Neil’s Notebook: Spartans Physical, Impressive in Completing Sweep of Ferris State
Notes, quotes and analysis from Neil Koepke on Saturday's win at Ferris State.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
BIG RAPIDS – Michigan State’s 3-1 victory over Ferris State here Saturday night was impressive. Very impressive.
But not because of spectacular goals, pretty set-ups, dominant power plays, exciting end-to-end rushes for dramatic rallies.
It was impressive because of the Spartans’ willingness to mix it up physically – take a hit, give a hit – and show toughness along the boards, behind and in front of both nets, and overall pay a price to win on the road.
“It was about as physical of a game as I’ve been part of in my four years here,’’ said MSU senior defenseman and assistant captain Carson Gatt, who scored the Spartans’ third goal midway through the third period and assisted on the second goal.
“We stood up to the test. They were physical on us, we were physical back to them.’’
The hits came early and lasted the entire game, and several players from both teams got banged around and skated slowly to the bench, feeling some pain. And soon, they were back on the ice.
The Spartans (7-5 overall, 1-3 Big Ten) got one goal in each period – by Brennan Sanford, Mitchell Lewandowski and Gatt - and gave up a power-play goal early in the third period to make things a little dicey for a while.
The victory was Michigan State’s first on the road this season and first for first-year coach Danton Cole in an enemy building, and gave the Spartans a non-conference series sweep of the Bulldogs (5-7-1, 2-3-1 WCHA). MSU won the series opener, 3-2 in overtime, on Friday.
“There was a lot of banging going on tonight. But that’s this arena. That’s what I remember when I was at UAH (Alabama-Huntsville) and we were up here,’’ Cole said. “Both teams had a lot of energy and since it’s so tight, you have to bang around, and if you don’t, you can’t play in a building like this.’’
Winning at FSU’s Ewigleben Arena is never easy for the Spartans. The tight corners, low ceiling and the raucous sell-out crowd make the rink seem smaller that it is. And when you add in a Bulldogs team that most often likes to crash and bang, it leads to a chaotic game.
“We knew it was going to be like that on their ice, that they wanted to play it physical,’’ Gatt said. “We responded pretty well and played physical back to them. It was a tough, hard-fought game and that’s good for us.’’
Sanford, who had a busy night with a shorthanded goal, killed lots of penalties and even took three penalties, said he felt the effects of hard-nosed game.
“I’ve got bruises all over my body. I know I got hit a lot,’’ he said. “It was our most physical game of the year and we responded. We had a good team effort and battled through some penalties.’’
Even though Friday’s game was perhaps more exciting with some spectacular plays, more open with end-to-end rushes and a satisfying finish with Taro Hirose winning it in overtime, Gatt thought his team played better on Saturday.
“I think this was more of a complete game,’’ he said. “On Friday, we had times that we got away from what we were trying to do,’’ he said. “Tonight, our gaps were better. That’s one of the adjustments we tried to make – to keep gaps tight and slow them down.’’
A key segment in the game came late in the first period when Michigan State skated off a 5-on-3 FSU power play for 1 minute and 10 seconds. And then while killing off the last 50 seconds of the second penalty, the Spartans scored their first shorthanded goal of the season to go up 1-0.
Sanford, a junior, scored it at 14:08, beating FSU goalie Justin Kapelmaster from a wide angle, low in the left circle for the first shorthanded goal of his MSU career.
“We iced the puck on the PK and I beat their defenseman to the puck,’’ he said. “I was at an awkward angle at the bottom of the circle and found a spot over his right shoulder.
“I was pumped. I don’t ever remember getting a shorthanded goal before. It was an awesome penalty kill and to get the goal was a bonus.’’
“The first goal was big for us,’’ Cole said. “Just to get on the board there helped relax our guys, and Gatt’s goal was huge to make it 3-1.’’
MSU was 1-for-5 on the power play with two shots on goal. FSU was 1-for-6 with 6 shots on goal.
Despite the heaving hitting and grittiness of the game, it wasn’t devoid of highly skilled plays. Lewandowski and Taro Hirose teamed up for a power-play goal at 8:05 of the second period. Hirose set up Lewandowski in the slot for a one-timer that was blocked in front, but the Spartans worked to get the puck back and Hirose and Lewandowski tried the same play.
This time, Lewandowski’s one-timer found the back of the net for his ninth goal of the season, third of the weekend vs. the Bulldogs and sixth in his last four games.
With Sanford in the penalty box for unsportsmanlike conduct early in the third period, the Bulldogs capitalized to cut MSU’s lead to 2-1. MSU goalie John Lethemon (29 saves) made a point-blank save in front, but Corey Mackin fired in the rebound at 2:21.
What did do Sanford do to get sent to the box for unsportsmanlike conduct?
“I got speared in front of the net and the refs didn’t do anything and I got in the kid’s face and I got the penalty,’’ Sanford said. “I might have pushed him a little.’’
Of course, the penalty didn’t set well with the Spartans’ coach.
“The bad penalty in the third period, that’s probably the blemish I have on us handling things mentally,’’ Cole said.
Three minutes after FSU inched within one goal, a cool and calm Lethemon made a clutch glove save on Coale Norris’ shot from the left circle.
MSU was strong defensively as the Bulldogs tried to push for the tying goal, but they didn’t generate many quality chances.
Before Ferris State got into full desperation mode, the Spartans got some breathing room when Gatt made it 3-1 at 11:20 of the final period.
Gatt’s first goal of the season and fourth of his career came on a shot from the left point that eluded Kapelmaster.
“Patty (Khodorenko) made a great play to get the puck to me and when I got it, I was looking for a backdoor tip,’’ Gatt said. “But I really didn’t see it so I thought I’d just throw it on net. Good things happen and suddenly guys were coming at me celebrating.
“I think it went top left, over his stick. I saw some bodies so that’s why I didn’t go backdoor. Even though we had that cushion, we bared down and didn’t think that ‘we had one go give.’’’
Cole was impressed with the way his defensive corps competed and defended after losing junior defenseman Zach Osburn to a lower body injury in the first period. Osburn left the game for the dressing room, tried to come back but got hit again and then left the game for good. Along with regulars Mitch Eliot, Jerad Rosburg, Tommy Miller and Gatt, sophomore Damian Chrcek got plenty of ice time. Chrcek was playing in only his second game of the season.
“I thought it was outstanding,’’ Cole said of his defense. ”Our guys did a great job. They’ve been logging a lot of ice time so they’re used to it.’’
Cole said his team was better in handling Ferris State’s transition game than it did on Friday. “Our forwards did a better job of getting back to the defense and not getting spread out,’’ he said.
All in all, the MSU coaches liked the way the players handled the physical side of the game, hitting hard and blocking shots. The Spartans blocked 15, led Lewandowski’s four and Miller’s three blocks.
“Winning is hard,’’ Cole said. “If you don’t have ice bags in the locker room or on the bus, you’re not winning many games.’’
CHRCEK IN KEY ROLE: The Spartans have been rotating three sophomores into the lineup as the sixth defenseman each game, including Butrus Ghafari, Anthony Scarsella and Damian Chrcek. Chrcek was in the lineup on Saturday, playing in only his second game of the season. But after Zach Osburn went out with an injury in the first period, Chrcek found himself with an opportunity to make an impact.
“Checker got lots of ice. I think he got 14-15 minutes,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said. “We didn’t skip him in the third period. He played quite a bit and I thought he did great. “We’ve talked to the guys who haven’t been playing regularly, that they have to be ready to go and contribute, and it’s a credit to him. He jumped in and did a great job. He’s strong, skates well and has been working hard in practice.’’
Chrcek, 21, a 5-foot-9, 177-pounder from Marysville, Mich., played in 16 games last season. He had one goal and two assists.
Cole said it’s unknown if Osburn’s lower-body injury will keep him out of the lineup for an extended period of time.
SEVEN WINS IN 12 GAMES: The Spartans’ seventh victory of the season matches MSU’s total from all of last season. And with two non-conference games remaining in the Great Lakes Invitational, Michigan State is 6-2 in non-league play, including sweeps over Lake Superior State and Ferris State. The Spartans split home-and-home series with Bowling Green and Western Michigan.
“We still have some heavy lifting to do coming up in the Big Ten, but we’ll regroup and see what we can do at Penn State,’’ MSU coach Danton Cole said.
The Spartans play at Penn State next weekend – at 7 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.
STREAKING, STINGY SPARTANS: MSU has won three straight games for the first time since early in the 2015-16 season. And in those three victories this season, the Spartans have allowed only three goals.
They started it with a 2-0 John Lethemon shutout over Wisconsin last Saturday and made it three wins in a row with 3-2 and 3-1 victories over Ferris State.
The last time MSU earned three consecutive victories was two years ago when it defeated Lake Superior State 2-0 on Oct. 23 and then swept New Hampshire, 5-0 and 7-4, on Nov. 6-7.
Michigan State’s last four-game win streak?
Well, it was actually part of a winning streak of five games in 2011-12, a season in which the Spartans made the NCAA Tournament. From Oct. 28 to Nov. 18, MSU won two at home against Robert Morris, two at Western Michigan and one at Northern Michigan.
IN THE BIG TEN: Wisconsin scored a late third-period goal with its goalie pulled for an extra attacker to tie Michigan, 4-4, in Madison. The Wolverines won the shootout, 2-0, to earn the extra point in the conference standings. Wisconsin (8-5-2, 3-2-1-1) won the series opener, 7-3 on Friday. In its last four games, Michigan (6-4-2, 2-2-2-1) is 1-1-2 and has allowed 21 goals and scored 17. One of goals against was into an empty net.
Big Ten teams went 4-0 in non-conference games on Saturday with Notre Dame, Minnesota, Penn State and MSU winning.
The No. 4 Irish (10-3-1, 4-0) defeated Rensselaer, 1-0, to complete a series sweep in Troy, N.Y. Notre Dame won 4-1 on Friday.
No. 7 Minnesota also needed overtime to complete a sweep of No. 13 Harvard, winning 2-1 in Minneapolis. The Gophers (9-4-1, 3-2-1-1) tied the game 1-1 at 14:58 of the third period on Rem Pitlick’s goal and won it on Tyler Sheehy’s power-play goal 35 seconds into overtime. Minnesota captured the series opener, 4-2, on Friday.
Penn State (7-7, 2-4) made it two in a row over Arizona State with a 4-2 victory at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz. The Nittany Lions opened the series with a 7-0 win on Friday.
No. 16 Ohio State (6-3-3, 1-3) had the weekend off.
Seven weeks into the season, there’s no Big Ten team with a losing overall record. Penn State is back at .500 at 7-7 after sweeping Arizona State. The other six teams have winning records, led by Notre Dame’s 10-3-1 mark.