Nov. 15, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - In each of the last two Saturday nights, Matt Berry has had the best games of his brief Michigan State career.
Two weeks ago, the Spartan sophomore right wing scored two goals and added two assists in a 6-1 victory at Bowling Green.
Last Saturday, Berry made even a bigger splash with three goals - his first career hat trick - and one assist in a 7-2 win over Michigan and in front of the largest crowd in Munn Arena history - 7,225.
"I couldn't have asked for anything better than that,'' said Berry, 20, a 5-10, 175-pounder from Canton, a western Detroit suburb.
Berry, playing on one of the hottest forward lines in the nation with freshman center Matt DeBlouw and sophomore left wing Brent Darnell, has taken over the CCHA scoring lead with five goals and five assists for 10 points in six league games. Overall, Berry has six goals and five assists for 11 points in 12 games.
For sure, Berry hopes the Saturday magic continues, but he'd really like to see more production from himself and better play by his team on Fridays.
In three CCHA series, the Spartans (4-5-1 overall, 3-3 CCHA), have struggled on Friday in losses to Lake Superior State, BGSU and Michigan. But they've bounced back on Saturday with impressive victories to earn series splits.
MSU is 1-4-0 on Friday and 3-1-1 on Saturday.
For Berry and his teammates, it's all about preparation and consistency.
"The Friday-Saturday thing, we're trying to figure out. We just haven't been coming together to start the weekend strong,'' he said. "We haven't got off to good starts and that's hurt us.''
The Spartans will need lots of energy and be at their best this weekend as they face No. 4 Miami (6-2-2, 3-2-1-1) in a two-game CCHA series in Oxford, Ohio -- at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday.
Spartan coach Tom Anastos liked what he saw from Berry during his freshman season in which he scored 11 goals and had eight assists for 19 points in 37 games.
"He had a good season. I think he was our best player in our NCAA Tournament game,'' Anastos said. "We told him after the season that we'd like him to take another step.
"We know he has a very high skill level. But it's more about him learning how to play at that high level all the time.''
Anastos said Berry had his best week of practice from start to finish last week before the series with U-M. He said Berry was focused and prepared well.
"The thing we're trying to work on with him is the commitment it takes to prepare every day and not just the time at the rink,'' the Spartan coach said. "It's the time away from the rink that matters, too - eating right, sleeping right and taking care of schoolwork.
"You need to get your body and mind prepared to play at a peak level on the weekend. He was committed to that and it was noticeable.
"I talked to him this week and said I hoped he associated that kind of preparation with the kind of performance he had. If he can sustain that, he'll be a spectacular player.''
Berry hoped to contribute more as a freshman but took the season as a good learning experience that gave him some confidence coming into this season. As a rookie, he had to adjust to the speed of the college game and learn how to compete at a higher level.
"I always thought that I could be counted on to play a big role, but as a freshman I didn't know what to expect,'' he said. "This year, I'm more comfortable with the puck. I'm not in a rush to get rid of it. I want it on my stick.''
What kind of player does Berry believe he can be?
"I think I'm a pretty skilled forward, good at making plays coming into the zone and I can find pucks around the net and have a good (scoring) touch,'' he said. "On the power play, I'm free to move around more this season. I can shoot from the slot and go to the net for rebounds.''
All through his minor hockey career in the Detroit area and in one season in juniors with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the U.S. Hockey League, Berry has been known as a top offensive player.
"I've always had good numbers, but I was really small until my sophomore year of high school. When I was a freshman, I was 5-feet-1 and weighed like 105 pounds,'' Berry said.
"But I grew right away and by the time my sophomore year ended, I was 5-8 and 150.''
Berry, who said he started playing roller hockey at age 4 and then hockey on ice at age 8, played for several teams while growing up. He started with the Chelsea Chiefs (mites) and then it was Little Caesar's, Honeybaked, Canton Crush and Belle Tire.
In one of his two seasons with Belle Tire, he played in 77 games.
"It was a busy year. Some weekends, we'd play five games,'' he said. "We'd play two on Friday, two Saturday and one Sunday and then come home.''
In his one season with Muskegon of the USHL, Berry had had 25 goals and 51 points in 56 games in 2010-11. He committed to MSU just before the season started.
Two of his teammates with Muskegon were current Spartan freshmen Travis Walsh and DeBlouw.
"I also played with Matt DeBlouw for one year with Belle Tire,'' Berry said. "Two years after that, we were in Muskegon and now we're here. We're following each other around.''
Berry also knew his other linemate - Darnell - before landing at MSU, but they never played on the same team, despite both growing up in Canton.
"I knew Brent when we were kids. He lived about four miles from me and he used to ride his bike over to my house,'' he said. "We played against each other but never on the same team - until now.''
Berry, DeBlouw and Darnell are the Spartans' top three scorers. Berry is just one point ahead of DeBlouw, who has four goals and six assists for 10 points, and Darnell has three goals and six assists for nine points.
"It seems to be coming together very naturally for us. We're making smart plays entering the zone and it's paying off,'' Berry said. "We've got good chemistry, we're working hard and we know where each other is going to be.''
Darnell said Berry's three-goal night against Michigan will do great things for his linemate's confidence.
"It's going to take him to another level,'' Darnell said. "He didn't start the season the way he wanted but he's really come on. He's a natural goal scorer.
"As a line, we have to keep getting better and be consistent. There will games when we don't score, so then we have to be solid defensively and do the little things that can help us win.''
Berry said a major difference in his game from last season is confidence.
"One of the biggest things in the game is playing with confidence. If you have it, you're not going to get down on yourself if you're not having a good game,'' he said. "You just keep working, make sure you're good defensively and you know the goals will come.''
For the second straight week, the Spartans are facing one of the best teams in the nation.
Miami, despite playing three freshmen on defense, two freshmen in goal and four rookies up front, along with five sophomores in the lineup, is off to an excellent start and is in first place in the CCHA.
The RedHawks may be young but they're very talented. Freshman Riley Barber is the highest-scoring rookie in the nation with a team-leading 14 points (5 goals, 9 assists).
Sophomore center Austin Czarnik, Miami's second leading scorer (6-7-13), was Berry's teammate for two seasons with Honeybaked when they were about 13-14 years old.
The Spartans have had more trouble with the RedHawks than any other team in recent years. Miami went 4-0 against MSU last year and holds an 11-3 edge over the last five seasons.
"We have to weather their storm early. Both times we played them down there last year in the playoffs they scored early in the first period and that really hurt,'' Berry said. "It helps so much to score first, especially on the road.
"We have to get pucks in deep, they have some young defensemen so we have to get in the zone and hit them. Both of their goalies are freshmen, so we have to test them, put some pressure on and see how they react.''