Dec. 8, 2013
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - The top-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers put on a clinic on Friday and Saturday at Munn Arena with an impressive display of high-end talent, skill and speed.
Michigan State players were impressed with the way the Gophers play the game, and while the Spartans were overwhelmed at times, they were encouraged by how they competed as a team, how they battled and the lessons they can take away from a challenging weekend.
On Saturday, MSU fell behind 3-0 early in the second period, kept its poise and continued to battle and stay in contention. The Spartans scored a late goal in the second period, but couldn't get another until 0.1 second remained and ended up with a 3-2 loss.
In their first Big Ten series, the Spartans (5-8-1, 0-1-0-1) earned two of six points, thanks to Friday's 2-2 tie and victory in the shootout.
"I think this was huge for our team,'' MSU senior left wing Dean Chelios said. "We've been kind of battling back and forth all year, but to play 5-on-5 with a team like Minnesota means we can play with anybody.
"To come out on Friday and get a shootout win against a team like that was huge. Today (Saturday), we lost by one goal, but we were right in the game with them in the second and third periods.''
Coach Tom Anastos said the series against Minnesota (12-2-2 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) will make the Spartans a better team.
"There were lessons to be learned and we did some good things,'' he said. "We know we can compete at a high level. We have to improve our talent level and skill level and our ability to take our skill and make it better.
"But we have to execute better. I'm talking about simple fundamentals that sometimes we do and sometimes we don't.''
After losing four straight games last month - two at Michigan Tech and one at home and one on the road vs. Western Michigan - MSU has improved over the last two weeks against Princeton and Minnesota.
But there are still a lot of areas in which the Spartans need to improve on, especially moving the puck out of the defensive zone.
"We definitely got better this weekend. I would have liked a little better results but I thought we got better," Anastos said. "I know it's a cliché but we just have to keep working every day to get a bit better.''
For the defense, the emphasis is on transitioning the puck from defense to offense with quick, efficient passes out of the defensive zone. For the forwards, it's getting in position to receive breakout passes and start offensive rushes.
"It's a huge area we need to improve, because that's where your offense starts,'' Anastos said. "We did a pretty good job last week in moving the puck. It was a step up from where we were the week before and the week before that.
"This week, we faced the most talented team that we've played. They can skate, close gaps, give you less time. They forechecked hard and we need to do that at a higher pace.''
Anastos liked the way his team dealt with adversity of losing players for certain periods of time and some other challenges. MSU lost senior center Lee Reimer to an upper body injury in the first period and he never returned.
"We had guys who were in our rotation that had to leave because they lost an edge so we had to adjust (the lines),'' Anastos said. "Reimer has been a pretty consistent player for us and losing him early hurt, but our guys stepped up and tried to do what they could to compensate for that.''
Anastos said Saturday he did not know the extent of Reimer's injury.
Despite not getting a victory against the Gophers, Spartan sophomore defenseman John Draeger's series takeaway was that "we can compete with any team in the country.''
"They're a good team and we were right there with them,'' he said. "They do a lot of things very well but they're definitely beatable. We have to take the momentum of what we did well, that we can skate with any team, and get back after it.''
Greg Wolfe, MSU senior right wing and captain, didn't like the way his team came out in the first period - falling behind 2-0 and getting outshot 17-3 - but liked a lot of other things about the series.
"There's a lot to take out of the weekend. The guys worked hard and we knew we would be up against a good team and we didn't shy away,'' he said. "We got a good result on Friday and after we got down tonight, we still battled. We didn't give up. We were in the game the whole time.''
Hildebrand made 35 saves and came up with one big stop after another to keep his team within striking distance in the second and third periods.
"Our goaltending was strong,'' Coach Tom Anastos said.
Hildebrand, who's played in the last six games, made 44 saves on Friday, not including three shootout stops.
"He was unbelievable,'' Wolfe said. "That's one of the best weekends I've ever seen him play. He did everything he could.''
Meanwhile, Haag added his fifth goal of the season with a power-play goal late in the second period that cut the Gophers' lead to 3-1. He came off the bench, raced into the offensive zone on the right side and took a pass from Dean Chelios and rifled the puck into the net.
Haag has four goals in his last three games, after scoring one in his first 10.
"He's probably goes to the net as well as anybody on our team,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "On Friday, he scored a goal because he went to the net. There was a deflection and he caused a distraction to the goalie and was rewarded.
"He's a big, strong kid, he skates well and is really smart with the puck and he can shoot it. You can see when he has the puck on his stick, he can control the tempo and change it himself. It just happened that we put a freshman group (Haag, Mackenzie MacEachern and Thomas Ebbing) together, and they seem to be feeding off each other. They've been as consistent of a group as we've had all season. Villiam's game keeps getting better each week.''
Anastos said Haag had to get used to a different style of play in college because of what he was used to playing all his life in Sweden.
"They play on a bigger sheet and it's much more of a controlled game,'' he said. "With so many teams in college, it's going end to end, not so much with possession, but with the puck being thrown in the zone and back out the other way. He wasn't used to that. He was used to possession-based hockey.
"But he's adapting very well and getting comfortable with this style.''
UP NEXT: The Spartans will play one more game before the Christmas break. They'll face No. 6/7 Ferris State at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Munn Arena in the annual U.S. Hall of Fame Game. Former MSU coach Ron Mason, who was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame last Monday in Detroit, will be honored at the game.
The Bulldogs (13-2-1 overall, 10-0-2 WCHA) swept Lake Superior State, 5-3, 3-1, this weekend to boost their unbeaten streak to 13 games (11-0-2). FSU, 6-0-1 in its last seven road contests, hasn't lost since Oct. 18 -- a 3-2 defeat at home against St. Lawrence.
Before the Bulldogs play the Spartans, they'll face Michigan on Wednesday in Ann Arbor.
BIG TEN UPDATE: Wisconsin completed a sweep of Penn State with a 4-3 victory on Saturday in Madison, Wis. On Friday, the Badgers topped the Nittany Lions, 7-1. It was Penn State's first Big Ten series and Wisconsin's second. Ohio State and Michigan had the weekend off.