Neil's Notebook: The Big Ten Era Begins
Neil Koepke previews this weekend's series against Minnesota.
Dec. 5, 2013
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - For the first time in almost 33 years, Michigan State and Minnesota are playing a conference series against each other.
No more College Hockey Showcase games. No more nonconference series.
Finally, Big Ten hockey has arrived for the Spartans, and what a better way to begin a new era in a new conference than against the No. 1 team in the nation in the highly skilled Gophers.
The Spartans (5-7 overall) and Gophers (11-2-1, 2-0 Big Ten) meet for the first time as members of the six-team Big Ten Conference this weekend at Munn Arena - at 7 p.m. on Friday and 4 p.m. on Saturday.
"It's been talked about for so long now and we've had a chance to watch some teams open their Big Ten season,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "And our first series falls on the weekend in which there is another Big Ten (football championship) deal going on. It's all pretty exciting.
"We're playing the No. 1 team in the country. It probably couldn't have aligned itself any better.''
MSU and Minnesota last played a conference game on Feb. 8, 1981, when both teams were members of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. In 1981-82, the Spartans, Michigan, Notre Dame and Michigan Tech moved to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
For MSU and Michigan, games against Minnesota and Wisconsin were less frequent. In fact, the Spartans and Gophers went four years without playing each other (1982-1985).
The teams met in NCAA Tournaments in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1997 and in one game each season in the 18-year College Hockey Showcase on Thanksgiving weekend from 1993-2010. During the last two years, MSU and Minnesota played a two-game nonconference series - in East Lansing in 2011 and in Minneapolis last season.
The Big Ten announced in March, 2011, that it was forming a hockey conference with six members - MSU, Michigan and Ohio State from the CCHA, Minnesota and Wisconsin from the WCHA and a new program in Penn State. With a gift of $88 million - later increased to $102 -- by alumnus Terry Pegula to begin men's and women's teams and build an arena, the Big Ten quickly moved to start its own conference.
After the Big Ten's announcement, the college hockey landscape stayed the same for two seasons, with Penn State making its Division I debut last year as an independent. This season, the CCHA has disbanded, the Big Ten and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) are up and running and the WCHA has a different look -- losing eight teams, adding four from the CCHA and independent Alabama-Huntsville. Meanwhile, Notre Dame joined Hockey East, the only change in the East until next season when Connecticut moves from Atlantic Hockey to Hockey East.
Now that Michigan State, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin are back together competing for a league championship, they'll be seeing a lot of each other - each team plays four games - two home and two away - against the other five schools. While the Spartans have struggled to score goals and win games early this season, the Gophers' have thrived offensively and piled up victories. They've swept three series, including a Big Ten opening series against Wisconsin last weekend, 4-1, 4-3, and lost only twice - 4-1 at Notre Dame on Nov. 8 and 6-1 at home against Minnesota-Duluth on Nov. 24.
The Gophers are the second-highest scoring team in the nation, averaging 4.14. They've scored six goals in four games and five goals in two games.
"They're No. 1 for a lot of reasons. They're a really skilled team, and without a doubt, the most skilled team that we've played to date,'' Anastos said. "They feed on space making plays. The more space they have, the tougher they are to play against.
"Their defense is good because they compete hard and possess the puck a lot, so they're not on defense as much. They have solid goaltending. I can't figure out with all the talent they have that they seem to be struggling on their power play a bit. But they're still one of the top scoring teams. Five-on-five, they've shown to be a dynamic group.''
Minnesota's power play has converted only 14.3 percent of its opportunities, which ranks 46th in the nation. MSU's power play also has struggled. It's at 13.6 percent (51st nationally).
The two teams also aren't happy with their penalty killing. Minnesota's has skated off 80 percent of opponents' power plays, ranking 37th in the nation. MSU is just a shade behind at 79.6 percent (40th).
The Gophers, who have 14 NHL draft picks on their roster, have played eight freshmen this season, including six who have appeared in 10 games or more. Four seniors, five juniors and three sophomores are regulars in the lineup.
Minnesota's top six scorers include three juniors and three freshmen.
Juniors Sam Warning and Kyle Rau are 1-2 in scoring. Warning has five goals and 15 assists for 20 points, while Rau has three goals and 13 assists for 16 points. Freshmen Hudson Fasching (6-8-14) and Justin Kloos (5-9-14) are tied for third, two points ahead of junior Seth Ambroz (7-5-12). Freshman Taylor Cammarata (3-8-11) is sixth. Ambroz is the top goal scorer with seven.
Rau centers a line with Warning on left wing and Fasching on the right side. It's combined for 14 goals and 50 points.
The Gophers' defense has contributed 17 goals in 14 games with sophomore Mike Reilly leading the way with six goals and 10 points.
Minnesota's defensive corps includes two seniors, two sophomores, two freshmen and one junior (Red Wings draft pick Ben Marshall).
In goal, sophomore Adam Wilcox has a 2.21 goals-against average, a .923 saves percentage and a 10-2-1 record.
Anastos said his team must limit turnovers and avoid giving up odd-man rushes against the speedy, highly talented Gopher forwards, not to mention an aggressive defense which is an offensive threat itself.
"They're a very good transition team, so when you make sloppy turnovers in your own zone or in the neutral zone, they pounce on them and they're very good at creating offense off that,'' Anastos said. "We have to limit mistakes in those areas. "Their transition from defense to offense is very explosive. You see their defense jump into the play. We have to do a good job transitioning from our attack to defense to try to limit their ability to generate a lot of chances.''
The Spartans are feeling a little more confident about their overall game because of last weekend's 4-1 and 8-2 sweep of Princeton, which ended a frustrating four-game losing streak. MSU moved the puck well, especially on defense, made plays and capitalized on chances.
But everything will happen quicker against the Gophers and that will require a great effort, outstanding execution in all areas and smart play.
"We're have to demonstrate that we can create offense against a team of this caliber,'' Anastos said. "We're going to have to play with discipline, stay out of the penalty box and give ourselves the best chance by competing in even-strength situations.''
Two years ago, in Anastos' first season as coach, the Spartans upset the Gophers, 4-3, in the nonconference series opener and tied the second game, 4-4, at Munn Arena.
But last year, Minnesota got revenge against a Spartan team with eight first-year players in the lineup with a 6-1, 7-1 sweep in the season-opening series.
"That was a very tough weekend,'' Anastos said. "This year, even though we've had some early-season injuries and guys working their way back into shape, our younger guys have gained some experience playing on home ice and that's a positive given that we're playing this caliber of a team.
"It'll be a test we haven't seen this season. We have a lot of respect for their team and being at home will be nice.''
The Gophers, who are seeking their first NCAA championship since winning back-to-back titles in 2002 and 2003, are 54-23-6 over the last two seasons. They finished first in the WCHA and made it to the Frozen Four in 2012, losing to Boston College in the semifinals. Last season, Minnesota won the final WCHA regular-season title, but was upset 3-2 in overtime by eventual NCAA champion Yale in the NCAA West Regional in Grand Rapids.
GOPHERS-SPARTANS RIVALRY: Minnesota holds a commanding 103-43-12 edge in the series which started with a 2-0 Minnesota victory on Feb. 19, 1926, in the Lansing area. The teams took a 24-year hiatus and resumed playing against each other in January, 1950, when MSU restarted its program after dropping in 1932.
The Gophers won the first 23 games against MSU before the teams played to a 5-5 tie in 1955. But Minnesota won the next five to extend its unbeaten streak to 29 games (28-0-1) before the Spartans finally won - 2-1 on Feb. 1, 1957, in East Lansing. MSU has never swept a season series from Minnesota. The Spartans' best seasons were in 1962-63 and 1972-72 when they went 3-0-1. Since leaving the WCHA in 1981 and playing the Gophers in nonconference or NCAA Tournament games, MSU is 7-14-6 against the maroon and gold.
BAD TIMING: MSU sophomore defenseman Travis Walsh already had a career-high three assists early in the third period last Sunday when he was crushed into the boards by Princeton forward Eric Carlson. Walsh left the game and didn't return. Carlson was given a major penalty for boarding and a game misconduct penalty.
Walsh is considered doubtful for this week's series against Minnesota. He's played in all 12 of MSU's games and has five assists. Walsh leads the team in shot blocks with 27, averaging 2.25 blocks per game, and ranks tied for 20th nationally. The Spartans are No. 2 in the nation in blocks with a 17.33 average.
DRAEGER EAGER TO FACE GOPHERS: Sophomore defenseman John Draeger is the only Spartan from Minnesota, so he's probably the most fired-up about facing the Gophers. Draeger grew up in Fairbault, Minn., south of Minneapolis, and followed the Gophers growing up and while in prep school at Shattuck St. Mary's in Fairbault.
This will be the second time Draeger has played the Gophers and first time as Big Ten Conference rivals.
"It's a big deal to me and my family and every guy out there,'' Draeger said before practice earlier this week. "I should have quite a few family members coming down. "(Being in the Big Ten) is a good deal. My family gets to watch all the games and see me play more often. It's exciting to start off playing one of the best teams in the Big Ten.''
Draeger believes the Big Ten will good for hockey and good for MSU.
"I think it's a big thing for college hockey. It'll attract more fans and there will be more attention,'' he said. "I watched Ohio State and Michigan and what a great start to the Big Ten. It's pretty exciting.''
In the first two series of Big Ten hockey, Michigan swept OSU and Minnesota won two from Wisconsin, but both series were close. The Wolverines beat the Buckeyes 4-3 in overtime on Friday and 5-4 with a late goal on Monday. The Gophers topped the Badgers 4-1 on Friday and 4-3 with a goal in the last minute on Saturday.
Draeger faced Minnesota in the season-opening series last year in Minneapolis, and the veteran Gophers rolled past the inexperienced Spartans, 5-1 and 7-1.
"It was a disappointment but this year we have a very different team,'' he said. "We'll give them a different look and we've got a lot more experience.'' What makes the Gophers so good?
"They move the puck so well, they have big, fast, strong guys and they're big on puck possession,'' Draeger said. "So, we have to get them off their game. We're on a smaller ice surface and I think that's going to help us.''
Minnesota is used to playing on an Olympic-size rink, which is 100 feet wide, 15 feet wider than most surfaces in college. The Gophers have played 10 home games and four road contests. Two were at Notre Dame, which is 95 feet wide, and two were at Bemidji State, which is the normal 85 feet wide.
Draeger said he's getting closer to being in game shape after missing MSU's first eight games with an upper body injury that required offseason surgery. He's played in four games - two against Western Michigan and two vs. Princeton.
"I feel good. The legs are getting more comfortable with the speed. It's getting better every day,'' Draeger said.
Draeger is a good friend of Gophers sophomore defenseman Mike Reilly. They were teammates at Shattuck St. Mary's. Reilly already has six goals and 10 points in 14 games.
"They've got great skill on the back end,'' Draeger said. "Their defensemen really activate. Our defense needs to do more of that. We got two goals last week from Jake Chelios, we moved the puck well and got a lot of assists.''
Coach Tom Anastos said Draeger's game is progressing.
"The first weekend he tried to do too much,'' he said. "Any time you do too much, whether you're healthy or returning from an injury, it's a recipe for disaster. But he competes hard, and I thought he had a pretty good weekend (against Princeton). "He made a few mistakes but he made a lot of good plays and looked good on the power play. It's just a matter of time until he gets there.''
SPARTAN POTPOURRI: Senior right wing and captain Greg Wolfe continues to lead MSU in scoring with seven goals and three assists for 10 points in 12 games. Wolfe started the season by scoring one goal in five of his first six games. He added two goals in Sunday's 8-2 win over Princeton. Wolfe has point in eight of MSU's 12 games. . . .Lee Reimer, Wolfe's linemate, defenseman Jake Chelios and freshman forward Mackenzie MacEachern are tied for second with eight points apiece. MacEachern has five goals and three assists, and Reimer and Chelios have two goals and six assists. . . . Redshirt freshman defenseman Brock Krygier leads MSU in plus/minus with a plus-9 rating, which ranks in a tie for 8th among all freshmen nationally. Krygier has been a plus or even player in nine of 12 games.