March 22, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com
The road to the NCAA Tournament for Michigan State has been long, frustrating, rewarding, filled with ups and downs of lots of uncertainty.
But the Spartans, to the surprise of many in college hockey, made it into the 16-team field, and now they're ready to play on the stage they've been in pursuit of all season.
MSU hit the ice at Webster Bank Arena late Thursday morning for its first practice for the NCAA East Regional and reality set in. The Spartans are in the NCAAs for the first time since 2008.
"Getting on the ice here was a lot of fun and good for us. Everybody on the ice had a smile on their face and we had a lot of fun,'' Spartan junior defenseman and captain Torey Krug said Friday during MSU's media interview session.
"It's pretty cool to skate around and see the NCAA logos on the ice. Nobody on our team, except for (senior defenseman) A.J. Sturges has been to an NCAA Tournament.''
The Spartans (19-15-4 overall), the No. 4 seed in the East Regional, face No. 1 seed Union (24-7-7) at 3 p.m. on Friday in the opening game of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. No. 2 seed Miami (24-14-2) plays No. 3 UMass-Lowell (23-12-1) at 6:30 p.m. on Friday.
The winners meet for the title and a berth in the Frozen Four at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday. ESPNU will televise all three East Regional games.
"We've had good practices all week. Our energy level is high and there's been good focus,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "We're playing a very good team, one that's balanced between defense and offense. They're very difficult to play against.''
The Spartans find themselves in a familiar situation - definite underdogs.
And for good reason. Union, the best program in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) the last three years, is 15-2-2 since Jan. 1, finished first in the ECAC,and won the conference playoff title last weekend.
The Dutchmen have a Hobey Baker candidate in goal in Troy Grosenick, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound sophomore from Brookfield, Wis., and an All-American forward candidate in Jeremy Welsh (25 goals, 15 assists, 40 points), a 6-foot-3, 210-pound junior from Bayfield, Ontario.
"They've won championships, they have experience in this tournament and have very good depth,'' Anastos said. "They're very patient on defense.
"In some ways, they remind me of Ferris State. Defensively, they're No. 1 in the nation and on offense, they're No. 3 or 4. They have a very good power play that shows their skill level.''
So, how do the Spartans stay with the Dutchmen and put themselves in a position to pull off an upset?
Anastos says it all starts with his team embracing the NCAA experience, having fun playing the game and doing what it has done in competing against teams like Boston College, Michigan, Minnesota.
"We have to use our speed and possess the puck like we're capable of doing and even more simply, we have to go have fun and just play the game and not be tense or tight,'' he said.
"In the end, the worst thing that can come out of this is you lose. And that's a bad thing. But you give yourself a better chance to have success playing the way you are most comfortable playing. I don't want us tentative. When we played our best hockey this year, we've played hard and made lots of good plays and we've overcome mistakes because we've played hard.''
Trevor Nill, one of nine Spartan seniors, said he was thrilled that his team is still playing, especially after getting swept by Miami in the CCHA quarterfinals two weeks ago. But Nill said the team isn't satisfied by just making the NCAA postseason.
"We want to keep it going. We're happy we got Spartan hockey back in the tournament, but we're not satisfied by just being here. It's great for the seniors but we want more.''
Senior center Brett Perlini said he's always dreamed of playing in the NCAA tourney, and when the Spartans got knocked out in the CCHA playoffs and didn't qualify, he followed the NCAA and even went to a regional in Grand Rapids just to watch.
"We've worked hard to get to this point so we just have to soak it all up. We know how to be at our best,'' he said. "It's compete hard, never take a shift off, and up the effort level to get things done.
"It's one game at a time but if you win two, you're in the Frozen Four. Everyone has to play with desperation.''
Offensively, the Spartans have struggled in the last two series. They split at Notre Dame the final week of the regular season - a 2-0 loss and 4-2 victory and lost two at Miami in the CCHA playoffs, 6-0 and 4-1.
Perlini said his team is most dangerous when it's playing fast and with energy and playing smart.
"I think it's a matter of bearing down and getting to the tough areas and shooting the puck and not passing up opportunities,'' Perlini said. "We have to bang in second and third efforts. And if we can get on the board (early), our confidence will grow.''
Anastos said he's very impressed with Union's patience and wants his team to match it.
"We have to play well defensively and show patience like our opponent has done all season long,'' he said. "We have to take advantage of the scoring chances we generate because Union limits them.
"And we're going to have to have good goaltending. That's a given.''
As usual, Anastos and his coaching staff have been evaluating the goaltending situation all week and will select the starter - senior Drew Palmisano or sophomore Will Yanakeff -- late Thursday and inform the goaltenders of the decision.
"He's the real deal. He's even a better kid than a hockey player,'' Anastos said. "He has really strong leadership capabilities. He is to our team what Draymond Green is to our basketball team. He has great rapport with all of our players, not just pockets of them.
"He truly loves Michigan State and embraces every part of the experience. Everybody talks about his offensive skills but I think he's good defensively. He plays a lot bigger than 5-foot-9.
"I think what's best about him is that good players play well and great players make players around them better and that's what Torey has done. He's made our team better and that's why we've had the kind of success we've had so far this year.''
Anastos and Krug and the rest of the Spartans hope there's even more to come.
Rick Bennett is in his first year at Union, Norm Bazin is a rookie coach at UMass-Lowell and Tom Anastos was hired at MSU one year ago on Friday, his first NCAA Tournament game as a coach.
The veteran coach of the regional is Miami's Rico Blasi, who's in his 13th season as the RedHawks coach and has his team in the NCAAs for the seventh straight season.
Three of the coaches are graduates of the schools they now coach - Bazin, Blasi and Anastos.
While MSU showed a big improvement from last year's 10th place finish in the CCHA and 15-19-4 overall record, UMass-Lowell made the biggest rise in college hockey with a 23-victory season after winning just five games last year.
The River Hawks, 5-25-4 in 2010-11, are 23-12-1 this season.
Anastos and Miller each played in 10 games for MSU from 1981-85, Newton played in four games for Bowling Green from 1975-80, and Gilmore appeared in three games from 1988-92. Each played in one Frozen Four.