunday on ESPNU.
The NCAA Regional sites are in St. Paul, Minn., Cincinnati, Worcester, Mass., and Bridgeport, Conn.
Teams that are considered locks for the NCAA Tournament, no matter what happens on conference championships, include: Minnesota, Wisconsin, St. Cloud State, Ferris State, Boston College, Mass-Lowell, Providence, Notre Dame, Union and Quinnipiac.