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Neil’s Notebook: Spartans in Control in 5-1 Exhibition Win

Dec. 5, 2016

By Neil Koepke staff writer

EAST LANSING – As exhibition games go, this one worked out pretty well for Michigan State.

The Spartans took the U.S. Under-18 team seriously, played with energy and a purpose, five players scored goals, lots of guys got playing time and the end result was a 5-1 victory on Sunday afternoon at Munn Arena.

“Our goal going into this game was to get better, to make sure we were working on areas of our game. So generally speaking, mission accomplished,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said.

There have been times in the last 16 seasons that Michigan State has been ambushed by the National Team Development Program’s U-18 team, in which all the players are 17-years-old and highly skilled.

The Spartans made sure that would not happen this season, taking control of the game in the first period, building a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes, and adding two goals in the second period and one in the third.

“I looked at this game as a tricky one. We’re coming off a big series (win and a tie) at North Dakota and this game has no meaningful value in terms of our competition in the conference and RPI, and yet I liked our approach,’’ Anastos said. “I thought we started a little slow but we picked it up.’’

MSU (4-6-1 overall) got goals from Thomas Ebbing and freshman defenseman Damian Chrcek in the first period, Mason Appleton and J.T. Stenglein in the second and defenseman Zach Osburn in the third.

“Besides a couple minutes in the first period, I thought we played a really complete game, a really good game,’’ MSU senior right wing and captain Joe Cox said. “We dominated most of the play and got second effort from our guys.



“We keep working on what we’ve been working on the previous weeks and we’re building and getting better.’’

Anastos said his team’s game plan was to get consistent traffic around the net, get shots on goal and set up scoring chances through rebounds and loose pucks.

“That was a focal point for the game. (U.S. goalie) Dylan (St. Cyr) is a smaller goalie (5-foot-8) and we felt we wanted to get some bodies in front and make him work to see the puck. For our game to continue to improve, we have to get better at that.

“We have to get better ad getting people to the net, getting bodies in front of the goaltender’s eyes and getting shots through to the net to create scrambles and rebounds. I would have liked to see us come up with a few more loose pucks to finish those rebounds. But it was good to get traffic there.’’

Cox, who assisted on Ebbing’s and Stenglein’s goals, liked the way his team got shots to the net and were in good position to get rebounds and create more scoring chances. MSU had 39 shots on goal, including 18 in the second period.

“We had a lot of good traffic in front of (goalie) Cam Johnson at North Dakota last weekend. I think we’ve been kind of working off that and know that if you get traffic in there, and get good shots on net, some are going to go in,’’ Cox said. “Guys are gravitating toward the front of the net.’’

“We’ve been playing really good hockey lately. It’s been giving us wins and that’s helping our confidence. We’re getting pucks to the net and we’re getting wins.’’

Of course, the Spartans didn’t play a perfect game, and there were things that will be emphasized in practice this week as MSU prepares for its Big Ten-opening against Minnesota next weekend at Munn Arena.

“The only thing I didn’t like about the game was that we made some bad decisions that led to some odd-man rushes,’’ Anastos said. “They didn’t have a lot of good scoring chances but the ones they had were doozies. We gave up 3-on-1s, 2-on-1s, a breakaway and I didn’t like that. We have to do better at cleaning that up.’’

The Spartans are now 7-6 against the U.S. U-18 team and have won the last three games.

MSU freshman goaltender John Lethemon faced on 16 shots and the only goal he gave up was on a long shot by left wing Joey Cassetti (a Boston College commit) in the first period that tied the game 1-1. Lethemon made only three saves in the second period but made a few point-blank saves among the seven shots he faced in the third period.

Lethemon has made three starts this season but hasn’t played the last four games as junior Ed Minney has been sharp and consistent and a big factor in MSU’s three game (2-0-1) unbeaten streak. “Those games are tough to play for goalies,’’ Anastos said. “You’re not getting a lot of work, and when you do, they’re Grade A chances. Really quality shots. I thought he played a good game. He handled the puck well, too.’’

EXPANDED LINEUP: In exhibition games, teams are allowed to dress two extra players. On Sunday, three Spartans who haven’t see a lot of action this season were in the lineup and got some playing time – freshmen defensemen Damian Chrcek and Anthony Scarsella and senior forward Chris Knudson.

Chrcek, who’s played in four games, scored MSU’s second goal at 11:21 of the first period. He let go with shot from along the boards on the edge of the left circle and the puck eluded U-18 goalie Dylan St. Cyr.

Scarsella, who’s also played in four games, earned the primary assist on defenseman Zach Osburn’s goal at 2:42 of the third period. Scarsella got the puck from Villiam Haag at the left point and slid it over to Osburn on the right. Osburn moved in and fired the puck into the top right corner to give MSU a 5-1 lead.

Knudson, who’s played in 34 games in three seasons but not in any games this year, got playing time on the fourth line and on the power play in the third period.

“It was a good opportunity for those guys to play,’’ Anastos said. “Chris Knudson is an unsung hero on our team. He’s a player who hasn’t gotten in the lineup to this point of the season and he’s changed positions (from defense to forward).

“He does everything he can to try to help our team in his role and he’s a terrific teammate. I thought he deserved the opportunity, and I told him he’d probably play on a limited basis. I thought he did a nice job.

“And it’s same for Scarsella and Chrcek, who haven’t gotten many minutes. They showed some signs of good things and they need game time. It’s nice that they got that opportunity in a game setting. And probably since (Carson) Gatt went out with an injury in the first period, they probably got more minutes than we intended.’’

Anastos said he didn’t know the extent of Carson’s injury.

ENEMY NOW, SPARTAN NEXT SEASON: U.S. Under-18 defenseman Tommy Miller has been looking forward to Sunday’s game against the Spartans all season. Miller was wearing red, white and blue Sunday but next year he’ll be outfitted in green and white as a MSU freshman.

Miller, a 6-foot-2, 177-pounder from West Bloomfield Mich., last month signed a national scholarship letter of intent to play at Michigan State.

“It was cool to get out there and see what the experience will be like next year and after that,’’ Miller said. “It was a little nerve- racking at first, but once I got here and went through all my routines, it was just line another game.

“It was fun. It was weird because in a year, I’ll be playing for that team. It’s an experience most people don’t get, and I’m very fortunate to get it.’’

What will Miller bring to the Spartans’ defensive corps next season?

“I’m a defenseman that can play both ways, but one that can move the puck and takes care of the defensive zone first but can support the rush,’’ Miller said. “I can help in the offensive zone at times.’’

Miller said the biggest improvement he’s made in his game while at the NTDP program this year is “probably my offensive game. Being able to play on the power play and being able to jump up and be that fourth guy on the rush.’’

Miller said that Sunday’s game wasn’t his first at Munn Arena. He remembers playing there when he was six or seven years old.

“I think I had a championship game here when I was squirts or midgets,’’ he said. So, why did he pick Michigan State as his college choice?

“I’ve always been a State fan growing up and my family has been going to State,’’ he said. “I came and saw the arena, the atmosphere, I liked the coaches, their playing style and the players that they were bringing in.’’

Miller said his mother and father and a few cousins all went to Michigan State.

Coach Tom Anastos said he couldn’t keep track of Miller’s entire game on Sunday but he liked what he saw when he noticed the U.S. U-18s No. 12 roaming around the ice.

“It’s hard to watch opposing players,’’ he said. “I scouted their game (on Saturday against the USHL’s Chicago Steel) and I think he’s a terrific player.

“He competed hard. I noticed him a number times (Sunday) and his ability to get the puck to the right spots at the offensive blue line, and I liked his compete level.’’

UP NEXT: After 11 non-conference games, Michigan State opens the 20-game Big Ten schedule next weekend against Minnesota at 6:30 p.m. on Friday and 8 p.m. on Saturday at Munn Arena.

The Gophers, ranked No. 11 last week, are coming off a split with Ohio State – a 5-3 victory and an 8-3 loss in Minneapolis

The Spartans have five games in December. After the two games with Minnesota, MSU plays Northeastern at 3 p.m. on Dec. 18 at Munn Arena, and then two games in the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit, Dec. 29-30. Michigan State plays Western Michigan in the GLI’s second semifinal at 7 p.m. on Dec. 29. In the first GLI semifinal, Michigan Tech plays Michigan at 3:30 p.m.

GAME OF THE WEEK: In a matchup of top 10 teams, No. 9 North Dakota edged No. 3 Boston College 4-3 in front of more than 11,000 fans on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York. It’s estimated that more than 8,000 fans came from North Dakota.

The Fighting Hawks (8-5-3), who were stunned by MSU in last weekend’s 4-3 loss and 2-2 tie against Michigan State in Grand Forks, held a 2-0 lead after two periods on Saturday. But Boston College (12-5-1) scored twice early in the third period to tie it before UND took the lead for good at 9:06. North Dakota went up 4-2 with two minutes left. BC scored with 8.7 seconds left to close out the scoring.

IN THE BIG TEN: No. 10 Ohio State earned a split against No 11 Minnesota with a shocking 8-3 victory over the Gophers on Saturday at Mariucci Arena. The Buckeyes (9-2-1, 1-1 Big Ten) went up 2-0 early in the first period, but the Gophers (7-5-2, 1-1) rallied to tie it with two late goals in the opening period.

But Ohio State scored six straight goals – four in the second period and two in the third – to earn a series split. Minnesota won the series opener, 5-3, on Friday.

No. 7 Penn State (13-1-1, 2-0) added two more victories to its already strong resume with a sweep of No. 20 Michigan on Thursday and Friday at University Park, Pa. The Nittany Lions won the first game, 6-1, and dominated the series finale, 5-1, to extend their winning streak to 11 and their unbeaten streak to 13 (12-0-1). The Wolverines (6-7-1, 0-2) have lost three of their last four games.

In a non-conference series, Wisconsin tied Omaha 3-3 on Friday and had a rough third period on Saturday in which it gave up five goals and lost the series finale, 7-4. The Badgers (7-6-1) actually led 4-3 with 8:23 left in the third period. But the Mavericks (8-5-3, 3-3 NCHC) scored at 12:14, 14:30, 17:10 and 19:00 and emerged with a three-goal victory.

This weekend, in addition to the MSU-Minnesota series, Michigan plays host to Wisconsin on Friday and Saturday

Penn State is officially on its holiday break. The Nittany Lions will be idle for more than a month, resuming play on Jan. 6 at Ohio State.

The Buckeyes are off until Dec. 31 when they play host to Miami.

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