Dec. 1, 2011
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
Mike Merrifield scored four goals in 29 games last season. This year, in 10 games, the Michigan State senior already has eight goals.
Lee Reimer had only two goals in 29 games last season. This year, in 14 games, the Spartan sophomore already has six.
Kevin Walrod scored three goals in 28 games last season, This year, in 14 games, the MSU junior already has five goals.
Greg Wolfe had three goals in 31 games last season. This year, in 13 games, the Spartan sophomore has four.
The Spartans' biggest question coming into the 2011-12 season was "Who's going to score goals?''
For Merrifield, Reimer, Walrod and Wolfe, the answer was "how about me?"
Then they went out, with the help of other teammates, and proved it on the ice. Seniors Brett Perlini (3 goals) and Daultan Leveille (2), junior Dean Chelios (2) and freshman Matt Berry (3) have chipped in with some key goals and points.
The Spartans' balanced and opportunistic offense - averaging 3.36 goals a game and ranked No. 2 in the CCHA and 14th in the nation - is one of the reasons for their surprising 8-5-1 record and No. 16 ranking in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll.
Last weekend, MSU scored eight goals - four in each game -- against No. 2/3 ranked Minnesota, which came into the nonconference series with the third-best goals-against average in the country and a nation-leading six shutouts.
"It's not that we're scoring fluky goals. We're making some nice plays and creating good scoring chances going up and down the ice with some good teams,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "We're demonstrating that we can be competitive.
"It's not just grunt goals. There is a growing comfort and confidence level from our team.''
In Saturday's 4-4 tie against the Gophers, MSU scored three highly skilled goals coming off a rush. Merrifield's perfect pass from the left wing boards into the crease area was deflected into the net by defenseman Brock Shelgren to open the scoring in the first period.
In the second period, the Spartans went up 2-1 when Wolfe, from along the right wing boards, put the puck on an onrushing Merrifield's stick in the crease. He pulled it back and went to his backhand and scored his team-leading eighth goal.
And in the third period, with MSU trailing 4-3, Leveille took a pass from linemate Brent Darnell, a freshman, near center ice and he sped past two Gopher defensemen to skate in alone to score on a backhander.
Last season, the Spartans averaged 2.58 goals a game, fifth in the CCHA and 35th among the 58 Division I teams. Rarely, did they have anyone among the CCHA's or nation's leading scorers.
This year, Reimer, with 18 points (6 goals, 12 assists) is third in the CCHA and tied for 12th nationally, while Wolfe (3-8-11) is 6th in CCHA scoring. With eight goals in 10 games, Merrifield is tied for third in overall league scoring. He missed the first four games of the season with an injury.
"I really can't compare it to last year,'' said Anastos, the first-year MSU coach who a year ago was in his 11th season as CCHA commissioner. "When we started the season, we had little time to tinker around with forward lines. We were really a work in progress.
"We just tried to fit the right pieces. We put Reimer and Wolfe together and didn't know that would work. We threw Dean Chelios (on the line) and it was good, but he got hurt so we put Merrifield in there.''
The Reimer-Wolfe-Merrifield line has been MSU's most productive unit over the last four weeks in which the Spartans are 6-1-1 against Robert Morris (2-0), Western Michigan (2-0), Northern Michigan (1-1) and Minnesota (1-0-1).
Reimer has four goals and 14 points and Merrifield has eight goals and 12 points in their last eight games. Wolfe has two goals and 11 points in his past seven contests.
In an effort to boost production from Perlini's line, Anastos inserted Walrod into the left wing spot with Perlini at center and Berry on right wing. On Friday, Walrod had two goals, Perlini two assists and Berry a goal and an assist.
"We tried Walrod on that line and it worked. That line played well,'' Anastos said. "They got a lot of ice time against some of Minnesota's top lines. Leveille's line (with Dean Chelios and Darnell) has been scoring. Darnell scored (his first career goal) on Friday and Daultan got the tying goal on Saturday.
"It's nice to see that balance, and it's nice to see a couple of defensemen getting into the mix.''
Shelgren and Matt Crandell each scored goals on Saturday.
"We've been going to the net very well. When you do that, good things happen,'' Anastos said.
Defenseman Torey Krug believes the team's early offensive success is due to a combination of the team's attack philosophy, improvement in skills and confidence.
"We always want to attack and guys are playing their roles,'' he said. "You see Lee Reimer and Greg Wolfe jumping up and playing well. Merrifield is having a great start. And look at a guy like Kevin Walrod. With him it's a confidence thing.''
The Spartans would love to see the power play's efficiency improve. While there have been times when MSU has moved the puck around very well and created some good scoring chances, a better finishing touch would help in close games.
MSU has scored nine goals on 55 power-play opportunities. That's a 16.4 percent success rate, 7th in the CCHA.
CCHA CHALLENGES: The Spartans are three games over .500 overall but still all even in league play at 4-4. Three of their next four CCHA games are at home - against Bowling Green on Friday and Saturday and against Michigan on Dec. 10, after the series opens the night before in Ann Arbor.
The Falcons (6-8-2 overall, 1-8-1 CCHA) are 0-3-1 in their last four games and 2-8-1 since starting the season 4-0-1. After playing one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation in Minnesota, MSU now faces one of the lowest. BGSU, which has been shut out four times this year, averages 1.88 goals a game, 11th in the CCHA and 53rd among 58 Division I teams.
Coach Tom Anastos said he and his staff will be reminding his team all week about the energy and commitment needed to play the Falcons and have success.
"It'll be a challenge. We'll be nitpicking and talking to make sure we're focused on Bowling Green. It's a bit of a trap,'' Anastos said. "They're a team that's working on its own identity and I guarantee they'll come in here and compete really hard. They have good goaltending.
"Nothing really comes easy for our team. So, if we're not ready to compete hard, we'll put ourselves in a bind.''
Minnesota has 17 players on its roster already drafted by NHL teams. The Falcons have none, while MSU has three.
Bowling Green, which owns a 1-0 victory at No. 11. Lake Superior State on Oct. 21, did not score a goal in two home losses against Alaska, 3-0, 2-0, last weekend. Four of the Falcons top scorers are freshmen and sophomores. There's only two seniors on the roster but five or six juniors play regularly, including goaltender Andrew Hammond (3.05 goals-against-average).
"We're not a team that's filled with all skill and talent. For us to have success, we just can't show up and have our skill and talent be enough,'' Anastos said. "We have to compete. I think everybody on our team recognizes that, but we have to demonstrate it.''
GOALTENDING SOLID: Three weeks ago, Anastos decided to start sophomore Will Yankakeff in the series opener against Western Michigan. Yanakeff played so well in a 3-2 victory, the Spartan coach started him again in the second game, another MSU win.
And Yanakeff played both games two weeks ago at Northern Michigan, a series split.
Last week, Anastos went with senior Drew Palmisano in the first game vs. Minnesota and he was the difference with an outstanding performance in a 4-3 upset of the Gophers. Palmisano played so well Anastos came back with him on Saturday.
Who'll play this weekend? It's anybody's guess.
"We don't have a particular rhythm as to how we're going about things. We watch things every day,'' Anastos said. "We went with Will a few weeks ago and we couldn't get him out of the net.
"Last week, we thought it was a good opportunity to play Palmy. People ask what goes into deciding. It's a lot of things. It's a full body of work. Last season, Palmy won at Minnesota. That was a consideration.''
Yanakeff is 5-2 with a 2.44 goals-against average and a .920 saves percentage. He's won against Air Force, Robert Morris, Western Michigan (2) and Northern Michigan and lost to Lake Superior and NMU.
Palmisano is 3-3-1 with a 2.98 GAA and .905 saves percentage. He's won against Ohio State, Robert Morris and Minnesota, lost to Boston College, Lake Superior State and Ohio State and tied Minnesota.
"Both goaltenders are playing well. It's great competition,'' Anastos said. "For us to have success all season, that has to continue.''
CRAZY START: Who would have thought when the season started in early October that going into December that Merrimack of Hockey East would be undefeated (9-0-1) and ranked No. 1 in both major polls and North Dakota, Wisconsin, Maine and New Hampshire would not be in the top 20?
Or that Ferris State (10-3-1) would be ranked No. 6, Ohio State (10-3-1) No. 7 and Lake Superior State (10-4-2) No. 11?
Or that Michigan (7-7-2) would slip from the top 5 to No. 19 and Michigan Tech (10-5-1) would be in the top 20 for most of the first two months?
Or that Michigan State would be 8-5-1 and been good enough to sweep WMU on the road and win and tie against high-scoring Minnesota?
It's been a season of unfamiliar names in unfamiliar spots.
Even recent CCHA power Miami (8-6-2) surprised college hockey followers with a slow start (2-6), but the RedHawks have rebounded. After falling out of the polls, they're 6-0-2 in their last eight games and have climbed back to the No. 18 spot in the USCHO poll.
Of course, all this sets up many interesting questions for the second half of the season.
Will Ferris State, Ohio State and LSSU keep on winning? Are they NCAA tourney contenders? Will North Dakota and Michigan rebound and once again find a way into the NCAAs?
Not much will be decided in December because most teams don't play a lot of games due to the holiday break. In January, things may get back to normal.
Or maybe Merrimack will still be No. 1 and a legitimate contender for the NCAA title.
Or maybe not.