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Neil's Notebook: Surging Spartans Making Up Ground

Brett Perlini

Dec. 5, 2011

by Neil Koepke, staff writer

Michigan State got itself into a hole in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association when it lost two games at Lake Superior State in the first conference series of the season in mid-October.

And after splitting two games with Ohio State the next weekend, the Spartans still found themselves near bottom of the standings at 1-3, looking up at surprise teams like Lake Superior State and Ferris State.

However, things are changing.

MSU is 5-1 in its last six CCHA games, climbing in the CCHA standings and it has two games in hand on every team in the league except Alaska, which has played four more games.

The Spartans (10-5-1, 6-4-0-0 CCHA) picked up six points with their 5-1, 4-1 sweep of Bowling Green and landed in sixth place with 18 points, one behind fifth-place Ferris State (6-5-1-0), two in back of fourth-place LSSU (6-5-1-0) and just three behind Western Michigan (6-4-2-2), which is in third place.

MSU is just two wins - six points - away from second-place Notre Dame (7-2-3-0). First-place Ohio State, the hottest team in college hockey, has 29 points, 11 more than MSU. Remember, though, the Buckeyes have played two more games.

"We had to make up some ground in the CCHA standings. I thought we did a good job of focusing in,'' junior left wing Dean Chelios said after his team's sweep of BGSU. Chelios scored one goal on Friday and had a goal and an assist in Saturday's victory.

Since the LSSU and OSU series, the Spartans swept Robert Morris in a nonconference series, and then went back into league play and swept Western Michigan in Kalamazoo and split at Northern Michigan. MSU rebounded from the second-night loss in Marquette and won and tied against Minnesota and followed that with an efficient-but-not-flashy sweep of Bowling Green.

The Spartans are 8-1-1 since the Ohio State series on Oct. 20-21.

So, should these surprising Spartans be considered a contender for the regular-season title?



That might be too much to ask for a team that relies more on its heart-and-soul and work ethic than on its talent. MSU looks more like a top four or five team at this point than a bottom four or five team, which many thought was its likely landing spot. There's a long way to go - MSU reaches the halfway point of its 36-game regular-season schedule this weekend - so the Spartans could drop back a bit when it faces more top teams. Or, they could get even better.

MSU hopes to continue to improve its league record and have some fun with its first series against its main rival - Michigan. The Spartans face the Wolverines at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Ann Arbor and at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Munn Arena.

Michigan (8-8-2, 4-6-2-1) is tied with Miami for ninth place in the CCHA with 15 points. The Wolverines just ended a seven game winless streak (0-7-1) with a 1-0 victory in overtime at Alaska on Saturday to salvage a split a series split.

This weekend's series is the last for the Spartans until after Christmas when they return for the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit, Dec. 29-30.

MSU will have an excellent opportunity to pick up more ground in the CCHA race in early January with three consecutive home series - Miami, Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State.

The Spartans have 10 CCHA home games remaining, seven on the road and one - with Michigan - at Joe Louis Arena.

The top five teams in the CCHA receive byes in the first round of the playoffs. Teams 6th,7th and 8th host first-round series against the 11th, 10th and 9th-place teams, respectively.

THE RIVARLY: Over the last two seasons, the Spartans are 5-5 against the Wolverines. The teams went 2-2 last year and 3-3 in 2009-2010. However, U-M's dominance in 2008-2009, winning all five games, gives the Wolverines the edge over the last three seasons at 5-10.

Over the last five seasons, MSU trails in the series, 9-14-2, and going back 10 years, U-M holds a 20-17-12 edge.

ANASTOS VS. WOLVERINES: As a player, Tom Anastos lost his first game he ever played against Michigan - 4-3 at Yost Arena in 1981. But the Spartan coach lost only one more game to the Wolverines and finished his four-year career with a 15-2-1 edge over U-M. His teams were 7-1 at Munn Arena, 7-1 at Yost Arena and 1-0-1 at Joe Louis Arena.

In his last game as a player vs. Michigan, the Spartans routed the Wolverines, 9-4, in Ann Arbor on Jan. 26, 1985.

During Anastos' two seasons (1990-92) as an assistant coach to Ron Mason, MSU went 2-4-2 against U-M -- 1-2-1 each season.

TOP SCORERS: MSU has seven players with 10 points or more. The top scorer is still sophomore center Lee Reimer, who has seven goals and 13 assists for 20 points. Linemate Greg Wolfe, a sophomore right wing, is second with five goals and 11 assists for 16 points.

Senior center Brett Perlini is third with 14 points (4-10) and senior left wing Mike Merrifield follows with 13 points (8-5). Merrifield leads in goal with eight.

STREAKING TEAMS: Ohio State has the nation's longest winning streak with nine consecutive victories, while defending NCAA champion Minnesota-Duluth has the longest unbeaten streak at 12 games - 10-0-2.

The Buckeyes (12-3-1, 9-2-1-1) are unbeaten (10-0-1) in 11 games. They haven't lost since the Spartans opened a league CCHA series with a 3-0 victory on Oct. 20 at Munn Arena. OSU won the next night, 5-2, and have been on a roll ever since.

Minnesota-Duluth's last loss was a 5-4 setback at Minnesota on Oct. 15. The Bulldogs (11-3-2, 9-2-1) are in second place in the WCHA, one point behind the Gophers. `

FIRST WIN, FIRST LOSS: There are no more undefeated and winless teams in college hockey. No. 1-ranked Merrimack suffered its first defeat on Friday when it lost 2-1 in overtime at Providence. The Warriors (9-2-1, 6-2-1 Hockey East) lost again on Saturday to the Friars, 6-1.

In its 16th game of the season, Alabama-Huntsville won for the first time when it upset Nebraska-Omaha, 3-1, in Nashville, Tenn. UNO rebounded and topped the Chargers, 6-2, in the series finale on Saturday. Alabama-Huntsville, coached by former MSU defenseman Chris Luongo, is 1-15-1 in its final season as a varsity program. Next year, the team drops to club status.

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