Neil’s Notebook: Offense the Focus as Spartans Host Princeton
Neil Koepke previews Friday's home contest vs. Princeton.
BY Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING – With a better scoring touch last weekend, Michigan State might have been able to avoid getting swept by No. 6 Denver in the Spartans’ home-opening series.
A couple goals here and there and MSU might have been able to emerge with a victory or tie, because overall, the Spartans were competitive against the Pioneers.
But one goal in each game (2-1, 3-1) isn’t going to lead to success.
Not surprisingly, perking up the offense is an emphasis for the Spartans this week as they prepare to face Princeton in a single non-conference game at 7 p.m. Friday at Munn Arena.
Puck possession, transition, entering the offensive zone with speed, establishing a net-front presence and firing the puck on goal – not over the net, not wide right, not wide left – are points of emphasis for Michigan State’s forwards and even defensemen.
“Hitting the net and getting more traffic in front needs to be a priority for our team,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “We’ve had our share of scoring chances but we haven’t put enough pucks on net to create the danger we should be creating. We have to have better emphasis and better execution in that area.’’
Last Saturday in the second period, the Spartans had 14 shot attempts but only two reached Denver goalie Tanner Jaillet. Throughout the series, MSU had several quality scoring chances that didn’t result in a save because the shots were over the net or wide.
The coaching staff is also focusing on improving the team’s ability to transition the puck quicker, and to carry the puck into the offensive zone, keep possession and try to set up scoring opportunities.
“One of the areas we struggled against Denver is transitioning the puck out of our zone and the neutral zone. They’re a hard team to do that against, but we have to get better because we did a lot of dumping the puck in,’’ Anastos said. “I prefer not to dump the puck in. When you do, even in the best-case scenario, your percentages of getting it back are pretty low.
“Now, there are times when you have to do it. I’d love to have a more dynamic transition game where you’re entering the zone with speed. We’ll spend a fair bit of time going forward making that a point of emphasis.’’
Anastos believes most of his forwards have the skill and speed to play at a high tempo, and once in the zone, keep possession and create traffic around the net. Shots on goal lead to rebounds and better chances
“As we enter the zone, we have to create more of a net-front presence and then get more shots on net,’’ he said. “Our high-quality shots are missing the net too often. We talk about it constantly, but we have to execute better.
“It’s not surprising that most goals are scored when there’s traffic in front on direct shots, re-directs or to create rebounds. We have to create a higher number of those instances to improve our probability to score.’’
MSU will also be concentrating on its power play, which has scored only two goals in 28 opportunities in four games. The Spartans were 1-for-4 on the power play last Friday and 0-for-6 on Saturday, although two of the power plays lasted only 12 and 34 seconds.
Anastos said he’s comfortable with his forward line combinations as is keeping most together as they continue to gain chemistry the more they’re together in practice and in games.
The young combination of freshman Patrick Khodorenko at center with sophomore Mason Appleton on right wing and freshman Taro Hirose on left wing is the most skilled unit and appears to have the potential to be the go-to trio as they gain experience.
Khodorenko scored MSU’s only goal on Friday on a power play, set up by Appleton, who scored Saturday’s only goal, set up by Khodorenko.
A third unit on Saturday had freshman center Sam Saliba between senior left wing Villiam Haag and junior right wing Dylan Pavelek. In Friday’s game, Haag played the right side while senior J.T. Stenglein was on left wing.
“I think the lines are growing. Last weekend, we did a better job of playing hard and with tempo,’’ Anastos said. “Guys are starting to understand things from a system standpoint and made improvements. We took a step forward.
“I thought the line with Wood, Sanford and Milan was really effective. They played with a lot energy and speed. The Khodorenko line showed some of the things they can do. Obviously, we’re looking for a higher level of consistency, especially as the two younger guys gain experience. I think Mason Appleton has taken his game up a notch. He’s a pretty impactful player.
“Cox and Ebbing are logging a lot of minute and playing hard. On Saturday, I thought Haag had a really good game. We’re working Saliba and Sanford into the penalty kill. We’re doing a fair bit of experimentation, even on defense to see who plays well with whom.’’
Each made great improvement from the first week of the season at Lake Superior State when Minney gave up nine goals in five periods and Lethemon allowed four in one period.
Minney made 24 saves against Denver and Lethemon stopped 23 shots, and both made key saves to keep MSU within striking distance. So who gets the start against Princeton?
“I thought both of them played well so we’ll use this week’s practice to determine that,’’ Anastos said. “Both came out of the weekend with some confidence.
“It’s a positive step. We want to see them both growing. I want to give both of them experience over the next several weeks.’’
SCOUTING THE TIGERS: Michigan State holds a 6-1 edge in the series with Princeton, starting with a 7-4 victory on Jan. 2, 1959, in the RPI Tournament in Troy, N.Y. The teams have played four games over the last three seasons.
The Spartans swept the Tigers, 4-1, 8-2, at Munn Arena on Thanksgiving weekend in 2013. A year later, the teams split a holiday series at Princeton – the Tigers winning 3-2 in the opener and MSU salvaging a split with a 4-2 win in the finale.
Like all Ivy League schools in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC), Princeton isn’t allowed to start its season until the last weekend of October. So, the Tigers are making their season debut on Friday. They’ll play an exhibition game against the U.S. U-18 team on Saturday in Plymouth.
Last season, Princeton finished last (12th) in the ECAC with records of 3-16-3 in league play and 5-23-3 overall.
The Tigers return their top five scorers from last season and standout goaltender Colton Phinney, who’s faced Michigan State three times. Princeton’s top two scorers are from Ottawa. Ryan Kuffner had five goals and 15 assists for 20 points, while Max Veronneau had a team-leading 11 goals and six assists for 17 points.
Phinney, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound senior from Chatham, N.J., has started 75 games over the last three seasons and was a second-team All-Ivy selection last year.
He’s has a career goals-against of 3.11 and a saves percentage of .914.
Phinney is 1-2 against the Spartans. As a freshman, he was in goal for Princeton’s 4-1 loss at Munn Arena on Nov. 29, 2013. A year later at Princeton, Phinney made 44 saves in the Tigers’ series-opening 3-1 victory, and stopped 29 shots in MSU’s 4-2 victory in the second game.
Princeton’s 27-man roster includes players from nine states and three Canadian provinces, but none from Michigan. The top province is Ontario with six, while the leading states are Minnesota and New Jersey, each with four players.
The Tigers are coached by Ron Fogarty, who’s in his third season. Fogarty, a 1995 graduate of Colgate, started the varsity program at NCAA Division III Adrian College and spent seven seasons (2007-2014) with the Bulldogs. He compiled a record of 167-23-10. Adrian was Division III runner-up in 2011.
Before his stay at Adrian, Fogarty was an assistant coach at Bowling Green for four years (2002-2006).
SERIES OF THE WEEK: In a rare showdown of the No. 1 and 2 teams in the nation, National Collegiate Hockey Conference rivals North Dakota (5-0), ranked No. 1, and Minnesota-Duluth (3-1-2), ranked No. 2, collide in a two-game league series at Duluth on Friday and Saturday.
The Fighting Hawks, who have played five home games, own two victories over Canisius and Bemidji State and one over Rensselaer. The Bulldogs have swept Michigan Tech at home, tied twice at UMass-Lowell and split a home series with Notre Dame.
Next weekend, defending NCAA champion North Dakota plays a non-league series at Minnesota
IN THE BIG TEN: No. 11 Michigan (3-1-1) plays two non-conference games at Vermont (2-1-1) on Friday and at Dartmouth (0-0) on Saturday.
No. 11 Minnesota (2-2) and Wisconsin (2-2) also head East for two non-conference contests at Clarkson (3-2-1) and St. Lawrence (3-3). The Gophers face Clarkson on Friday and visit St. Lawrence on Saturday. The Badgers start with St. Lawrence on Friday and finish at Clarkson on Saturday.
No. 15 Ohio State (3-0-1) plays two games at Niagara (0-3-2) on Friday and Saturday, and No. 19 Penn State (3-1-1) plays host to Canisius (2-3-1) on Friday and Saturday.