Nov. 14, 2011
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
It was the best on-ice weekend in the Tom Anastos era of Michigan State hockey.
Quietly and without much fanfare, the Spartans swept highly ranked Western Michigan in Kalamazoo - the first victory (3-2) by holding on and the second (4-2) by taking charge. MSU beat a Broncos team ranked No. 5 in one poll and No. 6 in another.
And the Spartans did it by doing more than just competing hard. They did it by playing with great poise and with the toughness Anastos has been hoping to see in his evolving team.
Four weeks ago, after losing two games at Lake Superior State, MSU's record was 1-3 overall and 0-2 in the CCHA. Some fans probably feared the worst for the Spartans. But Anastos and his coaching staff expected there would be tough stretches so they stayed patient, coached and taught with a lot of positive reinforcement and hoped there would be gradual improvement all over the ice.
The players appreciated the encouragement and direction, continued to work hard and were eager to display a higher skill level, play with consistency and win.
Suddenly, the Spartans are on a roll, having won four straight games and five of six and stand at 6-4 overall and 3-3 in league play. They won two games at WMU's Lawson Arena, one of the toughest places to play in the CCHA. Confidence is increasing and the team is even playing with swagger.
MSU has a slew of forwards who are playing well, led by the high-scoring line of Lee Reimer, Mike Merrifield and Greg Wolfe. Others, like Brett Perlini, Chris Forfar, Kevin Walrod, Anthony Hayes and Trevor Nill - all veterans -- are doing lots of little things to contribute to the cause.
On defense, Torey Krug continues to be a force but doesn't have to do everything and play like an all-star every night for the Spartans to win. Krug's defensive partner, Brock Shelgren, has lifted his game to a high level. He's been very good defensively.
In the last three series, the Spartans have received a big boost from their goaltenders. In the sweep of the Broncos, sophomore Will Yanakeff was especially sharp. He was the reason MSU won on Friday and played a big role on Saturday.
So what did Anastos like best about his team's first CCHA sweep? Poise and toughness.
"There were two words we used before the weekend. We felt we needed to play with poise and toughness,'' he said. "I liked our poise and we played with a really good toughness. We were physical and had some good hits.''
From the time he took the Spartan coaching job, Anastos has stressed that one of his early goals was to make his team tough to play against. He's now seeing signs that this team can develop a physical edge.
The Spartans' style is to be aggressive, attack and pressure the puck all over the ice. It's a fast pace and allows the players to play the body and make big checks. Opponents will soon be keeping their heads up, watching for rambunctious Spartans.
"This is just another step. Our team continues to build confidence and it's starting to believe in itself,'' Anastos said. "We see that how we're playing can be effective when executed.
"We're making mistakes, but the good thing is we're overcoming them.''
MSU seems eager for new challenges and there's plenty ahead.
The next is playing on an Olympic-size rink (15 feet wider than Munn Arena) at Northern Michigan on Friday and Saturday. The Wildcats (4-5-3, 1-4-3) will be mad. They're winless in seven games (0-4-3) and coming off two losses at Ohio State.
After the visit to Marquette, it's back home to play Minnesota, ranked No. 1 last week in both polls, on Thanksgiving weekend. The Gophers are fast, quick and score lots of goals.
Sounds like another good measuring stick for a team eager to compete and learn, but still with a lot to prove.
CHECKING THE STATS: Lee Reimer continues to lead MSU in scoring with five goals and nine assists for 14 points, two more than linemate Greg Wolfe (4-8-12). Reimer is third in the CCHA in overall scoring and ranks tied for 17th nationally.
The top scorer in the nation is Notre Dame's T.J. Tynan with 19 points - three goals and 16 assists. Erik Haula of Minnesota is second with seven goals and 11 assists for 18 points, while Notre Dame's Anders Lee is in a four-way tie for third with 12 goals and five assists for 17 points. . . .
Despite four straight victories in which they've allowed two goals in each game, the Spartans rank 10th of 11 teams in CCHA defense, averaging 2.80 goals against. The reason for the low ranking is MSU has given up five goals three times - to Boston College, Lake Superior State and Ohio State.
THE LAST TIME: The Spartans' four-game winning streak is their longest since the 2009-2010 season when MSU won five in a row from Dec. 11-Jan. 8 -- two wins against Bowling Green, and single victories over Michigan Tech and Rensselaer in the GLI and Lake Superior State.
MSU's last back-to-back series sweeps came in December, 2009. The Spartans won two at LSSU and a home-and-home sweep against Ferris State.
STANDINGS UPDATE: The Spartans, with nine points, are in 8th place in the CCHA but all the teams above them have played eight games, two more than MSU. Lake Superior State, Notre Dame and Ohio State share first place with 17 points while Ferris State is a point back with 16. The Lakers, Buckeyes are Bulldogs are big surprises. The Irish are not.
Despite a solid overall record at 7-3-2 and high rankings in the polls (No. 4 and 5 last week), Michigan is 3-3-2-1 in CCHA play. The Wolverines have lost and tied at NMU and Miami and at home have swept FSU and split with WMU.
Alaska, meanwhile, is off to a rough start. The Nanooks have yet to win a game in league play. They're 0-6-2-0 in the CCHA and 3-7-3 overall, after two losses (5-4, 4-3 in OT) last weekend at Notre Dame.