Neil's Notebook: USNTDP U-18 Team to Test Spartans in Exhibition Game on Sunday
Neil Koepke previews Sunday's exhibition game against the USNTDP U-18 team.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING -- It seems like it should be a fairly easy game.
After all, the U.S. National Team Development Program's Under-18 team is made up players who are 17-years-old. For sure, they're also highly skilled and many will be elite college players in a few years.
But they're still 17 -- this year's U-18 players are all born in 1999 -- and Michigan State is made up of much older players -- Transfer-law student Justin Selep is 24, Rhett Holland, JT Stenglein and Villiam Haag are 23, Joe Cox, Thomas Ebbing, Connor Wood are 22, Brennan Sanford, Sam Saliba and Logan Lambdin are 21.
But when Michigan State and the U.S. Under-18 team play, often times age and college experience don't mean as much as it should because the talented U.S. team takes games against Division I college teams very seriously, and plays with high energy and focus.
When the Spartans and the U-18s meet in an exhibition game at 3 p.m. on Sunday at Munn Arena, MSU will have to be sharp and play with emotion and at a high level to avoid getting upset.
Michigan State is 6-6 against the U-18s and 2-2 since Tom Anastos took over as coach in 2011-12, losing the first two meetings and winning the last two games. All 12 games have been played at Munn Arena.
MSU junior goaltender Ed Minney knows all about the dynamics of this game from both sides of the ice.
He played for the U.S. NTDP in Ann Arbor for two years and was in goal when the U-18s defeated the Spartans, 4-3, in overtime on March 1, 2014. Minney made 20 saves. Three players on that U-18 team have already made a splash in the NHL -- Dylan Larkin (Red Wings), Jack Eichel (Sabres) and Auston Matthews (Maple Leafs).
As an MSU freshman, Minney played the last two periods of a 4-1 victory over the U-18s on Jan, 9, 2015. The only goal Minney gave up was late in the third period on a slap shot by former teammate Matthews. MSU junior forward Dylan Pavelek, who also played for the NTDP from 2012-2014, scored in the second period to give the Spartans a 2-0 lead.
Last season, Minney made 36 saves in a 3-2 victory in overtime on Jan. 23, 2016. Thomas Ebbing scored the winning goal on a power play at 3:09 of OT.
"You can't overlook them or they will beat you,'' Minney said. "They'll come out from the start and they'll be flying. They have no problem doing whatever they have to do to try to beat us.
"As a young guy in the U.S. program, coming into the college games, you really want to play hard and win every game. Now being on this side of it, it's a little different.
"If we come out sluggish and not playing well, it could hurt our confidence going into next week's series with Minnesota.''
This season, the U.S. U-18s are 11-12-0-2 overall in games against U.S. Hockey League teams, Division I and III college teams and against European teams. They're 1-7 against Div. I teams with the only victory coming again against Minnesota-Duluth, now ranked No. 1 in the nation.
The U-18s edged the Bulldogs, 2-1, on Oct. 22 in Duluth. They've lost to Notre Dame, 5-1; Boston University, 8-2; Harvard, 5-2; Minnesota, 9-0; Wisconsin, 4-3; Princeton, 5-4, and Michigan, 6-3.
In addition to Minney and Pavelek, freshman center Patrick Khodorenko is a NTDP alum. He spent the last two seasons in the program and remembers how special it was to challenge college teams.
"When we played those teams, we were prepared and tried our best,'' he said. "We knew that going into those games that they were bigger, stronger, faster, and not necessarily more skilled but that they would hit us a lot more.
"So, we came out with everything that we had. They were exhibition games so they didn't count for the college teams but they counted for us. They didn't take us seriously as we were taking them, so that gave us extra motivation.''
Khodorenko was in the lineup for the U-18s last season in MSU's 4-3 win in OT. The rookie center is off to a good start this season and finds himself centering the Spartans' most productive line with sophomore Mason Appleton on right wing and fellow freshman Taro Hirose on the left side.
Khodorenko, who scored the tying goal in last Saturday's 2-2 tie at North Dakota, has two goals and four assists for six points in 11 games.
MSU coach Tom Anastos said playing the U.S. Under-18 team presents a different kind of challenge for his team.
"We're coming off a big series on the road and their team will come in here and play really hard,'' Anastos said. "It's a young team, of course, but very talented and very skilled. It'll be a good test for us to prepare for an exhibition game after the weekend we had.''
The Spartans, undefeated in their last three games (2-0-1), are coming down from the high of their most successful road series in several years -- a 4-3 victory and 2-2 tie at then No. 5 North Dakota.
"I asked the guys on our team who played in the (U.S. NTDP) program about this game and their response was that it was always a big game for them,'' Anastos said. "They prepare hard and they play hard for these college games.
"I look at it as an opportunity. We'll try a few different things, maybe dress some additional players. I don't know what we'll do in goal but there's a consideration to give (freshman) John Lethemon some playing time. We'll see.
"They're a well-coached group, they're very talented and they'll come in here and they'll be hungry to play and perform at a high level. That in itself makes it difficult. In our case, we can't look too far ahead to opening the Big Ten season next week.''
Anastos said it was great to see progress as a team and with several individual players at North Dakota, but that it was time to move forward to the situation at hand.
"There's a lot of good that comes from it, but it's just part of a process to becoming a good team and being a hard team to play against,'' he said.
"It's over. We had a good weekend but we have to have a lot of good weekends.''
FUTURE SPARTAN: There's one player on the U.S. U-18 team that MSU fans will want to play special attention to. He's defenseman Tommy Miller, who wears No. 12 and last month signed a scholarship letter of intent to play at Michigan State starting next season.
Miller, 17, a 6-foot-2, 177-pound, right-hand shot defenseman, has two goals and seven assists in 25 games.
"He's a very consistent, two-way player. He's not the kind of player who will jump out at you. But from a coach's perspective, you know what you get with him,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said.
"He plays with a lot of intelligence, he's a very good puck mover, he defends well and he's smart positionally. He's got good size -- he's 6-2 and just maturing physically.''
Miller played in 22 games with the U.S. U-17 team last year and also spent time with Victory Honda's U-18 team and played four games with the Fargo Force of the U.S. Hockey League.
Miller's sister, Margot, played hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school in Faribault, Minn., and then had a solid four-career as a forward at North Dakota from 2008-2012.
Next season, Tommy will begin his college career.
"He's not a big point producer at this point but he contributes at both ends,'' Anastos said. "He can move the puck out of the zone, he can join the rush, he's smart about when to do it and provides good support. He can get pucks through from the blue line, which is so critical in the game today.
"He has a high upside. He'll be a very good player here.''
SCOUTING THE U-18S: This team isn't considered as highly talented as the last two U-18s, but it's still features several top-end players who will be making solid impacts in college over the next few seasons.
While former Spartan forward Danton Cole, who's beginning his seventh season at the NTDP, is coaching the U-17s this season, John Wrobolewski is coaching the U-18s, in his first season as head coach.
Wrobolewski, who's from Neenah, Wis., is a NTDP alumn, playing from 1997-99, before his four-year career at Notre Dame (1999-2003). He served as an assistant coach with the U.S. program from 2008-10 and came back to the NTDP after serving as coach of the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL.
The U-18s, who have won three games in a row, are 11-12-0-2 overall, 1-7 vs. Division I college teams and 3-0 against Division III teams.
Only three players on the 24-man roster have not committed to a U.S. college. Michigan has four commitments and Boston College and Boston University each has four.
The U-18s top six scorers include forwards Jacob Tortora (11-9-20, Boston College); Evan Barratt (5-14-19, Penn State); Brady Tkachuk (10-8-18, Boston University); Grant Mismash (7-10-17, North Dakota); Scott Reedy (8-9-17, Minnesota) and Josh Norris (7-8-15, Michigan).
Norris, who is from Oxford, Mich., is the son of former MSU standout forward Dwayne Norris. Tkachuk is the son of former NHL standout Keith Tkachuk (Jets, Coyotes, Blues, Thrashers), who played at Boston University.
ROSBURG IS A STAR: Michigan State redshirt defenseman Jerad Rosburg was named Big Ten First Star of the week after his standout performance in the Spartans' 4-3 victory and 2-2 tie last weekend at No. 5-ranked North Dakota.
Rosburg, a 6-foot-1, 196-pounder from Clarksville, Md., scored two goals in the first period last Friday and assisted on what proved to be the winning goal by Joe Cox early in the third period of MSU's 4-3 win.
Rosburg's three-point game was the first by a MSU defenseman since December, 2013.
On Saturday, Rosburg was plus-1 in a 2-2 tie. And in the exhibition 3-on-3 overtime, after a scoreless regulation overtime, Rosburg made a great play to score the winning goal. It's too bad it doesn't count in overall statistics.
The Big Ten's Second Star was Minnesota senior forward Vinni Lettieri. He scored the winning goal in the Gophers' 4-2 victory at Boston College last Sunday, and had two goals and two assists in two games for Minnesota. On Friday, Gophers lost at Northeastern, 6-4.
Wisconsin senior forward Grant Besse was selected as the Third Star after a four-point weekend on the road against Colorado College and Denver. Besse scored the game-winning goal in Friday's 2-1 win against Colorado College, and had a goal and two assists in a 6-5 loss vs. Denver on Saturday.
IN THE BIG TEN: No. 7 Penn State (12-1-1 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) and No. 20 Michigan (6-6-1, 0-1) played the first conference game of the season on Thursday, and the Nittany Lions extended their unbeaten streak to 12 games with a 6-1 victory over the Wolverines at Pegula Ice Arena in State College, Pa. The teams meet again on Friday.
The other Big Ten series this weekend features No. 10 Ohio State (8-1-4) and No. 11 Minnesota (6-4-2) in Minneapolis.
In a non-conference series, Omaha (7-5-2, 3-3) of the NCHC visits Wisconsin (7-5) on Friday and Saturday.