Nov. 21, 2011
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
A split on the road? That's good, right ?
It most cases, a win and loss or loss and win in a Central Collegiate Hockey Association road series, depending on the opponent and stakes, is a positive.
Sometimes, however, it can be a bit of a disappointment.
Take Michigan State's trip to Northern Michigan this past weekend.
On Friday, the Spartans displayed a strong work ethic, played well in most areas and emerged with a solid 4-2 victory - their fifth straight and third in a row on the road.
Going for sweep on Saturday, the Spartans' compete level wasn't as high, they were a step behind all game and got outworked and outplayed by the Wildcats, who still had to score a late goal to pull out a 2-1 victory.
Instead of a 6-point weekend, the Spartans came home with three. Not bad for a team that's 7-5 overall, 4-4-0 in the CCHA and 3-3 on the road.
But the Saturday loss left a bad taste.
And for sure, it was another learning experience for a team still trying to establish its identity.
Coach Tom Anastos said his assessments about his team aren't always about the end result - the victory or defeat. It's often more about overall picture -- the compete and energy levels, playing together and battling through adversity.
"We put ourselves in a good position to get two wins but we didn't give ourselves a good enough effort (on Saturday) to give ourselves a chance,'' Anastos said Sunday, after a seven-hour bus ride back from Marquette.
"We didn't give a good enough effort, which was more of a disappointment than the result. We have to learn from that.''
On Friday, MSU got another strong goaltending performance from sophomore Will Yankakeff (25 saves), making his third straight start, and the Spartans were strong in their own zone, on an Olympic-size sheet of ice that is 15 feet wider than most college rinks.
On Saturday, MSU fell behind 1-0 in the second period on a power-play goal but managed to tie it 1-1 on freshman forward Matt Berry's goal at 12:21 of the third period. However, NMU forward Brian Nugent got past a Spartan defenseman on the left wing and drove to the net on a 2-on-1 rush. He skated in deep to beat Yanakeff to give the Wildcats the lead for good.
"We didn't play in groups of five. We had only one guy working at a time,'' Anastos said. "You can't play that way. When you're pursuing the puck on offense or defense, you have to do it in groups.
"We didn't do a good job establishing a forecheck, didn't do a good job transitioning from offense to defense and didn't play at the pace we've been playing at.''
Anastos gave credit to the Wildcats for its strong effort and playing with desperation in a determined bid to end an eight-game (0-5-3) winless streak.
"Friday was the first game they had lost at home and they clearly were playing with desperation. We anticipated that and we weathered the storm in the first period,'' the Spartans coach said. "It was in the second period when they took over the game. We didn't show a lot of life until the third period. We didn't generate enough good scoring chances.
"They deserved to win the game. They were better than us all game.''
Overall, there were several positives that the Spartans took away from their third road series against a team ranked in the top 20.
"Our goaltending was very strong. Will Yanakeff really played well again,'' Anastos said. "And our penalty killing, even though we gave up a power-play goal (on Saturday) where the guy just swatted in a loose puc, was pretty good.
"I really liked our defensive zone coverage all weekend and especially on Friday.''
There was another huge negative to Saturday's loss.
The game ended with a scuffle in the left faceoff circle after a Northern player cross checked MSU defenseman Brock Shelgren after the final buzzer, igniting several skirmishes and leading to disqualification penalties assessed to MSU defenseman and captain Torey Krug and right wing Greg Wolfe and three NMU defensemen.
Krug was given a major penalty for facemasking, which includes a disqualification, while Wolfe was assessed a major for fighting.
Both Spartans will serve one-game suspensions and miss Friday's nonconference series opener against Minnesota at Munn Arena. Krug and Wolfe will return on Saturday. The Gophers (11-3-0, 8-2-0 WCHA) are ranked No. 2/3 in this week's national polls, and are coming off a split against St. Cloud State.
Anastos said he questioned the assessed penalties but didn't want to criticize the officials.
"I don't know why that even started. It came out of nowhere. A guy came over and cross checked Shelgren and then other guys were holding Shelgren,'' he said. "It's a tough loss, going against Minnesota. We'll just have to deal with it.''
CHELIOS COULD RETURN: Junior left wing Dean Chelios, who's been out with a shoulder injury since Oct. 28, could return to the lineup this weekend against Minnesota. Chelios was hoping to get the OK to practice with full contact early this week, according to Anastos.
Before he got hurt, Chelios was on Reimer's line with Wolfe. For the last five games, Mike Merrifield has taken over his spot. With Wolfe out for Friday, Chelios could return to that line, on either right or left wing.
With Krug out, the Spartans have two reserve defensemen - senior A.J. Sturges and sophomore Chris Sandmeyer. Sturges has played in six games during his career, while Sandmeyer has not appeared in any games.
CCHA SURPRISES: For the first few weeks of the season, the biggest surprise teams in the CCHA were Lake Superior State and Ferris State for their strong starts and Miami for its early struggles.
Now the team that's turning heads in the CCHA and nationally is Ohio State.
The Buckeyes are 10-3-1 overall, 7-2-1-1 and in first place in the CCHA, after a stunning sweep at Michigan, 2-1 on Friday and 6-5 on Saturday.
OSU, ranked No. 14 last week, has won seven straight and is 8-0-1 in its last nine games. The Buckeyes' last loss was at Michigan State - a 3-0 setback on Oct. 20. Ohio State is off this weekend and closes out the pre-holiday schedule with a home series against LSSU and a home-and-home set against Miami.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines are 0-3-1 in their last four games and 1-4-1 in their last six, all CCHA contests. U-M is 3-5-2-1 in the CCHA and 7-5-2 overall, but its four nonconference wins have come against Niagara and Bentley (2) from Atlantic Hockey and St. Lawrence from the ECAC. The three teams are a combined 10-17-5.
This weekend, U-M plays host to Northeastern of Hockey East on Friday and previously-ranked No. 12/13 Union of the ECAC on Sunday afternoon.