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Neil's Notebook: Looking Ahead to This Weekend

Senior Will Yanakeff

Oct. 24, 2013

By Neil Koepke staff writer

EAST LANSING - Michigan State's report card for the first week of the regular season - a pair of defeats at the University of Massachusetts - listed a few areas in which the Spartans "Need to Improve.''

Better defense and better penalty killing are two aspects of the game MSU is focusing on this week as it prepares for its home-opening series against two more Hockey East teams from Massachusetts.

The Spartans, who gave up four power-play goals in a 5-2 loss at UMass last Saturday, after dropping their season opener to the Minutemen, 3-1, last Friday, make their Munn Arena debut against UMass-Lowell at 7 p.m. on Friday and then face Boston University at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

"We've got to get better as a team defensively, and we've been spending time on our special teams every day,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "It's a work in progress. We're breaking in a lot of new guys.''

The Spartans had six freshmen in the lineup on Friday, including two defensemen, and seven rookies played on Saturday, including three on defense.

The only experienced penalty killers are senior forwards Greg Wolfe and Lee Reimer. "We'll experiment until we find the guys we feel are our top penalty killers,'' Anastos said. "We have to identify two to four more forwards and give our defense more experience back there.''

Three defensemen played in their first college games - Rhett Holland and Brock Krieger played in both contests and Chris Knudson was in the lineup on Friday. Holland, known as a rugged stay-at-home defenseman, chipped in with two assists - one in each game for his first college points.



Anastos said the elements that make a top-level penalty killer include intelligence, skating, strength in dealing with 1-on-1 battles, puck skills, courage in blocking shots and sacrificing the body and the ability to win faceoffs.

"You want guys who can understand the various situations and what is presented to them,'' Anastos said. "Skating is a major factor. Being quick, being able to change directions and making quick decisions are all important.''

On defense, Anastos and his coaching staff are trying to determine the best pairings, but it's likely going to take a few games before the freshmen settle in. The rookie defensemen, like the forwards, just need to get game experience.

"You can create situations (in practice) but what is difficult to do is to create it for a sustained period of time at the intensity you need,'' Anastos said. "Lots of things are happening at a fast pace in games and your processor and decision making is happening very fast, too.

"We're trying to do a number of things (with team defense) that works in groups of five. I think it's important we work in groups of give to provide as much support defensively and as we move up the ice. We need to make good decisions with the puck. "We've got to build on getting out of our zone as quickly as possible. As we enter the offensive zone, we have to be smart in trying to create traffic around the net, then get the puck to the net and create scoring chances.''

Despite the two losses at UMass, defensive breakdowns and penalty-killing issues, there were some positives in which Anastos believes his team can build on. "When you look back at the games, Friday's had a very close score and it finished with an empty-net goal, but I didn't think we played as well on Friday as we did on Saturday,'' he said. "I think our team was so amped up to play that we spent a lot of emotion and energy and couldn't sustain it for the whole game.

"On Saturday, I really liked the way we came out, the jump we had and how hard we played. We didn't like our special teams - without a doubt that was the big difference. What I liked was our response for a young team. I liked that mentally we hung in there, coming off a big punch in the gut in the second period.''

In the second period, MSU saw a 2-1 lead disappear as UMass scored four goals, three on the power play.

And then there's the offense. Despite scoring only three goals in two games, the Spartans had 32 shots on goal on Friday and 33 on Saturday and created several good scoring chances.

"One of the things we liked was that we were able to generate more chances in game two than we've had in some time here,'' Anastos said. "We came home with things to build on.''

Wolfe, a senior and second-year captain, had two goals and sophomore Michael Ferrantino scored MSU's first goal on Saturday to give his team a brief 1-0 lead. "We made better decisions with the puck, both in getting it out of our zone and getting pucks behind their defense and getting in on the forecheck,'' Ferrantino said. "Once we were able to get pucks in their zone, we were able to possess it and create offensive opportunities through down-low play and cycling. That was something we did well on Saturday.''

Senior goalie Will Yanakeff, who played on Saturday, liked what he saw from his teammates in the offensive zone.

"The biggest difference (from last season) is our determination to score. We have so many (forwards) on our roster who are battling for positions that the guys never quit on plays,'' he said. "They're playing it out all the way. That will be a huge difference in our team.''

STAYING POSITIVE: Now in his third season as coach, Tom Anastos would love to see the rebuilding of the Spartan program come along at a faster pace. But the upgrade of the skill level and development of players takes time and patience is necessary.

"I knew this wasn't going to be an easy process, that it was going to take time,'' Anastos said. "The hardest thing is staying patient. Being positive is an attitude you can control. If you're negative, it usually breeds negativity.

"I'm a realist and I deal in reality. We've got to get a lot better than we are and there is no doubt in my mind we will. Some things can improve faster than others. But it's a long journey, not a short sprint. Part of it is just improving our whole talent level.''

REUNION NIGHT AT MUNN: Friday's home opener against UMass-Lowell features a reunion of good friends on opposing teams and a homecoming for a recent Spartan graduate.

The Spartans' Dean and Jake Chelios spent part of their youth in Chicago when their father, Chris, played for the Chicago Blackhawks. One of their good friends was Jake Suter, the son of Gary Suter, Chris Chelios' partner on the Chicago defense. Jake Suter is a junior defenseman at UMass-Lowell and he'll face old pals Jake and Dean Chelios for the first time in college.

"We grew up going to each other's houses and playing tennis ball hockey and all sorts of stuff,'' Dean Chelios, 24, said. "It was probably when I was 8-to-10-years old.

"He'd come over and skate in the winter in the rink in our backyard. We pretty much grew up together and were pretty close. It was us and Dayn Belfour (son of former Chicago goalie Eddie Belfour).

"We met up with Jake (Suter) for the first time in a long time when my dad and his dad got inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame last year. We had a good time. "We'll text each other once in a while but we don't get a chance to meet up that much because he's out East in school and we're always either here or in California.'' Both Chris Chelios and Gary Suter played at Wisconsin but Chelios left just before Suter came in as a freshman.

Jake Suter grew up in Madison, Wis. His cousin, Ryan Suter, has played in the NHL for nine seasons and is now with the Minnesota Wild.

Meanwhile, two players a long way from home will compete against each other for the first time as collegians - MSU freshman forward Villiam Haag and UMass-Lowell sophomore defenseman Christian Folin.

Haag and Folin are from Gothenburg, Sweden. As a freshman last season, Folin helped the River Hawks advance to the Frozen Four. He had six goals and 21 points in 38 games.

Haag said he talked with Folin about playing U.S. college hockey when he was being recruited by MSU, and said that Folin had good things to say about the college experience.

This weekend's homecoming involves former Spartan student manager Dan Darrow, now the director of hockey operations for UMass-Lowell. Darrow, who graduated from MSU in 2011, is in his second season with the River Hawks.

SCOUTING THE RIVER HAWKS: UMass-Lowell, the defending Hockey East regular-season and playoff champion, started the 2013-14 season ranked No. 1 in both major polls. The River Hawks then went out and were upset by Sacred Heart 2-1 in their first game.

After rebounding with a 5-2 win over Massachusetts the next night, the River Hawks got swept in a home-and-home series last weekend against Quinnipiac, 3-1, 3-1. UMass-Lowell (1-3), which plays at Michigan on Saturday, is a veteran team with seven seniors and five juniors and also gets major contributions from its sophomore class.

Four of the River Hawks' top five scorers return - junior forward Scott Wilson (16 goals last year) and senior forwards Joseph Pendenza (15), Derek Arnold (13) and Josh Holmstrom (12).

Another team strength is goaltending. Connor Hellebuyck played so well last season as a freshman that he took over as the starter from veteran standout Doug Carr. The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder from Commerce, Mich., had the best goals-against average in the nation in 2012-14 at 1.37, and also had the best record (20-3) and best save percentage (.952).

Before one season of junior hockey in Odessa, Texas, Hellebuyck, now 20, played four years of high school hockey at Walled Lake Northern. This season, Hellebuyck and Carr have split the River Hawks first four games. Carr is 1-2 and Hellebuyck is 0-2.

"They play very hard. They're a hard forechecking team,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said of the River Hawks. "They'll make it difficult to play against in our zone. They're skilled and play a tenacious brand of hockey. So, it'll be a huge test for our team.''

The River Hawks made the NCAA Tournament in 2011-12 and upset Miami in the first round before falling to Union the regional final. Last year, UMass-Lowell sailed through the regional with wins over Wisconsin and New Hampshire and advanced to their first Frozen Four. But the River Hawks' title dream ended with a 3-2 overtime loss against Yale in the semifinals. Yale went on to win the NCAA title with a 4-0 win over Quinnipiac.

In addition to Hellebuyck, the River Hawks have two other players from Michigan - sophomore forwards A.J. White of Dearborn and Adam Chapie of Oxford. White attended Dearborn Edsel Ford High School and went to Lake Orion High School.

The Spartans lead the series with UMass-Lowell, 5-3, with all eight games at Munn Arena. Two of the River Hawks' wins came in the NCAA West Regional in 1994 and 1996. The series could be 4-4 but UMass-Lowell forfeited a 3-2 victory in 2004 due to the use of an ineligible player. MSU was credited with a 1-0 win.

The last time the two teams met was in a two-game series in October, 2008. UMass-Lowell won the series opener, 3-0, with MSU rebounding for a 2-1 victory in the second game.

SCOUTING THE TERRIERS: Boston University has a vastly different look season. Legendary coach Jack Parker has retired after 40 years behind the Terrier bench and David Quinn, a former BU player and assistant, has taken over as coach.

The new era of Terrier hockey has started smoothly as BU is 3-1 in its first four games - all at home. The Terriers defeated UMass, 3-1 and Holy Cross, 3-2 on Oct. 11 and Oct. 12, respectively, but then were upset by Rensselaer, 3-1 last Friday. But BU rebounded on Saturday with a 7-3 domination of Wisconsin.

Now it's on to the Midwest with dates at Michigan on Friday and MSU on Saturday. Boston U. has only five seniors and three juniors on its roster. So, it's a fairly young team with nine sophomores and nine freshmen.

The Terriers lost six seniors and three players with eligibility remaining after last season, but there is plenty of talent on hand, including sophomore forward Danny O'Regan (16 goals, 22 assists 38 points last year) and junior forwards Evan Rodrigues (14-20-34) and Cason Hohmann (10-20-34), and three solid defensemen - senior Garrett Noonan and sophomores Matt Grzelcyk and Ahti Oksanen. Hohmann is from Plymouth, Mich.

BU has a pair of sophomores handling the goaltending duties. Sean Maguire and Matt O'Connor have played two games each this season. Last year, Maguire played in 21 games and O'Connor 19.

Quinn, 47, was an assistant coach at Nebraska-Omaha for six seasons starting in the late 1990s before joining the U.S. National Development Team in Ann Arbor. He returned to BU as an assistant and helped guide the Terriers to the 2009 NCAA title. He went on to the American Hockey League as head coach of the Colorado Avalanche's farm team. Last year, he served as an assistant with the Avalanche. The Spartans are 8-8 against the Terriers. The last time the two teams met was in the title game of the 2009 Ice Breaker Tournament in Boston, and BU came away with a 2-1 victory.

SPARTAN-TERRIER CONNECTION: BU assistant coach Buddy Powers is the father of former MSU standout golfer Caroline Powers, who graduated in May. Buddy Powers, a former assistant and head coach at Bowling Green, served as a Terrier assistant under Jack Parker for four seasons. He remained on staff when David Quinn took over as coach last March.

Caroline Powers, who grew up in Bowling Green, Ohio, and played for the Spartans from 2009-2013, is the most decorated women's golfer in MSU history. She ended her career as the Spartans' all-time record holder in scoring average (74.26). As a senior, she was named Big Ten Women's Golfer of the Year. Powers is currently pursuing a career on the LPGA Tour.

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