Neil’s Notebook: Competitive Appleton Striving to Continue Production
Neil Koepke previews the weekend set at Munn vs. Michigan Tech.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING – Mason Appleton had a pretty solid freshman year at Michigan State with five goals and a team-leading 17 assists for 22 points.
Not bad, not great.
The highly competitive Appleton is eager to be better, much better. So, he went home to Green Bay, Wis., in the spring and worked on all areas of his game during the summer. He came back for his sophomore year stronger and determined to make an impact as a top-end, productive forward.
So far this season, he’s doing just that.
Appleton has one goal and four assists for five points in six games, including assists on goals by Villiam Haag (power play) and Hirose (shorthanded) in last Friday’s 6-2 win over Princeton at Munn Arena.
“He’s playing with a greater level of speed than he did a year ago and I think that’s going to keep improving,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “His strength has improved lot. That’s not just upper body strength but leg strength, too.
“He’s an intense, competitive guy. He wants things to happen now. I thought his line had its best game of the year last Friday. They’re starting to play off each other very well.’’
Appleton’s line and the Spartans’ next challenge is against Michigan Tech in a non-conference series at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at Munn Arena.
Anastos credits Appleton’s work in the off-season as the catalyst for his solid start this fall.
“He really committed to improving his strength and what is called the first three steps out of the hole – his acceleration is much improved and that’s creating some space for him,’’ the MSU coach said.
“If you look at our first goal on Friday, on a power play, Haag was in front of the net and Appleton was up toward the blue line area and spun out and pulled away from the penalty killer on him. He created space, found an opening and (came down the left boards) and feathered a nice pass for a tap-in. A lot of that goal had to do with creating space for himself.’’
Appleton agrees that he’s a different player from the one that last skated for the Spartans in mid-March.
“Coming into the season, I talked a lot about consistency and I think I’ve been pretty consistent in our first five games. I’m trying to play to my strengths, which are making plays and using speed,’’ he said.
“I think I’m carrying the puck with more of an attack mindset. I’m shooting more. I’m missing the net too much but I’m getting more attempts. I think against Princeton, I had six or seven attempts (shots at the net).’’
Playing on a line with Khodorenko, who played for the U.S. National Team Development Program the last two years, and Hirose, the leading scorer for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the British Columbia Hockey League, should help boost Appleton’s goal and assist numbers.
“I think I’ll have an opportunity to score more this year, but I don’t view myself as a pure goal scorer or playmaker,’’ he said. “I’m trying to do a little of both and get more balanced numbers. I had five goals and 17 assists last year so I want to get it more balanced.
“That’s when I’m playing my best hockey and when I’m the biggest threat.’’
Appleton and his linemates should get plenty of playing times in key situations all season. They’re on one of the two power-play units and Appleton and Hirose are getting time killing penalties.
“I think Appleton can score but he’s more of a puck distributor. But if he can get the mindset to shoot the puck more, he’ll find the net,’’ Anastos said. “He’s got a good shot, and that’s one areas that he really improved on in the off-season. He worked hard on his shot and he can get it off quickly.
“We saw that with his goal (in the exhibition game) against Toronto and the goal against Denver.’’
MSU captain Joe Cox, a senior right wing, believes Appleton has grown in a lot of areas since his freshman season. “Coming into that second year, you tend to settle in more and he seems to be a more poised player, more comfortable, more relaxed and not as high strung,’’ Cox said. “You can see him slow the game down when he gets the puck.
“He’s making the right plays, putting the puck on the net and it’s working for him. “There’s a lot of skill on his line and they’re doing a good job of communicating and knowing where each other is going to be.’’
Appleton spent most of last season on a line with then-junior left wing Mackenzie MacEachern, who took him under his wing and helped get him adjusted to the faster-paced college game.
This year, Appleton is doing the same with linemates Hirose and Khodorenko.
“Coming in, he’s helped us with what to expect in going to the rink every day and the speed we have to bring in every game,’’ Hirose said. “He’s a great player with good size, good speed and he makes those little plays off the rushes. He sees the ice really well, finds you and gets you the puck.’’
Appleton said he shares different tips with his linemates but doesn’t think it’s a big deal.
“It’s a little bit of a leadership role,’’ he said. “You have to pull them along here and there, but they’re really talented players so it’s anything too big. They’re freshmen but they don’t play like freshmen. They’re both playing a lot of minutes and being relied on big time.’’
Appleton said the biggest takeaway from his freshman season was the importance of being responsible defensively in order to have success on offense.
“You can’t take nights off or periods off. And one of the biggest things I learned was that you have to play in all three zones as you can,’’ he said. “If you’re not hard in the defensive zone, you’re not going to get pucks out and you’re not going to get the offense you want.
“For our line, going to get pucks and recovering pucks is huge, because once we have the puck, that’s when we can be dangerous.
“It’s kind of the identity of our team We want to play good strong defense before we get to the attack.’’
MOVIN’ ON: The Spartans got a boost of confidence from their 6-2 victory over Princeton, but they know they must continue to improve to face the tougher challenges ahead.
“It’s real important that we continue to get better and get to the level of play that we want to be at in all areas of our game,’’ Coach Tom Anastos said. “We can get significantly better, whether it’s offensively in coming up the ice in attacking, or in the offensive zone, in the tough areas in front of the net or in defending the rush. Or in improving our power play.
“But I like the approach of our team. I like the attitude the guys are coming to the rink with every day.’’
Since the opening weekend when the Spartans got swept by Lake Superior State in which almost nothing went right, Michigan State has put together three strong games, and finally broke loose offensively against Princeton. For sure, the Tigers are a lower-level team in the ECAC and were playing their first game on Friday.
“We’re focused on the foundational things that we need to be good at with our style of play and in building our identity,’’ Anastos said. “We’re trying to get good at the things that would allow us to be reliable in those areas and build off of that.’’
With a 1-4 record, the next four games – two at home vs. Michigan Tech and a home-and-home series with Ferris State next weekend – are important for Spartans in improving their record.
“They’re very important. Results are always important,’’ Anastos said. “But what’s more important is that we build a game that we feel good about, game that we can deliver every night and one that gives us a good chance to win.’’
Said Senior right wing and captain Joe Cox:
“It’s imperative that we pick up some wins over the next two weeks, especially with us going to (No. 3) North Dakota (Thanksgiving weekend). The guys have their hearts set on having a couple of good weekends and getting some points out of it.’’
SCOUTING THE HUSKIES: Michigan Tech holds an 82-75-4 edge in the series with MSU, which started a 5-0 Huskies win on Feb. 15, 1928. The teams didn’t meet again until 1950.
The Spartans are 0-4-2 in their last six games against Michigan Tech, and the last five have gone into overtime, including all three meetings last season.
In all three games, MSU held the lead late in the third period only to see the Huskies rally to come away with two victories and a tie.
Tech won 5-4 on Nov. 21, 2015, tying the game 4-4 with 1:40 left in the third period and winning it with 41 seconds to go in overtime.
In the second game of that series, the Spartans led 4-2 with four minutes left, but the Huskies scored at 16:07 and 19:09 to tie it 4-4. The overtime was scoreless.
MSU’s tough luck against Michigan Tech continued at the Great Lakes Invitational on Dec. 29, 2015. The Spartans were up 2-0 after two periods, but the Huskies scored at 8:44 of the third period and with 1:26 to go to tie it. They won 3-2 with a goal with 1:01 left in overtime.
Michigan State’s last victory over Tech was a 3-1 win in the GLI on Dec. 29, 2011, Anastos’ first year as Spartan coach.
Before Michigan Tech’s recent success against MSU, the Spartans held a commanding 23-3 edge in the series going back to 1984.
Michigan Tech started this season 0-4 and 1-5-1, but is on a three-game undefeated streak at 2-0-1 after a 3-3 tie at Michigan on Oct. 22 and a sweep of Northern Michigan, 2-0 and 5-1, last weekend.
Michigan Tech has played only three home games – a 7-3 win and 1-1 tie vs. Alabama-Huntsville and last Friday’s 2-0 win over NMU.
“Michigan Tech is a lot better team than their record would indicate. They play hard, they have experience, they’re upper-class driven with a number of seniors and juniors in the lineup and they play with pace and physicality,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “We saw in our games from last year, they play from the beginning of the game to the end.
“They’ve played in some tough buildings – at Duluth, Michigan and Northern Michigan. We have to have a good week of practice and elevate our game against a team that has good speed, attacks the net hard and defends aggressively.’’
Michigan Tech boasts one of the best defensive units in the nation with plenty of experience. The unit includes seniors Cliff Watson and Shane Hanna, juniors Mark Auk and Matt Roy, sophomore Dane Birks and freshman Mitch Reinke.
Three of the D-men have been drafted by NHL teams – Watson (San Jose), Roy (Los Angeles) and Birks (Pittsburgh).
After 10 games, Hanna, Auk and Reinke lead Tech in scoring with five points apiece. Hanna has two goals and three assists and Auk and Reinke have one goal and four assists.
Tech’s top forwards include senior Tyler Heinonen (2-2-4), juniors Dylan Steman (2-2-4) and Joel L’Esperance (1-2-3), freshman Alex Smith (2-2-4) and senior Reid Sturos (3-0-3). Heinonen is the team’s top returning scorer with 15 goals and 27 points last season, while L’Esperance is second with 16 goals and 26 points.
The Huskies have used three goalies this season. Freshman Angus Redmond made his first two starts last weekend against NMU and gave up one goal in the 2-0 and 5-1 victories. He was named WCHA Rookie of the Week.
Redmond has played in three games, a 1.36 goals-against and a .946 saves percentage.
Redmond, 21, a 6-1, 200-pounder from Langley, British Columbia, is a junior teammate of MSU freshman left wing Taro Hirose, with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League. They played together for two seasons. Hirose was the team’s leading scorer (15-56-71) and Redmond the No. 1 goalie last season.
Senior goalie Matt Wintjes has played in four games (1-2-1), has a 3.25 goals-against average and a .859 saves percentage. Devin Kero, a sophomore, is 0-3-1 in five games, with a 3.30 GAA and an .883 saves percentage.
“I always love to play Michigan Tech. It’s a hard-nosed game, very physical, lots of speed and with a high compete level,’’ MSU senior right wing and captain Joe Cox said. “It doesn’t surprise me that the last five have gone to overtime.
“I remember the last two games we played here, we had a good lead, gave it up and they ended up going to overtime. That’s definitely something we’ve been focusing on. It’s bearing down, getting the puck out of the zone and keeping them out of the dangerous zones.’’
SALUTING THE ’66 CHAMPS: Michigan State’s 1966 NCAA championship team will be honored between periods at the game against Ferris State on Nov. 10. MSU is celebrating the 50th anniversary of their title.
Team members returning for the weekend, which includes an introduction at the MSU football game against Rutgers on Nov. 12 include: Gaye Cooley, Jerry Fisher, Larry Roche, Mike Jacobsen, Mike Coppo, Tom Mikkola, Sandy McAndrew, Doug French, Don Heaphy, Jerry Fisher, Richard Bois, Bob Brawley, Nino Cristofoli, Tom Crowley, Willie Faunt, Bob Fallat, Larry Roche, John Schuster, Matt Mulcahy, Dainis Vedejs and trainer Clyde Stretch and John Bessone, the son of Spartans coach Amo Bessone.
The Spartans defeated Boston University 2-1 in the semifinals and Clarkson 6-1 in the title game in the 1966 Final Four in Minneapolis for the school’s first national championship in hockey.
NEW NO. 1: Minnesota-Duluth has taken over from North Dakota as the No. 1 team in the nation this week in both of college hockey’s major polls. The Bulldogs (5-1-1) swept the Fighting Hawks (5-2) in the showdown for No. 1 last Friday and Saturday in Duluth, 5-2 and 3-0.
North Dakota slipped to No. 3, while Denver (6-2) moved up to No. 2. The Pioneers won two close games, 2-1 and 3-1, at Michigan State two weeks ago.
The highest-rated Big Ten team is Ohio State (5-0-2) at No. 11. Minnesota (3-2-1) is No. 13, Penn State (5-1-1) is No. 14 and Michigan (3-3-1) is No. 17.
IN THE BIG TEN: No. 13 Minnesota and No. 3 North Dakota (5-2) renew their longtime rivalry with a non-conference series on Friday and Saturday in Minneapolis. The last time the former WCHA rivals played was on Jan. 19, 2013 – a 4-4 tie in Minneapolis. Next season, the teams meet in Grand Forks, N.D.
No. 14 Penn State (5-1-1) plays host to Niagara (0-5-2) in a Thursday-Friday series.
Northern Michigan (2-5-1) and Wisconsin (4-2) meet in another non-conference series on Friday and Saturday, this time in Madison. The two teams split a series to start the season in Green Bay.
No. 11 Ohio State (5-0-1) and Robert Morris (2-3-1) meet in a home-and-home series – Friday in Columbus and Saturday in Pittsburgh.
No. 17 Michigan (3-3-1) plays a single non-league game at Arizona State on Friday night.