Dec. 12, 2011
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
Two weeks into the season, Michigan State's record stood at 1-3 overall and 0-2 in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
Two losses at Lake Superior State raised some questions as to where the Spartans were headed this season, the first under new coach Tom Anastos.
"We've got a long way to go. We're still learning about this team and what we can do,'' Anastos said on Oct. 16. "We just have to keep working at and get better.''
Two months later, the Spartans are one of the best stories in college hockey, surprising more than few people with a solid 10-6-2 record at the team's halfway point in the season. In CCHA play, MSU is 6-5-1-1.
Anastos wanted a team with a high compete level. He got it.
He wanted a team that would play fast, forecheck with intensity and try to make skilled plays. He got it.
The new coach wanted a team that was capable of staying poised and focused during tough stretches and that could fight back. He got it.
The Spartans have embraced their new coaching staff, their direction, a new style of play and have developed great chemistry.
As a result, they're having a blast.
Who would have thought at the start of the season that MSU would sweep Western Michigan in Kalamazoo? And then split two games at Northern Michigan? Or win and tie against highly skilled Minnesota at Munn Arena?
If you're talking about individuals, how about sophomore center Lee Reimer leading the team in scoring with eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points? Or sophomore right wing Greg Wolfe with five goals and 18 points.
Who would have predicted that senior Mike Merrifield would miss the first four games with an injury and then go out and score eight goals and accumulate 13 points?
Kevin Walrod, a junior left wing, has contributed to the balanced offense with six goals, and so have freshman right wings Matt Berry and Brent Darnell. Berry has five goals and 10 points and Darnell has three goal and eight points.
Then there is this stat: MSU is averaging 3.44 goals a game and that's second in the CCHA and eighth in the nation. A year ago, with basically the same players, the Spartans averaged 2.58 goals a game, 35th in the country.
For sure, the Spartans wouldn't be where they are - tied for sixth in the CCHA with two games in hand on everyone - if it wasn't for the high-level goaltending provided by senior Drew Palmisano and sophomore Will Yanakeff, and an improved defensive corps, led by junior captain Torey Krug and senior Brock Shelgren.
Put it all together, mix it up and you've got a team that's positioned itself for a high finish in the CCHA and even a run at an NCAA Tournament berth.
On Oct. 1, nobody, except for some players dreaming big, would have thought all this would be possible.
However, you don't wrap up high CCHA finishes or NCAA berths in mid-December. That happens in late February and in March. They are still many challenges ahead over the next few months.
The Spartans, who ended the first half of the 36-game regular season, with a 4-3 loss and 3-3 tie (and 1-0 shootout CCHA victory) against Michigan, would probably like to keep playing since they've built up some momentum and seem to be in sync in most areas.
But they certainly deserve a two-week break in which they can finish final exams, and head home for the holidays, see family and friends. And relax.
MSU doesn't play until the 47th annual Great Lakes Invitational at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. The Spartans play Michigan Tech at 4 p.m. on Dec. 29 and Michigan faces Boston College at 7:30 p.m. On Dec. 30, the third-place game is at 4 p.m. and the championship game begins at 7:30 p.m.
"We've really pushed our kids hard and they've worked hard and have done everything we've asked,'' Anastos said. "You lose momentum (by taking a break) but they deserve some time off.''
After their 1-3-0 start, the Spartans never wavered with their attitude and work ethic and improved each week. They went 9-3-2.
"We're pretty happy with how the first half has gone,'' Reimer said. "We had a pretty tough schedule but we worked hard every day, tried our hardest in games and had a lot of good outcomes.
"We think it'll be even better in the second half.''
MSU has a great opportunity to improve its record and move up in the CCHA with six consecutive home games to start January - against Miami, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan.
Since most teams improve in the second half, the challenges will be tougher. The Spartans' six road games and one neutral site contest will be difficult so they'll have to be better than they were in the first two-and-half months.
MSU plays two games each at Ferris State, Ohio State and Notre Dame and one game against Michigan at Joe Louis Arena.
Krug, who has five goals and 12 points, said the team is pleased and energized by its start but is eager to do improve.
"The confidence in the room is really high. We have that expectation to win and have that swagger back,'' he said. "It's a lot of about maturity. Guys are growing into their roles more and more.''
UPCOMING: Anastos said that the players will be free to go home after final exams are completed this week and don't have to report back until Dec. 26. On that night, MSU will hold an evening practice.
The team will practice twice on Dec. 27 and once on Dec. 28 before heading to Detroit for the start of the GLI on Dec. 29.
"We'll give them something like an offseason (workout) program so they'll have some things they can do and think of us every day,'' Anastos said.
Michigan Tech, MSU's tournament-opening opponent, may be even more of a surprise team than the Spartans. The Huskies started the season 6-2-1 and found their way into the top 15 in the polls for a few weeks. Tech, which upset Minnesota, 3-2, in overtime this past Friday, is 9-8-1 overall and 6-7-1 in the WCHA.
The Huskies, who swept Wisconsin and won and tied against Denver early in the season, are coached by former longtime Michigan assistant Mel Pearson, who took over the program last summer.
Former MSU forward Damon Whitten (1997-2001) is an assistant coach at Michigan Tech. He served as director of operation and video coach at MSU for two seasons before moving north in June, 2010.
One way or another, the Spartans will play a team they've seen before in their second GLI game - the championship or third-place contest against either Boston College or Michigan.
MSU opened the season with a 5-2 loss against the Eagles on Oct. 7 in the Icebreaker Tournament in Grand Forks, N.D. The game was tied 2-2 before BC pulled away with three goals in the last eight minutes of the third period.
CCHA VIEW: With the two points the Spartans earned from their tie and shootout win agains the Wolverines, MSU climbed into a tie for sixth place in the CCHA with 20 points apiece. Of course, the Spartans have played only 12 league games, while the 10 other teams have played 14.
MSU is 12 points behind first-place Ohio State (32 points) and seven in back of second place Notre Dame (27) and Western Michigan (27). LSSU is fourth (23) points and FSU is fifth (22).
Meanwhile, Michigan and Miami end the first half of CCHA play near the bottom of the league. The Wolverines are eighth (19 points), one point behind MSU, and the RedHawks (18) are in ninth place.
STATS AT THE BREAK: Lee Reimer is second in the CCHA in overall scoring with 22 points (8-15) in 18 games, five behind Notre Dame's T.J. Tynan, who has 27 points (7-20) in 20 games. Reimer's 14 assists rank second. Greg Wolfe is 8th with 17 (5-12) points.
Torey Krug (5-7) and Matt Crandell (2-10) are tied for 8th in CCHA defensemen scoring with 12 points apiece. Crandell, who had a goal on Friday and assist on Saturday vs. Michigan, has two goals and six assists for eight points in his last eight games. As a sophomore, he had 12 points - one goal and 11 assists.
The Spartans' penalty killers did not give up a power-play goal against Michigan, killing all three opportunities. In CCHA play, MSU has the best penalty killing percentage - 90.2 percent.
MSU went 3-for-5 on the power play against U-M and is tied for second in CCHA games with LSSU at 20 percent efficiency.