Neil’s Notebook: Haag Looks to Continue Success Against Minnesota
Neil Koepke previews the Big Ten opening series vs. Minnesota at Munn.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING – There’s something about playing the Minnesota Golden Gophers that opens the door for Michigan State senior right wing Villiam Haag to be a productive player.
Haag is the Spartans’ highest scorer against Minnesota. He has six goals and three assists for nine points in 12 games over the last three seasons.
The 6-foot-1, 204-pounder from Gothenburg, Sweden, isn’t sure why he’s had success against the Gophers. But he does know that he enjoys the challenge of playing Minnesota – at Munn Arena or Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s because I like the way they play. They play a very skilled game with a lot of speed, and that’s the game I was used to playing back home in Sweden,’’ Haag said about his impact against the Gophers.
“So, maybe my way of playing fits playing against them. It’s been a mix of hard work, some lucky bounces and where you can get the puck and score. Maybe I’ve learned to read (their game) better than the American way.
“They have a way to play and defend and if you read their play good, you have options.’’
Haag will try to help his team extend its unbeaten streak to four and five games this weekend when the Spartans (4-6-1) open the Big Ten season with a home series against the No. 11 Gophers (7-5-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) at 6:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Munn Arena. The Big Ten Network will televise both games.
Minnesota is a highly skilled, fast, up-tempo team which works hard to gain possession of the puck and is quick to attack the offensive zone. If the Gophers lose the puck and get caught with forwards or even a defenseman down low in their offensive zone, they’re vulnerable to counterattacks.
At times, the Spartans and other teams have taken advantage of odd-man rushes and open space to create and finish scoring chances.
“I know my abilities and I know I can compete with the best players so playing against good teams brings out the best in me,’’ Haag said. “You have to play hard and be at your best against them.’’
Over the last five seasons, the Spartans are only 3-9-4 against Minnesota, but they’ve often been very competitive and pulled out an occasional victory or tie, including last season’s surprising 5-0 win over the Gophers to earn a series split in early March at Munn Arena.
“We know they’re a good team so we have to defend well, and it’s a cliché but the best offense is a good defense,’’ Haag said. “If we start strong in our zone, then we’ll get to keep the puck more, and we’ve been keeping it and shooting it a lot more and making the small plays that create big things.
“When we do that, that makes it hard for them to play against us.’’
Haag this season is tied with freshman left wing Taro Hirose for second in team scoring with three goals and four assists for seven points in 11 games. He’s been playing on a line with freshman center Sam Saliba and freshmen left wing Logan Lambdin.
Haag is stationed in front of the net, trying to screen the goaltender and be in position for rebounds and to battle for loose pucks, using his size and strength.
It’s made for a fun and rewarding first two months of the season for Haag.
“It’s always fun to be here. It’s a great place,” he said. “But when hockey goes well, it’s such a big part of your life that is affected. When it goes well on the ice, you feel so much better off the ice. It’s been a good time and I’m trying to get the best out of my last year.’’
Haag is certainly off to a very good start, and Coach Tom Anastos sees Haag playing a major role all season. And he’d love to see him continue his productivity against the Gophers.
“His play is very important to us. As a senior, players get more ice time, both in even-strength and power-play situations,’’ Anastos said. “He has had a level of success in the past against Minnesota. “From my own playing experience, that always bodes well when you are playing a team you have had success against. You just feel good about it. I don’t know where his numbers split, whether it’s been at home or on the road, because growing up in Sweden, he played on the big sheet of ice (Olympic size, 100 feet wide as opposed to 85 feet at most North American rinks).
“And at Minnesota, they have the big ice sheet. I think since his freshman year, some of his best games have been against Minnesota.’’
SCOUTING THE GOPHERS: Minnesota has looked outstanding at times and very ordinary at other times. The Gophers (7-5-2, 1-1 Big Ten) have had some impressive games – a 5-5 tie and 3-0 win at home against North Dakota, a 5-2 win at Boston College, a 4-3 victory in overtime at Clarkson and last Friday’s 5-3 decision over Ohio State.
But then there have been some frustrating losses – getting swept in early October by St. Cloud State, 6-5 in overtime at home and 3-2 on the road (squandering three-goal lead in the first game and a two-goal edge in the second), losing 6-4 at Northeastern after leading 4-2 after two periods, and of course, last Saturday’s 8-3 drubbing at the hands of Ohio State at home.
While there are lots of questions about this team, there’s so much talent, skill, speed and depth that once the Gophers find their way and get in sync as most expect, they should be in contention for their fourth straight Big Ten regular season title and most likely will be in the hunt for the NCAA championship.
“They arguably may be as good a team as we’ve played this season or even better,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “Denver is a real good team, North Dakota is too, and Michigan Tech is good. But Minnesota may be the best we’ve seen so far in terms of depth and talent level. They’ve played a difficult schedule. They haven’t had many soft weekends.
“Minnesota always has a good power play and our penalty kill has been up and down. It started slow and it’s gotten better but it needs to really have a good weekend to give us a chance for success. Their power play is dynamic. They have two good units.’’
Minnesota’s power play is converting on 22.6 percent (14-for-62) of its chances, 9th in the nation.
Offensively, the Gophers are led by sophomore Tyler Sheehy (9-11-20), seniors Vinni Lettieri (6-8-14) and Justin Kloos (6-7-13), junior Mike Szmatula (5-8-13), senior defenseman Jake Bischoff (2-11-13), sophomore Tommy Novak (4-7-11) and freshman Rem Pitlick (1-10-11). Sheehy is the third-leading scorer in the Big Ten.
Goalie Eric Schierhorn, a sophomore, is 7-5-2, with a 3.06 goals-against average and an .882 saves percentage.
Minnesota is averaging 3.57 goals per game (10th nationally) and allowing 3.21 (41st).
The Gophers have six players with five goals or more in 14 games.
Minnesota has 13 NHL draft picks on its roster, including eight defensemen. One of those d-men, standout freshman Ryan Lindgren, will sit out Friday’s game with a one-game suspension for an illegal hit on an Ohio State player late last Saturday. Lindgren, a U.S. NTDP product and a 2016 draft pick (2nd round, 49th overall) by the Boston Bruins, will be eligible to play in Saturday’s game.
“Minnesota was picked to win our league (in the pre-season coaches’ poll) and be in (NCAA) contention, so it’s an important series for us,” Anastos said. “It’s an important measuring stick to see how far we’ve come from the start of the season to now.
“We know we’re not a finished product. We’re a work in progress. When you’re playing a good team, you like to see how you measure up.
“It’s important that our compete level is very high. And we have to continue to understand and execute the structure of our game, and we have to raise our game another level from where it’s been.’’
The Spartans face their second huge challenge in three weekends, after dealing with North Dakota two weeks ago in Grand Forks and coming away with a 4-3 victory and 2-2 tie.
Once again, goaltending, defense and penalty killing will be tested by the Gophers, who should be in a foul mood after suffering an embarrassing 8-3 loss to Ohio State last Saturday.
“They’re fast, skilled and they like to transition quick and attack right off the rush,’’ MSU senior defenseman Rhett Holland. “They’re very similar to North Dakota. Maybe not as physical but they’ll be even faster.’’
Holland said when the Spartans have played the Gophers close and emerged with a victory here and there over the last few seasons, it’s because “we’ve made it so that we were a hard team to play against.’’
“We were physical, in their face all night, we kept it simple and didn’t try to play their game,’’ Holland said. “We stuck to our game and it was about getting pucks to the net and getting dirty goals.’’
“We have to come out with the mentality of winning and doing what we’ve been doing,’’ Ebbing said. “It seems like every time we play Minnesota, we up our game a little. With this being the first two games of the Big Ten season, all the guys are excited to get into conference play. It’s a good rivalry.
“It’s the same every year. You need all things going – four lines, six defensemen and goalies playing well. We have to shut down their top lines but their top lines go deep. We have to come out and play our best game in all areas.’’
Coach Don Lucia is in his 18th season at Minnesota and just won his 700th game as a head coach with the victory at Boston College on Nov. 27. Now in his 30th season as a head coach, Lucia, a Notre Dame graduate, has a career record of 701-379-99. He also coached at Alaska Fairbanks and Colorado College.
At Minnesota, Lucia, 58, has won two NCAA championships, been in the Frozen Four five times and led his team to the NCAA Tournament 12 times in 17 seasons.
THE RIVALRY: The Gophers hold a 110-45-15 lead over the Spartans in a series that started with a 5-0 Minnesota home victory on Feb. 15, 1928. The teams didn’t resume the series until the 1949-50 season. Other MSU vs. Minnesota notable notes:
• Last season, the Gophers swept MSU 5-2 and 3-1 in mid-January in Minneapolis, but the teams split at Munn Arena in early March with Minnesota winning the series opener, 4-2, and the Spartans dominating the second game, 5-0, with goalie Jake Hildebrand earning a shutout in his last victory at MSU. • The last time Michigan State swept Minnesota was on Feb. 6-7, 1976, at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. The Spartans won 4-2 and 5-4 in overtime. Amo Bessone was coaching Michigan State and Herb Brooks was behind the Gophers’ bench.
• The Spartans have never swept the Gophers at Munn Arena. The last time MSU earned a series sweep against Minnesota at home was at Demonstration Hall on Jan. 5-6, 1973. The Spartans won 6-2, 3-1. MSU did win (4-3) and tie (4-4) vs. the Gophers at Munn Arena on Nov. 25-26, 2011.
• It’s not an official statistic but it’s believed that Minnesota’s Don Lucia is the only coach to bring three different college teams to play the Spartans at Munn Arena. He’s done it with Alaska Fairbanks, Colorado College and Minnesota.
INJURY ISSUES: Junior defenseman Carson Gatt suffered a lower body injury against the U.S. U-18 team last Sunday and will definitely miss this weekend’s series against Minnesota. He could return next Sunday (Dec. 18) against Northeastern but he also could be out until the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit, Dec. 29-30. In addition, freshman defenseman Butrus Ghafari is suffering from upper respiratory issues and his status is uncertain for this weekend. So, the Spartans will turn to freshmen Damian Chrcek or Anthony Scarsella to take Gatt’s spot, or both if Ghafari is unable to play. “Going into the Big Ten opener and Minnesota in particular, having (Gatt’s) experience back there, that would have been incredibly valuable,’’ Anastos said. “He’ll get healthy but we could have used his experience.’’ Both Chrcek and Scarsella played for MSU against the U.S. Under-18 team. Both have played in four regular-season games.
STENGLEIN FINDS A SPOT: Senior forward JT Stenglein played in the first three games of the season, then was a healthy scratch for the next four. He returned to the lineup for the Ferris State series and has now played in four straight games. He’s been on an all-senior unit, playing left wing with center Thomas Ebbing and right wing Joe Cox, the team captain. “JT started slow at the beginning of the season and had a hard time working his way into the lineup,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “I think he’s worked really hard. He doesn’t have the numbers to show for it but I don’t see that as a big negative. “I’d rather see his quality of game be high and points will follow.’’ Stenglein has no points in seven games. Last season, Stenglein was the team’s fourth-leading scorer with eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 34 games. “Where he needs to focus on is his body of work in all facets of his game,’’ Anastos said.
ANOTHER NO. 1 VS. NO. 2: For the second time this season, there’s another spotlight series matching the top two-ranked teams in the nation.
This time, Minnesota-Duluth (10-2-2, 7-1) is ranked No. 1 and playing at No. 2 Denver (11-2-3, 5-0-3) in a National Collegiate Hockey Conference series on Friday and Saturday. On Oct. 29-30, Minnesota-Duluth was ranked No. 2 when it played host to No. 1 North Dakota. The Bulldogs swept the Fighting Hawks, 5-2, 3-0, and took over the top spot for a week before losing it to Denver and then regaining it on Nov. 28. Denver, which swept MSU in a pair of close games (2-1, 3-1) in late October, hasn’t lost in 14 games (11-0-3). UMD has won seven of its last eight games, with its only loss coming at home against Western Michigan (2-0) on Nov. 12.
IN THE BIG TEN: The only other teams in action this weekend are Michigan and Wisconsin. They face each other in a Big Ten series in Ann Arbor on Friday and Saturday. This is the first time since 1997 that Wolverines (6-7-1) and Badgers (7-6-1) are facing each other in the regular season with neither team ranked in the top 20 in the polls.
Wisconsin is making its conference season debut, while Michigan is playing its second series, after getting swept last weekend at Penn State, 6-1, 5-1. After this weekend, both teams are idle until after Christmas.
No. 10 Ohio State (9-2-4, 1-1) and No. 3 Penn State (13-1-1) are off this weekend and don’t play again until New Year’s Eve for the Buckeyes and Jan. 6 for the Nittany Lions.
A pair of freshmen lead the Big Ten in scoring. Penn State forward Denis Smirnov, who’s from Moscow, Russia, leads the conference with 10 goals and 17 assists for 27 points. Ohio State forward Tanner Laczynski, who’s from Shorewood, Ill., is second with six goals and 16 assists for 22 points.
Minnesota sophomore forward Tyler Sheehy is third with nine goals and 11 assists for 20 points in 14 games. Senior Nick Schilkey of Ohio State is No. 4 with a league-leading 13 goals and six assists for 19 points. Wisconsin senior Grant Besse is fifth with seven goals and 10 assists for 17 points.
Penn State junior Trevor Hamilton and Ohio State senior Josh Healey are the top scoring defensemen with 15 points apiece. Hamilton has three goals and 12 assists, while Healey has two goals and 13 assists.
Penn State freshman goalie Peyton Jones has the lowest goals-against average at 1.97 and the best saves percentage at .920. Minnesota’s Eric Schierhorn leads in shutouts with three.