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Neil's Notebook: Solid Effort Leads to Win Over Princeton

John Draeger

Nov. 30, 2013

By Neil Koepke staff writer

EAST LANSING - There was a lot to like about Michigan State's 4-1 victory over Princeton on Friday night at Munn Arena.

• The Spartans scored the first goal four minutes into the opening period.

• They got a solid goaltending performance from sophomore Jake Hildebrand, who made several clutch saves in the second period with MSU nursing a 1-0 lead.

• The Spartans scored a power-play goal in the third period and looked better overall in moving the puck during five power-play opportunities.

• Their penalty killing was solid, skating off five Princeton power plays. Perhaps the best aspect of MSU's overall game that played a major role in the victory was the defensive unit's efficiency in handling the puck - both in the defensive and offensive zones.

For the most part, the defense made good outlet passes to get the puck out of the MSU zone and ignite offensive rushes. Defensemen passed the puck back and forth well, moved it up to the forwards and contributed to the scoring as well.

And for the first time this season, a Spartan defenseman scored a goal. Senior Jake Chelios connected from the left point to make it 3-0 early in the third period.

Defensemen John Draeger and RJ Boyd set up center Mackenzie MacEachern's fifth goal of the season with a pretty passing play midway through the third period.

"I thought our defensemen did a great job using their open partner,'' said Draeger, playing in only his third game of the season, after missing training camp and the first eight contests because of lower body injury.



"I don't know what the time of possession was but the guys definitely moved the puck well, and I think the defensemen, as a group, played great tonight.''

The MSU coaching staff has been working with the defense on playing smarter in its own zone. The emphasis has been on quicker and accurate passes up to the forwards and better play in the offensive zone to improve possession time.

The defense responded Friday with a solid overall effort. Defensemen handled the puck well, put shots on goal and were outstanding in blocking shots.

Spartan defensemen accounted for three points, 11 of MSU's 27 shots on goal and had 16 of their team's 21 blocked shots.

Draeger had four shots on goal and four blocks. Jake Chelios had four shots and two blocks and Travis Walsh put one shot on goal and also blocked four.

In addition, Boyd had two shots on goal and two blocks, Brock Krygier had one shot and two blocks and Rhett Holland had two shots on goal.

"I like blocking shots. I think the bench feeds off of it,'' Draeger said. "Anything I can do to help guys get going, I'll do. And any time you can have the puck on your stick, you're on offense. Our defense hopped up on the play tonight. As a group, I think we played a lot better.''

Chelios said earlier this week that the defense needed to contribute more on offense. He said it's been an emphasis in practice for several weeks.

"That's all we've been doing in practice. It's moving the puck from D (defense) to D (defense) and even back to our D (by the forwards) to open things up,'' Chelios said. "And our forwards did a way better job of getting open and coming back lower, which I think was a huge problem for us in creating offense.

"If we can give the forwards time by going D to D and have them come back in the neutral zone and build up some speed, instead of hitting them (with a pass) flatfooted, or dumping it and chasing it, that's going to make a difference.'' The Spartans (4-7), who ended a four-game losing streak, hope the improved play by the defense continues on Sunday as MSU and Princeton (3-9 overall, 2-6 ECAC) close out their non-conference series at 1 p.m. at Munn Arena.

"Early on, I thought the puck was bouncing over our sticks and we really didn't handle it well. Maybe we were a little tight, with the way things have been going,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said.

"But we settled down and our defense started to move the puck pretty well, and we were making good decisions at the blue line when we were in the offensive zone. "They moved the puck around to create some good scoring chances. They got pucks to the net.''

Two years ago, the Spartans got a big boost from their defense in helping to create offense. Last year, it was a struggle with four first-year players on the blue line. "If you think about our program over the past few years, we generated a ton of offense from our defense my first year here, with Torey Krug, Brock Shelgren, Matt Crandall and Tim Buttery,'' Anastos said.

"Then we lost all four of them. That's hard to replace. With secondary assists, a lot of it starts by that first breakout pass coming through the neutral zone and finding the right guy.

"We lost a lot and haven't replaced it. Hopefully, as we gain confidence, we can get better.''

From his view on the bench, Anastos liked what he saw from Draeger.

"I'm (eager) to watch the game back to see (the way he played)," Anastos said. "He seemed to be more in control than he was last week. He's so anxious to make an impact and usually when you do that, good things don't always happen.

"He's working so hard and competing hard. Sometimes, less is more. I think he did a good job with that tonight.

HILDEBRAND SHARP: Sophomore goaltender Jake Hildebrand, who made 31 saves and was named the game's No. 1 star, didn't have to make a lot of spectacular stops in the victory. But he was alert, quick and in the right position when the Tigers threatened with a few flurries around the net.

When the visitors broke in on a 3-on-1 in the second period, Hildebrand read the play well and went from left to right to cover the corner, and got a break when the Tigers' forward caught up to a cross-ice pass but shot the puck wide of the left post. The Spartan goalie didn't give him much room.

A few seconds later, Hildebrand made an alert pad save that led to Ryan Keller's goal which made it 2-0 at 17:30 of the middle period.

"It was nice to see Hildy play the kind of game that he played tonight, the one that we're used to seeing him play,'' Anastos said.

"When you talk with the coaches, they always say that great goalies make great saves at big times,'' Hildebrand said. "You don't always know it's a big save until (your team) goes down the ice and ends up scoring. I'm just trying to give our team a chance to win every night.''

Hildebrand said he really liked the Spartans' attitude and energy, on the ice and on the bench.

"I think the boys were really going tonight. Our bench was awesome,'' he said. "During our penalty kill, our guys were kicking the boards, banging their sticks and giving everyone lots of energy. I think that's what we've been missing the last couple of games.''

SENDING A MESSAGE? When Anastos posted the lineup for Friday's game, there were several surprises. Four forwards expected to supply a major part of MSU's scoring punch, and who've seen a lot of playing time thus far this season, were healthy scratches.

Juniors Matt Berry and Tanner Sorenson, sophomore Matt DeBlouw and freshman JT Stenglein sat out, while senior Dean Chelios and sophomores Ryan Keller, David Bondra and Justin Hoomaian found themselves in the lineup.

Berry, MSU's top scorer last season, missed the first eight games while recovering from surgery for a lower body injury. He played in both games against Western Michigan last week. Sorenson sat out the first four games of the season with a suspension for a violation of team rules. He played in four of the next six contests.

"The message we need to make sure we're focused on is that you have to be committed to making yourself and the team better every single day,'' Anastos said. "And if not, we (the coaches) have to make sure we're trying to identify the team that is best prepared to play.

"There's all kind of considerations that go into that. There are guys who aren't in the lineup who are working hard on their game. And other times, there are guys that can improve how they're approaching their game to give their game a better chance to have success.

"It's up to us to find that right balance, and so far the moves we've made haven't given us good enough results. So we have to continue to search until we find the results we're looking for.''

BIG TEN UP AND RUNNING: Wisconsin forward Joseph LaBate made history on Friday night by scoring the first goal in the first official Big Ten Conference hockey game in Minneapolis. LaBate scored for the Badgers 6:31 into the first period, but that would be No. 12 Wisconsin's only goal as Minnesota made history by winning the first conference game, 4-1.

Seth Ambroz scored two goals and two of the three Reilly brothers - Mike and Connor - also scored for the No. 1-ranked Gophers. The teams meet again on Saturday. Meanwhile, No. 3 Michigan also posted an official Big Ten win with a 4-3 victory in overtime over Ohio State in Ann Arbor. The Buckeyes tied the game 3-3 with 3:18 left in the third period, but Andrew Copp's goal at 3:38 of overtime won it for the Wolverines. U-M and the Buckeyes play the second game of the series on Monday night in Columbus.

UPSETS CONTINUE: There were more surprises in college hockey on Friday with some stunning results. Holy Cross, of Atlantic Hockey, built a shocking 5-1 lead after two periods against No. 7 Boston College and then held off an Eagles' rally in the third period to claim a 5-4 victory at BC.

Out West, St. Lawrence shocked North Dakota, 5-2, in Grand Forks. North Dakota, which fell out of both major polls last week, falls to 4-7-2. Meanwhile, No. 13 Miami was held to a 4-4 tie at Bemidji State.

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