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Neil's Notebook: Spartans Look to Bounce Back Tonight

Jake Hildebrand made 19 saves on Friday.

Nov. 23, 2013

By Neil Koepke staff writer

EAST LANSING -- For the first 30 minutes on Friday night, it was a pretty even hockey game. Michigan State did not have many quality scoring chances and neither did Western Michigan.

Spartan sophomore goaltender Jake Hildebrand was alert and sharp when he had to be, and Bronco sophomore goalie Lukas Hafner, making only his second career start, was also in a confident mode.

Hafner made two point-blank saves in the first six minutes of the game, with quick stops on wide-open MSU center Michael Ferrantino in the slot and center Matt DeBlouw from the left edge of the crease.

Each team was looking for the right opportunity to capitalize on a turnover. The Broncos finally did with an odd-man rush that started as a 2-on-1 and ended as a 2-on-0, as Nolan LaPorte easily converted Josh Pitt's pass at 13:30 to give his team a 1-0 lead.

Early in the third period, with MSU pressing to make something happen offensively, WMU took advantage of another Spartan miscue along the boards and scored on a 2-on-1 break. MSU senior defenseman Jake Chelios, racing into position to defend, apparently lost an edge in front and fell backward just as the Broncos passed the puck across the top of the crease.

Justin Kovacs received the pass and fired it past Hildebrand at 6:58 to give the visitors a two-goal cushion, and they went on to earn a 2-0 non-conference victory over Michigan State in front of 6,175 fans at Munn Arena.

The Spartans (3-6), who have lost three straight after winning three in a row, had a number of positives on Friday - first-period play, penalty killing and goaltending - but they could never get in sync offensively to finish off a scoring chance.



"I thought we played pretty well at times. We kept the puck in their zone at times but we couldn't get enough pucks to the net,'' said Spartan junior right wing Matt Berry, playing in his first game of the season after spending the late summer and early fall recovering from a lower-body injury and surgery.

"We did all right in getting the puck in their zone but we couldn't click and find a way to get it behind their goalie. We just didn't finish well.''

Hafner, a 6-foot, 205 pounder from Toledo, who made his college debut last Saturday in a 1-0 overtime loss at Denver. On Friday, he made 22 saves, helping the Broncos (4-5-2 overall, 2-2-0 NCHC) end a four game winless streak (0-3-1).

Hildebrand stopped 19 shots but had the more difficult saves. He kept the Spartans in the game with several standout stops in the second and third periods.

"We played a good first period but got out of rhythm in the second, with all the penalties,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "When they got ahead, they were able to play a different kind of game. They did a good job of shutting things down defensively and we couldn't build any rhythm.

"They play in a lot of close games and play strong defensively. Getting the lead allowed them to throw the puck out of the zone and dump the puck more.''

In the second period, MSU's Brett Darnell and DeBlouw found themselves on a 2-on-1 chance from 35 feet out. But they passed one too many times and ended up not getting a shot.

It happened on a couple of other occasions, when dangerous rushes turned into no shots and missed opportunities.

"You've got to get shots on goal and you've got to get good shots - shots that give you a chance to maybe have a second or third shot,'' Anastos said.

MSU skated off all five WMU power plays, had an edge in faceoffs (26-23), but also failed to convert on two power plays, including two in the final period.

"Our margin for error is so slim we have to bring all the pieces to the game to have success,'' Anastos said. "And, you have to score.''

Spartan captain Greg Wolfe credited Western Michigan for playing to its strength - defense.

"We have to figure out a way to get more pucks to the net and more bodies to the net,'' he said. "They play with five guys pretty much down low so it's really hard to people around the net and the puck through.

"They get in the way of shots, tie up sticks and you really have to work hard to get guys to the net looking for rebounds. We have to get in front of the goalie's eyes. We had shots from the point get through but nobody was in front so the goalie was able to catch it.

"When we did get shots and there were rebounds, nobody was there.''

Michigan State and Western Michigan close out the non-conference series at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Lawson Arena in Kalamazoo.

HILDEBRAND EXCELS: Sophomore goaltender Jake Hildebrand gave his team a chance to win with a strong second period and was sharp again in the third, even after MSU fell behind 2-0.

"I thought he was solid and made a couple of big saves,'' Anastos said. "He didn't have any opportunity on the two goals that they got. Jake looked like himself tonight. His positioning was good and he looked like he was tracking the puck very well.

"We were giving up some good chances and, with the exception of the two 2-on-1s, he made some good saves.''

Hildebrand had a so-so game in his last outing against Michigan Tech - a 3-0 loss in Houghton two weeks ago. But he was back in high-level form against the Broncos.

"You have to have to make big saves to give your team a chance to win every night, and that's what I was trying to do,'' he said.

"In the first period, I thought we were awesome. I don't think I had many (tough) chances at all. We were doing all the things we worked on in practice. We were executing well but just couldn't pop one in there.''

As usual, Anastos did not reveal his goaltending plans for the next game - against the Broncos Saturday night in Kalamazoo.

He said the situation would be evaluated on Saturday morning and then a decision would be made -- whether to come back with Hildebrand or go with Will Yanakeff.

"Will is a banged up a little, so we'll have to see about his condition,'' Anastos said.

PENALTY KILL STRONG: The Spartans' penalty killing was a bright spot on Friday. MSU skated off five WMU power plays -- one in the first period, three in the second and one late in the third period.

The penalty-killing combinations up front included Greg Wolfe and Lee Reimer, Michael Ferrantino and Joe Cox, Thomas Ebbing and Matt DeBlouw and Ebbing and Mackenzie MacEachern.

"There were a number of things we saw in the game that are starting to improve and penalty killing is one of them,'' Anastos said. "We only have two returning forwards up front and two on defense. This is a good step.''

UPSETS OF THE NIGHT: The two biggest surprises on Friday night took place out East with No. 3 Providence and No. 14 Rensselaer victims of upsets by New Hampshire and Mercyhurst, respectively.

No. 20 UNH upended Providence, 3-2, in overtime in a Hockey East game in Providence. The Wildcats saw a 2-0 lead disappear when Providence rallied for two goals in the third period, but UNH won it 15 seconds into overtime. Unranked Mercyhurst shocked Rensselaer, 5-2, in a non-conference play at home in Erie, Pa., breaking a 2-2 tie with three goals in the last five minutes of the third period.

In the biggest surprise in the West, No. 2 St. Cloud State was held to a 2-2 tie by unranked Colorado College in a NCHC game in St. Cloud, Minn. Colorado College made it even worse for the Huskies by winning the shootout, 1-0, to earn two points. St. Cloud State had to settle for one point.

The NCHC and Big Ten are the only two Division I conferences using the shootout in conference play.

IN THE BIG TEN: Only three Big Ten teams played on Friday - MSU, Michigan and Minnesota. The Wolverines and Gophers both rolled to decisive victories. No. 5 Michigan blanked Niagara, 6-0, in Ann Arbor, while No. 1 Minnesota gave up the first goal four minutes into the game and then struck for six straight goals over the first two periods, en route to a 6-1 victory over Minnesota-Duluth in Minneapolis. Michigan is idle tonight, while the Gophers and UMD complete their series on Sunday afternoon, also in Minneapolis.

The Gophers (9-1-1) will be in East Lansing in two weeks to help the Spartans open the Big Ten season. The teams collide at 7 p.m. on Dec. 6 and at 4 p.m. on Dec. 7.

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