Neil’s Notebook: Early Success Provides Confidence for Haag
Neil Koepke highlights Villiam Haag as he previews the Spartans' trip to North Dakota.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Villiam Haag has played only nine games this season but it appears that he’s on track for his best season at Michigan State.
Haag, a 6-foot-2, 204-pound senior right wing from Gothenburg, Sweden, is arguably the most improved returning Spartan. He’s made an impact on the power play and on an emerging forward line with freshman center Sam Saliba and various wingers.
Haag, who celebrates his 23rd birthday on Friday, is tied for second in team scoring with three goals and four assists for seven points. Freshman left wing Taro Hirose also has seven points with two goals and five assists.
Haag is playing like a quintessential power forward, digging pucks loose in the corner and behind the net, and setting up in front on the power play, screening goalies and pouncing on rebounds.
All three of Haag’s goals have come on the power play.
“It’s always a good feeling to get some points or that you played better, and it’s easier to play the game,’’ Haag said. “I think it’s different things. It’s been a lot of hard work, putting in extra time on the ice and off the ice, and working on small details so I can make an impact in the games.
“I’ve had the opportunity to play the power play and I’m in position where I can get the puck and get some goals. With some luck and the hard work, it’s paying off for me.’’
Haag and the Spartans did not play last week, after coming off one of their best games of the season – a come-from-behind 4-3 victory at Ferris State on Nov. 12.
This weekend, Haag and his teammates find themselves with one of the top challenges of the season. The Spartans (3-6) play a non-conference series at No. 5 North Dakota (7-4-2, 2-3-1 NCHC) at 8:30 p.m. on Friday and 8 p.m. on Saturday.
“It’s going to be a tough series. They’re a great team but we’re excited about going to a great place to play,’’ Haag said. “We have to grow as a team, so it’ll be a great experience. We have to enjoy it.’’
Last season, Haag seven goals and eight assists for 15 points in 31 games. As a sophomore, he had five goals and five assists for 10 points in 35 games. In his freshman season, Haag had a career-high eight goals and five assists for 13 points in 35 games.
“Villiam is off to his best start as a Spartan. He’s finding a groove and finding confidence, which I think he’s struggled with the last couple of years,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said.
“I think he had a very productive off-season, which is where it starts for so many guys. Early in the season, you could see his game growing, and not always from a production standpoint, but in his confidence in playing the game and doing the little things.
“It’s handling the puck, making little plays, being strong and having a physical presence. He’s taken pride in being in front of the net on the power play.
“He’s scored a bit so far but he’s also created goals because of his presence and that won’t show up on the scoresheet.’’
Haag, who had the first two-assist game of his career in MSU’s 4-3 win at Ferris State, has at least one point in four of the Spartans’ last five games.
His three power-play goals have come against Lake Superior State in the season opener on Oct. 15, vs. Princeton on Oct. 28 and against FSU on Nov. 10.
“It’s huge (being on the power play). It adds playing time and gets you more into the game,’’ Haag said. “You find an open area, keep your stick on the ice and something good is probably going to happen. Most goals are scored in front of the net, so if there’s a rebound or a tip, I’m in a good spot to do something good.
“Since (our guys) aren’t the best shooters, I have to screen the goalie,’’ Haag laughed, teasing his teammates. “I’m a little bigger so maybe I can take the goalie’s eyes away.’’
Coaches and teammates have praised Haag for making an impact around the crease with good screens, positioning and in getting to rebounds.
“He’s been doing great. He put in a tremendous amount of work during the off-season and it’s paying off for him,’’ MSU captain and senior right wing Joe Cox said. “He’s setting himself in the right spots and is capitalizing on the opportunities he’s been given.’’
Anastos said that Haag has taken on the role of a leader and helping MSU’s 10 freshmen adjust to the nuances of college hockey.
“Villiam comes to the rink every day with a positive attitude and a smile on his face, and I think that influences those around him,’’ the Spartans coach said. “He’s finding his groove, his line is coming together a little bit, too, and that’s a benefit to his game and to our team.
“He’s off to a good start and we’re excited about how high he can raise his level.’’
“I know my strengths and what I can do, and if it pays off in wins and goals, it always feels better.’’
SCOUTING THE FIGHTING HAWKS: The best team doesn’t always win the NCAA championship, but last season most everyone who follows college hockey believed North Dakota was the best team, and the Fighting Hawks capped their tremendous regular season by winning the national title in Tampa, Fla. They defeated Denver in the semifinals and Quinnipiac in the championship game.
It was North Dakota’s first title since 2000, ending a 15-season drought.
UND lost several players from last year, including two forwards from its top forward line – Drake Caggiula graduated and Schmaltz left after two seasons to turn pro with the Chicago Blackhawks. Schmaltz made the Blackhawks’ roster out of training camp and Caggiula has been with the Edmonton Oilers all season.
The Fighting Hawks also lost a few other key parts to their team – defensemen Troy Stetcher and Paul LaDuke - but they still returned a solid nucleus of highly skilled players, including standout sophomore forward Brock Boeser, rising sophomore forward Shane Gersich, junior goalie Cam Johnson and junior defenseman Tucker Poolman.
That’s why North Dakota started the season ranked No. 1 in the nation, and they got off to a strong 5-0 start. But they proceeded to go winless in six games against some formidable opponents – Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota and Denver.
The Fighting Hawks were swept by Minnesota-Duluth (5-2, 3-0) and tied and lost (5-5, 2-0) against both Minnesota and Denver 1-1, 3-2). Last weekend, UND halted its skid with 4-0 and 3-0 victories at St. Cloud State.
Gersich, who had nine goals and 11 points as a freshman, is off to a sizzling start with 10 goals and eight assists for a team-leading 18 points. Boeser, a first-round pick by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, has seven goals and 16 points.
“A couple of weeks ago, people were talking about (UND) being winless in six games, and after watching them play at St. Cloud, which has a very good team, obviously North Dakota has found their way,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said.
“I have a lot of respect for them. We know it’ll be a hostile environment, but it’ll be a good test to see how much our team has grown up over the last five or six weeks of the season.
“I didn’t see a lot weaknesses in North Dakota’s game. They have a young team and they’re gaining experience. Last year, I thought they had more experience but they’re still very high end in skill.’’
On Thanksgiving weekend of last season, North Dakota skated into Munn Arena and carved out two impressive non-conference victories – 3-1 and 4-1.
“They’re an incredibly skilled team. They have great sticks and take away time,’’ MSU senior captain Joe Cox said. “I think we have to compete and stay relaxed – those are the two biggest things.
“It’s about competing, being relentless, being all over the ice, flying around and being fast, and not necessarily thinking too much and just playing. There’s going to be highs and lows and we can’t get too low if we get scored on or take a penalty. We have to stay focused and relaxed.’’
North Dakota has one of the top freshmen in college hockey in forward Tyson Jost, a 5-11, 195-pound center from St. Albert, Alberta. Jost, 18, a Jonathan Toews-type forward, is UND’s third-leading scorer with three goals and 10 assists for 13 points. He was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in the first round (10th overall) last June.
The Fighting Hawks’ best statistical categories are in goals-against and faceoffs. They have a 2.15 GAA, which ranks No. 8 in the nation, and they’ve won 55.1 percent of their faceoffs, which is No. 5.
UND is averaging 3.08 goals per game (22nd nationally), converting 16.9 per cent of its power-play opportunities (43rd), and killing penalties at 81 percent (39th).
The Fighting Hawks’ roster includes two players from Michigan. Goalie Cam Johnson, a junior, is from Troy, and sophomore defenseman Craig Wolanin is from Rochester. Johnson and MSU freshman defenseman Butrus Ghafari were teammates for two seasons with the Fargo Force of the U.S. Hockey League in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
UND has six hometown players on its roster from either Grand Forks or East Grand Forks, a town across the Red River in Minnesota.
Five of the area players are defensemen – senior Gage Ausmus, junior Tucker Poolman, and freshmen Dixon Bowen ad Colton Poolman, Tucker’s brother, of East Grand Forks and freshman Casey Johnson of Grand Forks. The other Grand Forks product is junior forward Johnny Simonson.
THE RIVALRY: The Spartans are 2-3 vs. North Dakota over the last 11 seasons, but in the previous 23 seasons, the Fighting Hawks won 11 consecutive games. Overall, UND holds a 64-36-2 edge in the series, which began with a 14-1 North Dakota victory on Feb. 10, 1950, in East Lansing.
MSU’s last visit to the 11,634-seat Ralph Engelstad Arena was in the Ice Breaker Tournament in 2011, but the Spartans didn’t play UND. They lost to Boston College, 5-2, on Oct. 7, 2011, and then defeated Air Force, 3-2 in overtime, on Oct. 8. MSU played UND in the 2007 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame game and lost 6-0 to open the season on Oct. 13.
Michigan State hasn’t played a two-game series in Grand Forks since Nov. 21-22, 1980 – 6-4 and 5-2 losses at UND’s Winter Sports Arena, in former coach Ron Mason’s second season at MSU. The last time MSU won at North Dakota was on Feb. 24, 1979, a 6-5 victory in Amo Bessone’s last season as coach.
During their four-year careers at MSU, Coach Tom Anastos and Assistant Coach Kelly Miller played only one game against North Dakota. It was the 1984 NCAA Final Four consolation game in Lake Placid, N.Y., and the then-Fighting Sioux edged the Spartans, 6-5, in overtime.
Three years later, North Dakota defeated Michigan State, 5-3, in the 1987 NCAA championship game at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
SPARTAN POTPOURRI: MSU has had at least seven freshmen in the lineup in all nine games, including a season-high of 10 on Oct. 15 at Lake Superior State. Seven rookies have accounted for 37 percent of the team’s points so far this season. . . . Mason Appleton continues to lead the Spartans in scoring with five goals and six assists for 11 points in nine games, although Appleton missed almost all of the second game of the Michigan Tech series when he suffered a shoulder injury a minute or two into the game. Villiam Haag (3-4) and freshman Taro Hirose (2-5) are tied for second with seven points, while sophomore defenseman Zach Osburn is fourth with six points (2-4). A pair of freshmen follow with five points apiece – left wing Logan Lambdin (2-3) and center Patrick Khodorenko (1-4). . . . MSU has scored five power-play goals in its last five games, going 5-for-26 (19.2 percent) during this stretch.
NEW WEEK, NEW NO. 1: For the third straight week and fourth in the last five, college hockey has a new No. 1-ranked team. On Oct. 24, North Dakota was ranked No. 1 for the fourth straight week to start the season. But the Fighting Hawks got swept by No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth on Oct. 28-29 and the Bulldogs took over as the top-ranked team.
UMD kept the No. 1 ranking for two weeks, before a split with Western Michigan on Nov. 11-12 elevated Denver to the No. 1 spot on Nov. 14. That lasted a week as the Pioneers tied Miami twice, 1-1 and 2-2, and then dropped to No. 2, as Minnesota-Duluth (10-2-2, 7-1-1 NCHC), which won twice at Omaha, returned to the No. 1 ranking.
In a scheduling quirk, Minnesota-Duluth is off this weekend and the weekend of Dec. 2-3. The Bulldogs return to action at Denver, ranked No. 2, on Dec. 9-10. IN THE BIG TEN: No. 11 Minnesota heads East for two games against Hockey East opponents. The Gophers (5-3-2) play at Northeastern (4-5-4, 1-4-2 Hockey East) on Friday and at No. 4 Boston College (10-3-1, 5-0-1 Hockey East) on Sunday afternoon. Minnesota is coming off a split against Minnesota State – a 4-1 loss in Mankato and a 1-0 victory at home.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin travels West for two games in Colorado. The Badgers (6-4) play at Colorado College (3-7, 1-3 NCHC) on Friday and at No. 2 Denver (7-2-3, 1-3 NCHC) on Saturday. Last weekend, Wisconsin split a non-league series with Merrimack, winning 3-2 in the opener, but losing the second game, 2-0.
No. 16 Michigan (5-4-1), which defeated the U.S. U-18 team 6-3 last Friday, plays host to Lake Superior State (6-6, 4-6 WCHA) on Friday and Saturday.
No. 8 Penn State (11-1-1) and No. 13 Ohio State (8-1-4) are idle. The Nittany Lions have played 13 non-conference games, 10 at home and three on the road, with one left – vs. Princeton in Philadelphia in late January. They begin Big Ten play next Thursday and Friday, hosting Michigan.
The Buckeyes, with three non-league games remaining, begin conference play next weekend at Minnesota.