Neil's Notebook: Spartans Begin Big Ten Play in Solid Fashion
Dec. 7, 2013
By Neil Koepke
The combination, along with a hard-nosed, gritty effort by several other Michigan State players, made for an excellent Big Ten debut by the Spartans against the No. 1 team in the nation.
Haag's goal and assist and standout goaltending by Hildebrand, who made season-high 46 saves, helped MSU hold off the highly skilled and speedy Minnesota Gophers and earn a 2-2 tie, before thrilling the 5,921 fans at Munn Arena with a 1-0 victory in the shootout.
Just like in the CCHA the last few seasons, a team that wins in regulation earns three points, a shootout win is worth two and the losing team in the shootout skates away with a single point. An overtime loss, unlike in the NHL, is just like a regulation defeat - No points for you!
The Spartans (5-7-1 overall, 0-0-1-1 Big Ten) were back on their heels during different parts of Friday's series opener, but they kept battling, got some great saves from Hildebrand and had some good puck luck when Minnesota misfired on several point-blank opportunities.
The Gophers (11-2-2 overall, 2-0-1-0 Big Ten) outshot the Spartans, 46-33, and with their tremendous pucks skills, speed and relentless pressure were dangerous just about every time they entered the MSU zone.
But without Hildebrand and Spartan forwards and defensemen blocking 24 shots, Michigan State wouldn't have been celebrating a shootout victory. Defensemen John Draeger, RJ Boyd and Brock Krygier led MSU with five, four and three blocked shots, respectively.
In the shootout, Hildebrand stopped all three of Minnesota's shooters, while MSU sophomore Michael Ferrantino, who shot first, was the only goal scorer, and that gave MSU the extra point.
"That was crazy. Starting the Big Ten season like that is an unbelievable feeling,'' said Hildebrand, 0-2 in shootouts last season as a freshman.
"They're very skilled, they moved the puck very well and got a lot of great chances,'' he said of the Gophers. It was a battle the whole game. They're always moving.''
Hildebrand gave up two goals, had a lot of close calls, but had his game at a high level all night. His defense was under siege quite often, but it kept working hard to give MSU a chance to win. Just like Hildebrand with four final seconds left in overtime, when he made a pad save in the crease and the rebound was cleared just a second before the extra period ended.
MSU got a break when Minnesota's Kyle Rau stole the puck at the MSU blue line, skated in and let go with a shot that hit the right post with 30 seconds left in the third period.
In the second period and the game tied, 1-1, the Gophers went on a power play and kept the puck in the Spartans zone for more than two minutes.
Freshman forwards Joe Cox and Thomas Ebbing and defensemen Boyd and Draeger never left the ice. Minnesota had three shots on goal, Spartan defenders blocked four shots and several shots were off target.
"Our defense let me see a lot of pucks and didn't give them too many tough shots,'' Hildebrand. "Our forwards and defense blocked a lot of shots. Cox and Ebbing got stuck out there (on the power play) and they were phenomenal.''
Hildebrand made double-digit saves the first three periods - 13-15-11 and five more in overtime. Minnesota goalie Adam Wilcox stopped 15 shots in the first period, only three in the second, nine in the third and made four saves in the hectic overtime.
"Hildy played really well. There were a lot of scrambles but he made some big saves throughout the game,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "I thought he was attacking the puck very well, and he looked confident in the shootout.''
When the Gophers took a 2-1 lead on a power-play goal 51 seconds into the third period, on a shot by Justin Kloos that glanced off the right leg of MSU defenseman Jake Chelios and caromed into the net, Hildebrand said he was still confident his team would rebound.
"After the way we scored last week, I had confidence in our forwards and I'd thought we'd get another (goal),'' Hildebrand said.
The remaining 14 minutes of regulation time and five minutes of overtime were scoreless.
That meant the winner of the shootout would skate off with two points and the loser with one.
After Ferrantino scored on Wilcox with his usual move of skate in close, fake right, pull the puck back and shoot it between the goalie's legs.
Meanwhile, Minnesota's nifty junior center Rau came in close, and fired a shot low to the stick side that Hildebrand blocked. After MSU's Greg Wolfe was stopped by Wilcox, the Gophers' Sam Warning also tried to go low blocker but was repelled by Hildebrand.
Haag could have clinched the shootout but his shot from the slot deflected off of Wilcox's shoulder, so it came down to Minnesota freshman Taylor Cammarata, who scored the first goal of the game, to keep the shootout going.
Cammarata raced in from right to left and went high to Hildebrand's glove side, but the Spartan goaltender made a shoulder save, with the puck deflecting over the net, touching off a celebration along the boards to Hildebrand's right.
"Cammarata scored on me in juniors with the same move but this time he shot it high to the glove side,'' he said. "I was kind of cheating that way. The first two are skilled forwards and tried to go low blocker.''
The Spartans will try for their first Big Ten victory in the series finale against the Gophers at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Munn Arena.
"They're a very talented team and on Saturday, it's going to be tougher than tonight,'' Anastos said. "We did shorten our bench in the third period and played mostly five defensemen.
"It's a quick turnaround (starting at 4 p.m. instead of the usual 7 p.m.) but these guys are young and they should be a resilient group.''
BIG TEN FIRST: Ferrantino made Big Ten history on Friday as the first player to take a shot in a league shootout, and he's the first person to score and have his shootout goal stand as the winner.
"I didn't even think about that,'' he said. "I was excited going down the ice. It was a lot of fun. I was just trying to make sure I had a good fake on before the shot. "Between the Minnesota being No. 1 and this being the Big Ten opener, we really needed to win tonight.''
Well, it wasn't exactly a win but Spartan fans weren't complaining.
HAAG DELIVERS: Freshman forward Villiam Haag, who had two goals in last Sunday's win over Princeton, set up MSU's first goal on Friday and scored six minutes into the third period to lift his team into a 2-2 tie. He had a team-high five shots on goal.
Haag now has four goals and three assists for seven points, which is fifth in team scoring.
On MSU's first goal, he took advantage of a turnover by Gophers defenseman Mike Reilly at the left point and raced down the ice with linemate Mackenzie MacEachern, on what started as a 2-on-0. But two Gophers were in hot pursuit and Haag, noticing MacEachern building up speed, smartly slid the puck ahead to his hard-charging teammate and followed, effectively blocking out at least one trailing Gopher.
MacEachern drove to the net and deftly went to his backhand and flipped the puck over goalie Wilcox's left shoulder for his sixth goal of the season.
"Villiam made a really nice play. He knew he was going to give the puck to MacEachern,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "Villiam was kind of shielding him and then Mac made a good play to score the goal.''
When Haag scored the tying goal in the third period, he was being double-shifted and playing on a line with seniors Lee Reimer and Greg Wolfe. Reimer and Wolfe drew assists on the goal from the edge of the crease.
"We were trying to find guys who were really going and we had to establish some offensive attack and forecheck so we could give our defense some relief from the time period when we were hemmed in our zone,'' Anastos said.
"We were giving MacEachern more ice time with Reimer and Wolfe and I thought instead of piling on the time for Mac, I'd use Villiam, too. He's capable of playing the off (left) wing.''
On the tying goal, Haag, Wolfe and Reimer cruised into the Minnesota zone on a 3-on-2 rush. Haag went to the net and got rewarded with a good bounce and the puck ended up on his stick, and he just tapped it between Wilcox's legs and it slid slowly over the goal line.
Defenseman Rhett Holland actually started the play when he picked up the puck along the boards in his own zone and in front of the Spartan bench. He fed Wolfe with a crisp, cross-ice pass on the far right side.
Wolfe carried the puck over the visitor's blue line, cut to the middle, dropped the puck between his legs back to Reimer, who tried to feed it back to Wolfe in the slot. But the Gophers' Cammarata reached out and tipped the puck right to Haag at the left edge of the crease and Haag found the net.
The goal was reviewed by the officials and it stood.
"I didn't think I kicked it. It just went off my stick,'' Haag said. "It was a lucky bounce but when you're around the goal, that happens.''
After a slow start, Haag is getting better with each game, and his line, with MacEachern and center Thomas Ebbing, has become a solid offensive force.
"I have my confidence up and I like to shoot as much as I can,'' Haag said. "It's about really hard work. Everybody is getting into and we just have to keep it going. "When I came in here, I didn't know much about the other teams but to get a shootout win like this against Minnesota, after a so-so start (to the season), it's a great feeling.''
Haag said he felt a different atmosphere in the building, with Minnesota as the opposition in the first Big Ten contest.
"I think the crowd was almost 6,000 and the energy was high going into the new (conference) season,'' he said. We played the No. 1 team and the feeling in the building was amazing. A big thanks to our crowd. This was fun.''
CLUTCH SAVE: Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox didn't have to make many tough saves but he did have to be alert during some Spartan flurries. With nine minutes left in the third period and the game tied 2-2, Wilcox had to make a huge save on MSU's Michael Ferrantino's quick backhander from the slot. Ferrantino had three shots on goal and was a dominant 14-2 on faceoffs.
LESSONS LEARNED: Although the shootout victory and two points in conference play were the important aspects during an exciting night, coach Tom Anastos looked at the game as a valuable learning tool in making the Spartans better.
"I consider it a tie game and a shootout win. But I'm more concerned about our team learning what it takes to compete against a really good team, on a consistent basis and execute on a high level,'' he said. "Sometimes we did that tonight, sometimes we didn't. Everything we do is to improve our program and the biggest way to do it is to improve as a team. The guys got a valuable experience tonight.''
The Spartans were challenged in just about every area. Hildebrand had to bring his game to a high level, the defense had to withstand intense forechecking and dangerous rushes from elite-level forwards and some gifted defensemen.
"It was a good first step forward from our guys, just from a compete standpoint,'' Anastos said. "Our defense was forced to compete hard, given how talented Minnesota's forwards are.
"Our confidence is starting to grow. We're seeing some things we've been working on all season starting to take place, but we just need it with more regularity and consistency.
"When we do execute well, we'll see our game come together. When we don't, clearly things will be difficult. The only way you get confidence is if you start having some success.''
IN THE BIG TEN: Penn State made its Big Ten debut on Friday but didn't have as much fun as the Spartans. The Nittany Lions (3-8-1 overall, 0-1 Big Ten) suffered a 7-1 loss at Wisconsin (5-5-1, 1-2). The two teams meet again on Saturday.
Michigan (10-2-1, 2-0) and Ohio State (8-6, 0-2) are idle this weekend. After Saturday's Big Ten series finales, the next conference games are not until Jan. 9-10.
After the Great Lakes Invitational on Dec. 27-28 at Comerica Park in Detroit, the Spartans will play 18 straight Big Ten games, not including an exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 team at Munn Arena on March. 1.
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