Oct. 29, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
Improving and meshing as a group can be a slow process for any college hockey team, especially one with eight or nine first-year players in the lineup and four sophomores also playing key roles.
It takes numerous practices and plenty of games to see marked improvement and stability. Along the way, it certainly tests of the patience of fans, coaches and even the players.
Often times, development early on is more important than winning and losing.
That is definitely the case with Michigan State, just one month and six games into the season.
The Spartans, 2-3-1 overall and 1-1 in CCHA play, learned a few things about themselves in October and are eager take a bigger steps in November and again in December in their quest to earn a reputation as a competitive, hard-to-play against team.
In three series against Minnesota (two losses), Niagara (win, tie) and Lake Superior State (loss, win), MSU has played OK, played poorly and played well. And hopefully, the Spartans are learning what it takes for them to have a chance to win games.
There were several basic lessons from MSU's series at LSSU - a 3-2 loss and 4-2 victory - last weekend. The No. 1 lesson was that the Spartans have to play with a high compete level and focus if they're going to become a respectable team with any chance of winning more games than they lose.
If a strong work ethic isn't there completely, MSU is going to struggle, even in January and February when the young players should be stronger and much improved.
Last Friday, the Spartans played their worst game of the season in a one-goal loss to the Lakers, a defeat that was much more one-sided that the 3-2 score. MSU got outplayed in every facet of the game. Positives were nowhere to be found.
Coach Tom Anastos was upset by his team's poor effort and lack of focus, and challenged his players after the game and in meetings on Saturday to compete at a much higher level.
His strong message was received and his players responded.
"I haven't seen Coach Anastos that emotional since he started coaching us,'' senior forward and assistant captain Anthony Hayes said. "You learn something every weekend, and I couldn't be happier with the way our team responded.''
The Spartans went out Saturday and had their best game of the season, and did to the Lakers what they had done to MSU on Friday. The Spartans were physical, they played with intensity and were in the Lakers' faces, limiting space and time and preventing LSSU from establishing pressure in the MSU zone.
Unlike Friday, it was the Spartans who controlled the puck and became a difficult team to play against, one of the major goals of the program. MSU had four players score goals, three coming on the power play.
"Coach didn't change any of his philosophies or didn't change anything he expected us to do, but just reinforced the fact that there are high expectations,'' Hayes said.
"He told us we weren't going to leave Lake State without a win. He challenged us and we responded. The guys realized what kind of compete level we need to play at every weekend.''
MSU worked hard, made good plays and finished. The scoring was balanced as freshman defenseman John Draeger, sophomore forwards Matt Berry and Tanner Sorenson and Hayes each scored goals. For Draeger, it was his first collegiate goal. Rookie defenseman Travis Walsh picked up an assist for his first point, as did redshirt freshman Justin Hoomaian, who missed most of last season with an injury.
"We spent some time on Friday and again on Saturday focusing on our effort, and I give the kids credit,'' Anastos said. "They got themselves ready to play and we saw a harder-working, quicker, faster cohesive team.
"I know we're going to have inconsistencies because we're such a young group, but this sets a benchmark of what we're capable of doing when we play hard.''
At this point, even with the expected development and eventual cohesiveness, the Spartans look like a middle-of-the-pack team in the CCHA. That means they could rise up and challenge for fourth or fifth place but they also could be stuck around sixth, seventh or eighth if their work ethic doesn't measure up.
In addition, key factors include the improvement of the young defensemen and ability of the forwards to be more of a force and provide balanced and opportunistic scoring. And of course, goaltending must be a strength of this team.
Here are some early-season impressions:
Goaltending: Will Yanakeff, a junior, has had an OK start but he'll need to bring his game to a higher level so he can be in position to steal some games with some superior performances. Freshman Jake Hildebrand looked sharp in his debut on Saturday, a solid 28-save performance in his first victory in his first career start. Hildebrand played with poise, confidence and quickness.
Defense: Experience is limited with junior Jake Chelios and senior Matt Grassi the only returnees on a unit that includes two transfers - RJ Boyd (Sacred Heart via Indiana of the U.S. Hockey League) and Nick Gatt (Alabama-Huntsville) and three freshmen - Rhett Holland, Draeger and Walsh. MSU has had trouble moving the puck out of its zone and in positioning, but that should get better as more games are played. For sure, it's a critical area that needs to improve if the Spartans are to thrive.
Forwards: Juniors Greg Wolfe and Lee Reimer and senior Kevin Walrod are considered the go-to guys, but it appears they'll have some help from sophomores Berry, Sorenson and Brett Darnell and freshman Matt DeBlouw. Sorenson has three goals and three assists for a team-leading six points. Darnell and Berry have two goals apiece. Seniors Chris Forfar and Hayes are solid together as part of a checking line and hope to chip in a few points. Freshmen David Bondra, Ryan Keller and Michael Ferratino and redshirt freshman Justin Hoomaian will have a chance to contribute in various roles.
Special teams: The power play is just taking shape but it's already contributed some nice goals off pinpoint passes. Key forwards like Wolfe, Reimer, Berry, Sorenson, Darnell and DeBlouw, among others, and defensemen Chelios, Walsh and Draeger will get plenty of opportunities to score or set up power-play goals. Hayes and Forfar have plenty of experience in killing penalties and Ferrantino looks like he'll play a big role on the PK.
Injuries: There's already too many injuries popping up and the season is only three weeks old. Senior forward Dean Chelios is out for the season with a shoulder injury, hurting depth up front. Freshmen Keller and promising defenseman Holland have been sidelined with shoulder injuries. Keller, who was hurt in practice last week, did not play at LSSU, and Holland was injured in Friday's loss and is out indefinitely. Walrod missed one game against Niagara on Oct. 27, and both games at LSSU with flu-like symptoms. But he's expected back soon, perhaps this weekend against Bowling Green.
Upcoming schedule: The next month-and-a-half brings some interesting challenges - one game at Michigan and two each at Miami and Notre Dame. There's 11 games left on the pre-Christmas schedule - home-and-home against Bowling Green this weekend, home-and-home vs. Michigan; at Miami; Ohio State at home; at Notre Dame and one home game against Ferris State on Dec. 15. MSU has Thanksgiving weekend off. No matter what MSU's record is going into the Great Lakes Invitational in late December, there will still be 17 games remaining, including 15 in CCHA play. So even if the Spartans struggle in the first half, there's plenty of time to pull things together for a successful late-season run and be at the top of their game in the playoffs.
Patience. There's a long way to go.