Nov. 21, 2013
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - All things considered, Michael Ferrantino last year had a decent season as a Michigan State freshman forward.
He played in all of the Spartans' 42 games and had three goals and seven assists for 10 points, while playing mostly in a defensive role.
Ferrantino, however, wasn't satisfied.
He felt that if was going to keep a spot in the lineup and be a more productive player this season, he needed to be stronger and his skating needed to improve.
So Ferrantino, 20, made a commitment to improve his game. He spent the entire summer on campus working win the weight room and on ice with a skating coach.
"I feel 100 times better than I did last year,'' he said. "I feel stronger, faster and my balance is better. That's helped me in the corners offensively and defensively. I've gotten way more offensive opportunities.''
Ferrantino, a 5-foot-8, 175-pound center from Plymouth, is off to a good start this season, with two goals and two assists for four points in eight games. He's the Spartans' top faceoff man with a 53-36 (.596) mark among players with more than 10 faceoff attempts, and he sees regular duty killing penalties.
Ferrantino has three points in his last four games, including a goal and an assist in two wins against American International and an assist in MSU's last game - a 3-2 overtime loss at Michigan Tech on Nov. 9.
This week, Ferrantino and the Spartans (3-5 overall) aim to end a two-game losing streak when they face former CCHA rival Western Michigan (3-5-2, 2-2 National Collegiate Hockey Conference).
The Broncos and MSU meet at 7 p.m. on Friday at Munn Arena and at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Lawson Arena in Kalamazoo.
Ferrantino admitted that his season got off to a frustrating start. He didn't like the way he played in the opening game at Massachusetts - a 3-1 loss on Oct. 18.
"I wasn't happy with the way I played at UMass. Part of that was me not being ready and part was it being the first game of the season,'' Ferrantino said.
In the second game against UMass, Ferrantino bounced back and was back in sync. He scored the Spartans' first goal five minutes into the first period and went on to have a much better performance.
"Michael is a smart player, he really works hard on his game and he did that in the summer,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "He has certain deficiencies in his skating and he's working very aggressively to improve.
"It's not like he's a bigger player and has a big reach to compensate for certain things. But he does have a good hockey IQ. He brings a lot of energy and a positive attitude to the rink every day and that's infectious.''
With the Spartans adding seven players to the mix at forward this year, Ferrantino knew he'd have to be better than last season to earn a spot among the 12 forwards in the lineup each night.
"I wanted to take a big step forward in all aspects of the game,'' he said. "I wasn't where I wanted to be last year defensively and offensively. I was going up against bigger and stronger guys and playing a different system, and that was an adjustment.
"Offensively, I wanted to be someone who could be counted on every night to contribute on the scoresheet. I think I've gotten better but I still need to take some big steps.''
Ferrantino also worked on his faceoffs. Adding strength helped in that aspect of his game, too.
"Competition, that motivates you during the summer. You want to make sure you have the opportunity to play every night, and I knew that it was on me more than anyone else,'' he said. "So, I had to make sure I was working hard and getting better.''
Ferrantino has been paired with freshman right wing Joe Cox all season. Their left wing linemates have included JT Stenglein, Dean Chelios and David Bondra. Cox and Ferrantino set up Bondra for his first collegiate goal in the second game at Michigan Tech - a 3-2 overtime loss.
Ferrantino, who turns 21-years-old on New Year's Day, and Cox were linemates in midget hockey with Compuware in Detroit, and now they're having a reunion as Spartans. Cox also has two goals and two assists.
"When we were at Compuware, I was 17 and he was 16, we played on the same line all season and built some chemistry,'' Ferrantino said. "It's been fun playing together again. We know how each other plays well and we seem to feed off each other pretty well.''
Cox, a 5-foot-11, 167-pounder from Chelsea, is thrilled to be at MSU and be reunited with Ferrantino.
"He's been playing really great so far this year,'' Cox said. "I think part of it is that he's an overall hard worker. He gives 100 percent every shift, and when you work hard, that leads to opportunities. I think that's why he's gotten a lot of chances.
"On and off the ice, He's a very intelligent guy. You can see in practice, he's trying to work on and teach the little things that really pay off for our line.''
Anastos said he isn't certain Ferrantino and Cox will stay together as linemates as the season progresses, but he likes what he's seen in his team's first eight games.
"They play off each other very well and we'll see how it goes,'' Anastos said. "I don't know how much longer we'll keep them together, but they're not giving us a reason to make a change. Even in killing penalties together, they've done a good job.''
READY TO RETURN? All three players who have been sidelined since late summer with similar lower body injuries - sophomore defenseman John Draeger, junior forward Matt Berry and sophomore Nate Phillips, the No. 3 goaltender - have been cleared for full contact in practice. All three underwent surgery in late summer.
Draeger, the top-returning defenseman in minutes played, and Berry, the top returning scorer (15 goals, 16 assists, 31 points), could be in the lineup this weekend against Western Michigan.
"We'll monitor them day to day as far as how they're progressing and determine if they're ready to play,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "Certainly their strength and conditioning is probably at an August level, as opposed to a November level, and that's the biggest issue at this point.
"They've battled hard and competed in the whole practice on Monday. I've think they're making good progress.''
The Spartans should benefit greatly with Berry and Draeger back in the lineup and making an impact.
"You look at it as your top returning scorer (in Berry) is back in the lineup as a junior, and in Draeger's case, he led our team in minutes played as a freshman last year and certainly you're expecting him to grow and make an impact on defense,'' Anastos said. "
"From a medical prospective, they've been cleared to participate at 100 percent. If something changes from day to day, we'll have to address it at that time. It's a matter of us (deciding), when they're ready to play from a strength and conditioning standpoint.''
Draeger and Berry are eager to finally get on the ice for a game for the first time this season and stop watching from the stands.
"The toughest part for me was missing all those games and not being part of the team, so you're kind of feeling distant from the team,'' Draeger said. "But it's good to be back. I'm excited.
"It's my goal (to return this weekend). I'm pushing hard. I'm not in the lineup yet. I still have to earn my spot.''
Said Berry: "It's definitely exciting to get back out there and practice. I've been sitting and watching for so long to get back in there. I've have a lot of energy and I'm ready to go.''
Berry, Draeger and Phillips went through various aspects of rehabilitation this fall. "It was nice to have both of them (Draeger and Phillips) with me so I wasn't alone all the time,'' Berry said. "We kind of did all the same rehab stuff, so it wasn't just by myself.
"We had some fun when we went over to the pool (at the Duffy Daugherty Building) when we were rehabbing. We'd start by messing around a little bit, jumping around in the water. It was a lot easier to move around in there than it was outside the water when we first started.''
POWER PLAY: The Spartans continue to focus on improving the power play, which has scored only four goals in 39 opportunities in eight games.
"It has to become a productive unit and we have to spend more time with it, and settle on so guys who have a chance to grow on it,'' Anastos said. "We haven't done that because of the changing dynamics of our roster.
"Matt Berry is a power-play player and he hasn't been in the lineup yet this season.''
The Spartans are 53rd among 59 teams in the nation with 11.3 percent efficiency. Interestingly enough, Western Michigan is 52nd in the nation at 11.3 percent. And MSU and WMU aren't the only teams struggling to make the power play an effective weapon.
Vermont is 54th (10.2 percent) in the nation, followed by Alabama-Huntsville (8.7) and Minnesota State (8.7), Niagara (7.8) and Michigan Tech (7.8) and Colorado College (4.9).
The Spartans scored a power-play goal early in the third period of the second game at Michigan Tech. It tied the game at 2-2, but the Spartans eventually lost in overtime.
"Given how few goals are scored in the game today, special teams are such an important piece,'' Anastos said. "We have to make it more productive.''
SCOUTING THE BRONCOS: Western Michigan is coming of two losses in a National Collegiate Hockey Conference series last weekend at Denver. The Broncos led 2-0 in the series, but the Pioneers came from behind to score three straight goals in the second period and went on to a 5-3 victory. In the second game, WMU lost 1-0.
WMU started the season by getting swept and shut out by Notre Dame - 4-0 at South Bend and 3-0 at Kalamazoo. The Broncos bounced back by going 3-0-1 over its next four games - a 6-2 win over Alaska-Anchorage, a 3-3 tie against Alaska (both games were in Fairbanks) and a home sweep of Colorado College, 3-2, 5-1.
But Western Michigan is winless in its last four games - at 5-4 loss and 3-3 tie at home against Northern Michigan and two losses at Denver.
The Broncos, who played in the NCAA Tournament in two of the last three seasons, are led by junior goalie Frank Slubowski (2.75 goals-against average, .908 saves percentage, 3-4-2 record). Other key players include senior forwards Shane Berschbach (5-8-13) and Chase Balisy (1-7-8), junior forward Justin Kovacs (3-7-10), sophomore forward Colton Hargrove (3-4-7), and senior defenseman Dennis Brown (2-2-4), junior defenseman Jordan Oesterle (2-5-7) and sophomore defenseman Kenny Morrison (0-4-4).
WMU lost seven key regulars from last season, including standout defensemen Danny DeKeyser, Luke Witkowski and Garrett Haar and forwards Dane Walters, Mike Leone, Ben Warda and Trevor Elias.
DeKeyser, who would have been a senior, signed with the Red Wings as a free agent, and Haar, a junior, was dismissed from the team in mid-summer for academic reasons.
The 2013-14 Broncos are a young team with eight freshmen and five sophomores getting playing time. WMU has played as many as three freshmen and one sophomore on defense.
"They don't have the experience they once had, and that's similar to us, but I expect them to be difficult to play against,'' Spartans coach Tom Anastos said. "They play with high energy, a kind of an in-your-face style and compete hard. They defend well and seem to have good balance.''
In Anastos' two seasons as coach, MSU is 3-1-1 against Western Michigan. The Spartans swept the Broncos, 3-2, 4-2, in Kalamazoo two years ago and went 1-1-1 vs. WMU last season. The teams played to a 1-1 tie in a Great Lakes Invitational semifinal (with the Broncos winning the shootout to advance to the final) and split two games at MSU - a 5-2 win for WMU and a 1-0 Spartan win in the final game of the regular season.
"For us to have success (this weekend), we have to be able to find some rhythm on offense and to score some goals, which is hard to do against their team,'' Anastos said. "We have to get better in our ability to defend in our defensive zone and in coming back into our zone.
"We need to get better in moving the puck out of our zone and in transitioning through the neutral zone. It's about trying to find a way to generate more scoring chances and get more pressure on the net. That's no different than most teams.''
SPARTAN POTPOURRI: Since the Spartans didn't play at WMU last year, they have a lot of players who've never experienced Lawson Arena and the Broncos' crazy, colorful student section - the Lawson Lunatics.
MSU's freshmen and sophomores will be in for a real treat on Saturday when the teams meet in the series finale in Kalamazoo.
"I'm excited to play at Lawson and in front of the Lunatics,'' sophomore center Michael Ferrantino said. "The seniors and juniors have been talking about it all week, so we're getting pumped up. It'll be fun.''
Said Anastos: "They've created a good environment, and it's good for our team to play in that environment. Their students are pretty active.''
Michigan State holds a 64-30-9 edge in the series with Western Michigan. The Spartans have lost only six home games to the Broncos in a rivalry that started in October 1979. The two teams have met in CCHA play every year since 1981-82, when MSU joined the league. Over the last 10 seasons, the Spartans hold a 12-8-3 edge. . . . Senior defenseman Jake Chelios is one of 11 players in the nation to have appeared in at least 120 consecutive games. He enters this weekend with a streak of 124 consecutive games played. The only game he's missed in his career came as a freshman on Oct. 22, 2010, against Alaska at Munn Arena in the third game of the season. He started his streak the next night - a 4-1 win over Alaska, in which Chelios had a goal and an assist. . . . Freshman right wing Villiam Haag is one of 11 players from Sweden in Division I college hockey this season, and one of 24 players from Europe. There are 10 players from Finland and 3 from Austria. . . . MSU and WMU could meet three times during the regular season this year. The two teams could also play in the Great Lakes Invitational on Dec. 28, in the finals or third-place game. WMU opens GLI play against Michigan on Dec. 27, just after the Spartans open the tournament against Michigan Tech.