Neil's Notebook: Jake Chelios off to a Strong Start
Oct. 31, 2013
By Neil Koepke
EAST LANSING - Jake Chelios' three assists in last Saturday's 3-1 victory over Boston University were almost as many as he had all last season.
Two more assists and he'll equal his output of five assists in 2012-13.
But the Michigan State senior defenseman, while happy about the offensive surge, is more focused on lifting his game defensively to the highest level possible in his final season as a Spartan.
"Coming into this season, I wanted to focus on the defensive side of my game, and thinking more like a defenseman,'' said Chelios, a forward for all of his early career until switching to defense for part of his freshman season. "This is my third full year as a defenseman.''
Despite his attention to the defensive part of his position, Chelios admitted he enjoyed the feeling of being on the ice for goal celebrations and his role in a dramatic come-from-behind, confidence-building victory.
"You kind of lose that feeling of what it's like to be on the ice for a goal and to celebrate,'' Chelios said. "I kind of got carried away when we got those three goals at the end. But it's a great feeling, especially when things have been tough lately.''
The Spartans' win over BU ended a three-game losing streak, lots of frustration and the three-goal output, capped by an empty-net goal by Wolfe, was MSU's highest of the year.
This weekend, the Spartans (1-3) play host to American International College (1-1) from Atlantic Hockey. The teams meet at 7 p.m. on Friday and at 1 p.m. on Sunday. It's the first time MSU and AIC have played.
Last season, on a team that struggled to score goals, Chelios had five goals and five assists for 10 points in 42 games.
For sure, the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder from Bloomfield Hills, has some offensive skills and would love to put up more points, but it's being a reliable defenseman in his own zone and against the rush and being a leader that can help the Spartans the most. A successful season hinges on many areas, but improved scoring and a high level of play by the defensive corps are right at the top.
"It's a big change going from playing forward all your life and all of a sudden you're on defense at this level,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "I think Jake is growing more comfortable back there. He doesn't have the advantage of being surrounded by a bunch of veteran players. But he can be a reliable and steady player on defense and a leader.
"He influences his teammates, he can play with an edge when he gets mad and he can play a solid two-way game.''
Chelios said the biggest difference in his game today compared to his freshman season is he's doing things out of instinct and certain situations are much more routine.
"It's the natural instincts. When I was a forward, I was pretty good at reading plays and anticipating them,'' he said. "My first couple of years on defense, it was tougher knowing the little things - like how to conserve energy, being in the right place and other important things.
"Now, those are things I don't even think about anymore - like being in position or picking up a guys stick in front of the net.''
Anastos is counting on Chelios to make a solid impact on a defense that includes senior Nickolas Gatt, junior RJ Boyd, sophomores John Draeger (still out with a lower body injury) and Travis Walsh and freshmen Brock Krygier, Chris Knudson and Holland.
"We're not looking for Jake to be miraculous. We're looking for him to be consistent,'' Anastos said. "That doesn't mean he has to be a big point producer. "If he's a consistent performer, then he's dependable defensively, he can make that first breakout pass or first pass in the neutral zone and turn our team up ice and play in a variety of situations. That's what we need out of him.''
"And he can be an influential guy with his teammates. He puts himself out there to lead and with some passion.''
In his two full seasons as a defenseman, Chelios' game has been helped by his father, Chris, the former Red Wings defenseman who played 26 seasons in the NHL and won Stanley Cups with the Red Wings (2) and Montreal Canadiens (1).
Chris is at most Spartan home games and makes many road trips, not only watching Jake but also Dean, a senior left wing now in his fifth season at MSU after sitting out last season with a shoulder injury.
After each game, Jake and Dean chat with their dad about their play.
"Obviously, he's plays a big role. Sometimes you can never get him to shut up about it,'' Jake said with a laugh. "You have to take his advice because he knows what he's talking about.
"Now that we have those iPads, it makes it easier for him go over my game. He does and I want that because it's a great source of information with all his experience as a defenseman. He has a good memory of all the plays I screwed up.''
Unfortunately, Chris Chelios didn't make it to last Saturday's game to watch Jake have a hand in all three of MSU's late goals.
"My little sister (Tara) had her homecoming (at Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills) and they tried to come late but they got in this huge traffic and ended up never making it,'' Jake said. "He had to listen to the Boston University radio feed. He wasn't too happy about that.''
So Jake plays one of his best games and his dad isn't there to heap praise on his defenseman son.
"I don't think he's allowed back now,'' Jake laughed.
The Spartan defense, Jake said, is a work in progress with pairings still to be worked out.
"We've been switching around pairings, trying to get used to different players,'' he said. "I felt good last week with Nick Gatt. He's good at backing me up. He's a stay-at-home defenseman and if I have brain lock, he's there to make sure I don't do it again.
"I think it's harder for my partner to grow into me than me to them. You have to know the kind of player you're with. If you're with Walshie (Travis Walsh), you have to stay back and let him do his offensive thing. If you're with Gatt or (Brent) Holland, you can take more risks because you know they'll be there to back you up.''
Chelios said his mission coming into this season was to help his team get back to winning on a regular basis, after a frustrating 14-25-3 season last year.
"Winning is the biggest thing for me. Right now, the whole team is confident we can do that,'' he said. "With our forwards, it looks like we'll be a much faster team. "We have guys coming back from injury (Draeger and forward Matt Berry) and I think we can put together a good season for our first year in the Big Ten. The big thing is stringing together a few wins, going on big winning streaks and getting some momentum going.''
SORENSON RETURNS: Junior forward Tanner Sorenson has served his five-game suspension for a violation of team rules, but that doesn't guarantee a spot in the lineup. He'll have to earn it in practice and then play well to keep it.
"We'll have to see how he responds. He's a top returning scorer but we're looking at a lineup that has showed some growth, so it's not easy to say we're going to plug him in `here,''' Spartans coach Tom Anastos said.
"You have to realize that a lineup spot is of great value. It's very precious. For whatever reason, you have to make sure you do everything you can not to lose it, and when you break team rules, you compromise that.''
Sorenson tied for second in team scoring last season with 13 goals and eight assists for 21 points, 10 points behind leading scorer Matt Berry (15-16-31).
"He's a talented player. He has offensive skills that certainly blend in with our needs to improve offensively,'' Anastos said. "Last year in power play situations, he provided some dynamics that we liked.''
NO ASSISTANT CAPTAINS FOR NOW: Anastos said he's not going to name two or three assistant captains for the immediate future because he wants as many players to evolve as strong leaders.
"I don't think we need to declare anything beyond (captain) Greg Wolfe at this point,'' he said. "A captain designation is required by the rules to make sure you have at least one player designated for officials to talk to.
"Given that our team is so youthful, I don't want to create separation. The leaders on the team are a major influence. They represent what we want our program to be. We have a number of players who can lead (from all classes) and I don't want to discourage that by designating a couple of players as alternate captains.''
Anastos said that as the season progresses, if he sees value in adding assistant captains, he'll do it. But for now, he likes this route.
"We've spent a lot of time talking about this over the last few years, and we've talked with other programs about what they do and their philosophy,'' he said. "We just thought we're content with what we're doing.
"Greg Wolfe is comfortable with his role as captain and the players are as well. I think we're getting leadership from a lot of other people.
"Different guys lead in different ways and the most effective players are those who can inspire their teammates. Some are vocal and some not so vocal.''
"Dean Chelios has done a lot of good things for our team and himself,'' Anastos said. "He's worked hard to come back from an injury and he's working hard in practice. I don't think he's the most vocal guy but at times he's willing to express himself.
"Jake Chelios can be an influence on his teammates. With the younger guys, Michael Ferrantino and John Draeger both show leadership (skills). I think we have a number of emerging leaders and I don't want to squash that.''
SCOUTING THE YELLOW JACKETS: American International College (AIC) started its varsity program in 1948- 49 and has been affiliated with a conference since joining the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in 1998. League teams left the MAAC to form Atlantic Hockey in 2003-04
The Yellow Jackets have mostly been a bottom feeder in Atlantic Hockey, finishing in last place for eight straight years before 10th and 9th-place finishes (among 12 teams) the last two seasons. Last year, AIC had its best season since 1998-99 with a 12-17-6 overall record and went 9-12-6 in the conference.
This year, the Yellow Jackets are 1-1, after losing their opener 10-4 at Providence, now ranked No. 3 in the nation, and winning their home opener last Saturday, 3-1, against Sacred Heart in a league contest.
AIC, a private school in Springfield, Mass., is the smallest school among the 59 Division I hockey schools with 1,492 undergraduate students. The Yellow Jackets' 26-man roster includes 14 Americans from 10 states and 12 Canadians from four provinces.
There are two players from Michigan - senior forward Jon Puskar of Grosse Ile, and sophomore defenseman Brandon Lubin of Commerce Township. Puskar is AIC's top returning scorer with 12 goals and 12 assists for 24 points in 34 games last season. He was second in team scoring. This season, Puskar is scoreless in two games.
Lubin played in 32 games as a freshman and had no goals and 11 assists. Lubin has played in two games this season and had the first goal in AIC's 4-1 victory. Coach Gary Wright, a Vermont graduate, is in his 30th season at AIC.
BIG TEN LEADERS: Minnesota (5-0-1 overall), the No. 1-ranked team in the nation, boasts the top four scorers in the Big Ten six games into the regular season. Junior forward Sam Warning leads overall conference scoring with five goals and seven assists for 12 points, three more than teammate Justin Kloos, a freshman forward, who has nine points (2-7). Two more Gopher forwards follow - freshman Hudson Fasching (3-5-8) and junior Kyle Rau (1-7-8) are tied for third.
Michigan freshman goalie Zach Nagelvoort has the best goals-against average and save percentage at 1.47 and .947, respectively. Minnesota sophomore Adam Wilcox is second in both categories with a 1.64 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage. Michigan State will see the Gophers in about a month. Minnesota is the Spartans' first Big Ten opponent in a two-game series at Munn Arena on Dec. 6-7.
Meanwhile, Michigan State defensemen Rhett Holland, Travis Walsh and RJ Boyd are tied for fourth in blocked shots with nine apiece. The leaders are Penn State defenseman Patrick Koudys and Michigan defenseman Mac Bennett with 12. But the MSU d-men have played one fewer game than Koudys and two fewer than Bennett.
The Spartans rank 20th in the nation in blocked shots and second in the Big Ten.
Five of the six Big Ten teams are in action this weekend. In addition to the MSU-AIC series, No. 4. Michigan hosts Michigan Tech on Friday and Saturday; No. 13/12 Wisconsin plays No. 12/13 Lake Superior on Friday and Saturday in Madison; Ohio State is home against No. 20 Minnesota-Duluth on Friday and Saturday, and Penn State plays at Robert Morris on Friday. Minnesota has the weekend off.
FROZEN FOUR FINALISTS: The NCAA on Wednesday announced 10 finalists for the next four Frozen Fours, starting in 2014-15.
The cities under consideration include Boston, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Chicago, Columbus (Nationwide Arena), Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Paul, Minn., Tampa, and Washington, D.C.
The sites for 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2018 will be announced on Dec. 11.
Brooklyn and Chicago have never hosted a Frozen Four. Philadelphia is making its debut this season, one year after Pittsburgh was the site of the 2013 Frozen Four. The last time the Division I hockey championship was played in Boston was in 2004. Buffalo hosted in 2003, Columbus in 2005, St. Paul in 2002 and 2011, Washington in 2009 and Tampa in 2012.
When the Frozen Four was in Columbus, it was played at Ohio State's Value City Arena. Columbus' newest bid is for Nationwide Arena, home of the NHL's Blue Jackets, in downtown Columbus.
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