Dec. 11, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - Scoring is down, costly mistakes are up and losses are piling up.
It's a deadly combination for any college hockey team and one that's impacted Michigan State for the last six games over the past four weekends.
Against two of the best teams in the CCHA and nation, Miami and Notre Dame, and in a series with improving Ohio State, the Spartans played hard, held their own and found themselves in a position to win almost every game.
But many of the positive stretches in those games were spoiled by mistakes that changed the momentum and sent MSU on a path to defeat - or in one case, a tie.
It happened vs. the RedHawks, Buckeyes and Irish.
Since the Spartans' best game of the season - a 7-2 win over Michigan on Nov. 10 at Munn Arena -- they're 0-5-1 and have lost five games in a row, including two losses, 3-2, 5-1, at Notre Dame last weekend.
"It seems like we're paying the price for every mistake we make,'' MSU second-year coach Tom Anastos said. "We have to clean up these mistakes because right now they're costing us.''
For the most part, the Spartans have competed hard and have been "right there" in maybe all but two or three games this season
But if they don't eliminate their frustrating, crucial mistakes and find a better scoring touch very soon, they're destined for a finish in the bottom half of the CCHA instead of their goal of being among the top five.
With 12 first- year players on the roster - 10 freshmen and two transfers - and usually six or seven rookies and two transfers in the lineup each night, it's been a slow growing process for a team trying to find its identity.
On Nov. 11, the Spartans' record was a very respectable 4-5-1 overall and 3-3-0 in the CCHA. Now, they're 4-10-2 and 3-8-1-0 in league play.
In the past six games, MSU has scored 2, 0, 0, 1, 2 and 1 goals. The Spartans have allowed 2, 2, 1, 3, 3, 5,
Goaltending has been excellent and team defense has kept MSU in contention.
But costly mistakes and poor decisions - such as not clearing the puck out of the defensive zone, coverage issues, turnovers in both zones zone and unnecessary penalties - have doomed this team.
In Saturday's 5-1 loss in South Bend, MSU outplayed the Irish in the first period, but the Spartans failed to clear the puck out of their zone in the final 15 seconds. The Irish kept the puck in the zone at the right point and feasted on the turnover, scoring with eight seconds left.
The Spartans started strong in the second period and created some good chances, but a couple of defensive mistakes led to two quick Irish goals later in the period, and at 3-0, the game was pretty much over.
"I told the guys that they played an excellent first period - maybe our best period of the season,'' Anastos said. "But now we come into the dressing room down 1-0.
"We were playing excellent in the second period and generating good chances. Then we make two big errors and the puck ends up in the back of our net.''
In Friday's 3-2 loss to the Irish, MSU trailed 1-0 after one period and tied it up early in the second on a goal by Brent Darnell. The Spartans then took control of the game and buzzed around the Irish net, but failed to convert.
Then, MSU went on a power play for five minutes and had more good opportunities. With two minutes left in the power play, the Spartans defenseman Jake Chelios took a cross checking penalty and a 26 seconds later defenseman Matt Grassi was sent off for cross checking.
Notre Dame scored on the 4-on-3 power play to go up 2-1 and added another power-play goal with MSU freshman forward David Bondra off for boarding at 16:49 and suddenly it was 3-1 for the Irish.
"We go from being on a 5-minute minute power play to taking a penalty, then another and we lost the momentum," Anastos said. "They get one power-play goal, we take another penalty and they score again.
"There were some good things happening out there but again the mistakes we make overshadow the good things. There's such a slim margin of error that we can't make critical mistakes and expect to overcome them.''
Now it's back to practice and try to get better, smarter and more resourceful for the next game. The Spartans play their last game before the two-week Christmas break against Ferris State at 5 p.m. on Saturday at Munn Arena.
When MSU returns for the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit, Dec. 29-30, there will be 19 games remaining on the schedule - four nonconference games and 15 CCHA contests.
"I don't think anyone on this team is concentrating on our record right now. It's not going to change until we start to make improvements in our game,'' MSU senior forward and assistant captain Anthony Hayes said.
"You look back and take as many lessons as you can but you have to move forward. We have to find a way to eliminate these mistakes so we have an opportunity to win these games.
"Notre Dame is a highly ranked team and we were right there. We outplayed them quite a bit this weekend, but when you're playing a team as good as they are, they'll expose your mistakes.
"We have to stick to the process and work to get better.''
Offensively, the Spartans has been hurt by lack of production from their defense. They miss the presence of former All-American Torey Krug, who was a force at both ends of the rink and always seemed to be on the ice.
The former MSU captain made big plays by setting up goals, scoring goals and skating the puck out of danger in his own zone.
Krug, who turned pro after three seasons at MSU, not only led his team in scoring with 12 goals and 34 points last season, he tied for the CCHA scoring lead with Notre Dame center T.J. Tynan.
But goaltending is a strength. Freshman Jake Hildebrand is MSU's most valuable player at this point. Junior Will Yanakeff (3.88 goals-against average, .869 save percentage) has played OK, but Hildebrand (1.91 GAA, .940 save percentage) has been so good it's tough to get him out of the net. He just needs some offensive support.
With 16 games down and 20 to go, "work in progress" still applies to the Spartans.
But if real progress is to be achieved, improvement must speed up and mistakes decrease.
"We're not going to allow this to frustrate us,'' Anastos said of his team's slide. "We have to get better and show the character we want to have in this program, and continue to compete relentlessly.''