Neil's Notebook: Spartans Find Chemistry in Weekend Sweep
Neil Koepke takes a closer look at MSU's two wins over Princeton.
Dec. 2, 2013
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - Michigan State coach Tom Anastos has tinkered with his forward lines for most of this season.
The experimenting has all been about finding the right mix to consistently create quality scoring chances, leading to more pucks in the net.
After scoring nine goals in a sweep of American International to start November, the Spartans went cold offensively, producing only three goals in four consecutive losses against Michigan Tech (3-0, 3-2 OT) and Western Michigan (2-0 and 4-1).
So, Anastos and his coaching staff last week went back to changing things up for the weekend series against Princeton. All four lines had a new look.
Freshman right wing Villiam Haag was paired with fellow freshmen Thomas Ebbing, the center, and left wing Mackenzie MacEachern, who've been together all season and were also linemates in high school and junior hockey.
For two games at least, the Ebbing-Haag-MacEachern unit worked so well it was like they had spent all season together.
On Friday, MacEachern scored a power-play goal, with Ebbing and Haag on the ice, in a 4-1 victory over Princeton in the series opener at Munn Arena. The line combined for five shots on goal.
On Sunday, the three rookies were dominant at times in controlling the play, while piling up seven points on three goals and four assist as MSU overpowered Princeton, 8-2, in front of 4,633 fans.
Twelve goals in two games? It's a scoring barrage for the Spartans (5-7 overall).
Haag had two goals - his third and fourth of the season, MacEachern chipped in with three assists - the first three assists of his career after scoring five goals in his first 11 games, and Ebbing scored his first collegiate goal and added an assist for his second two-point game.
Haag had five shots on goal and Ebbing had two.
"We've been trying to put guys together to get some chemistry, and I felt the whole week we were competing hard,'' said Haag, a 6-foot-1, 200-pounder from Gothenburg, Sweden. "Ebbing is a doing good work in the middle and that makes it easier for MacEachern and me to do our jobs.
"I think we're three guys who complete each other well. Today was a lucky day when we had chemistry and hopefully it can continue to work.''
Ebbing, Haag and MacEachern previously played one game together - the 4-1 loss to UMass-Lowell in the home opener on Oct. 25. MacEachern scored on a breakaway goal during a 4-on-4 situation, but Ebbing and Haag were not on the ice for the goal.
On Sunday, Haag had two goals six minutes into the second period. He fired in defenseman Brock Krygier's rebound from the left circle at 16:06 of the first period to boost MSU's lead to 3-0.
He got his second on a power play at 6:39 of the second period when he got open for an instant in the high slot and took a pass from MacEachern and fired it past Tigers goaltender Sean Bonar.
With two goals, Haag was thinking hat trick. But despite some good chances, the third goal never came.
"Every player who scores a goal or two, they get their confidence up. And scoring a hat trick is something everybody wants to do, and I haven't done it so much in my career,'' he said. "I had some good opportunities (to get the third goal).
"It feels good but it's good for the whole team. We've been struggling and we want to score more, and in this game we got loose for eight. The whole team competed hard, and every line seemed to score a goal or two.''
MacEachern said he's been known in high school and in juniors as playmaker so he was surprised to start the season with five goals and no assists in 11 games before Sunday.
"That's kind of weird for me. It's good to get some assists but it's not all about points,'' he said. "It's about winning and doing well as a team.'' MacEachern, a 6-foot-2, 197-pounder from Troy, said he didn't feel Sunday's game was his best this season.
"Maybe from a point standpoint but not from a working standpoint,'' he said. "I think there have been other (better) games. Tonight, we did what we do every night and we got some bounces. It definitely feels good. This is good for the confidence of our team.''
Anastos has liked the play of Haag, Ebbing and MacEachern all season, even if they haven't been putting up big numbers.
"All three of their games are getting better each week,'' Anastos said. "We're looking to create some identity, and as we move the pieces around, we put Villiam with those guys to see how it would work.''
On Sunday, the unit performed at a high level against a Princeton (3-10, 2-6 ECAC) team that is struggling. Still, it's a positive for the Spartans.
"I look at the three players in different ways,'' Anastos said. "Ebbing (who's also from Troy) has been a consistent player all season. He's been consistent in his play on both sides of the puck (offensive and defensive). He hasn't been rewarded with a lot of points, but he's been consistent overall.
"He's good on the forecheck, he's a good defensive player, good on second and third efforts, he makes good decisions with the puck and is a consistent faceoff performer. "In Villiam's case, he's making a significant transition from how the game is played in Europe to a North American style that is much more chaotic. The European game is more controlled. He's adapting real well.
"McEachern, who the puck has gone in for, has played with consistently since the beginning of the season.''
MacEachern, with five goals and three assists for eight points, is now tied for second place in team scoring with Jake Chelios (2-6-8) and Lee Reimer (2-6-8), two points behind top scorer Greg Wolfe (7-3-10).
Ebbing has one goal and five assists for six points and is in a four-way tie for fourth in scoring. Haag (3-2-5) is a point back and is in a two-way tie for ninth in scoring.
POWER-PLAY CLICKS: MSU scored three power-play goals on Sunday for its highest output of the season. The Spartans came into the game with only five goals on the power play in 52 chances (9.6 percent).
But the Spartans clicked on three of seven power play chances as senior Jake Chelios (first period), Villiam Haag (second period) and defenseman RJ Boyd (second period) converted after good puck movement.
In fact, MSU moved the puck well in all situations for most of the game - even strength, shorthanded and on the power play.
And for the second straight game, the defense moved the puck well, consistently getting it up to the forwards and making good decisions to create space for quality shots.
"Our defense moved it consistently. Our player movement to get open without the puck was as good as it's been,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "It was a good effort across the board.
"It's an area we've gotten better at and now we have to take steps every week to get better, especially with the competition in league play heating up.''
DEFENSE PRODUCES: The Spartans defense accounted for eight points on Sunday with sophomore Travis Walsh collecting a career-high three assists. He came into the game with two assists.
MSU started the weekend with no goals from defensemen, but finished with three. Chelios also scored on Friday night.
REIMER STEADY, VALUABLE: Center Lee Reimer continues to play a solid role with his versatility and leadership as a senior.
Reimer has been strong defensively, chipped in on offense, killed penalties and has been one of the team's best faceoff men.
On Sunday, Reimer set up both of linemate Greg Wolfe's two goals, including a shorthanded goal in the third period with a perfect centering pass on a 2-on-1 rush. He was also on the ice for Jake Chelios' power-play goal in first period that gave MSU a 1-0 lead.
"In the last couple of weeks, we only had one or two goals, so this definitely helps the confidence of our team,'' he said. "I think getting help from the defense was especially (important). We were getting shots through and that creates more havoc and we were jumping on rebounds.
"Jake (Chelios) had two goals (this weekend) and that helps our offense. We were getting pucks to the net and we're attacking.''
Reimer, a 6-foot, 188-pounder from Landmark, Manitoba, is tied for second in team scoring with two goals and six assists for eight points, two behind his longtime linemate, Wolfe, the Spartans' captain.
After scoring nine goals and collecting 21 assists for 30 points as a sophomore, Reimer had a disappointing season last year with four goals and 17 points. Wolfe wasn't as productive as he hoped to be either.
"It was frustrating so we decided to just go out and just play and not worry about things as much, and so far it's been working,'' Reimer said. "I think we're focusing more since we're the oldest guys on the team and we're trying to bring some leadership.
"We're preparing hard for every game and trying to bring some intensity. If we're not putting up numbers, we have to be doing other things well. We have to be working hard.''
On Friday, Reimer was 11-3 on faceoffs but not as good on Sunday at 8-9. He and sophomore center Michael Ferrantino are virtually tied in faceoff percentage.
Ferrantino is 70-53 for a 56.9 percent success rate, while Reimer is 126-96 for 56.8 percent.
Coach Tom Anastos has praised Reimer's play all season.
"I think he's matured and I don't say that in a derogatory way,'' Anastos said. "Since last season, he's comfortable with knowing what's expected of him. He's been rewarded with success with points and that helps with confidence, and I think he's found a balance in being able to manage frustration better.
"When your team is going through the challenges of rebuilding as we are with a young team, there's going to be that. As an upperclassman, the better you manage it, the less you allow that stuff to affect your game.
"When I say `maturity,' I say it in a complimentary way. We see it in different things - off the ice and on the ice situations. That's a benefit to him and that benefits our team.''
UP NEXT: Fresh off two victories and 12 goals in the last six periods, the Spartans play their first series as a member of the Big Ten hockey conference against the No. 1 team in the nation - Minnesota (11-2-1).
The Gophers and MSU meet at 7 p.m. on Friday and at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Munn Arena. Minnesota is coming off a sweep of Wisconsin, 4-1 and 4-3, last weekend in Minneapolis in the Big Ten debut for both teams.
Twenty of MSU's next 23 games are against Big Ten rivals - four each vs. Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State.
Only three nonconference games remain on the Spartans' schedule - Ferris State on Dec. 14 at Munn Arena and two games in the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit, Dec. 27-28, against Michigan Tech in the semifinals and either Michigan or Western Michigan in the championship or third-place game.