Dec. 16, 2013
BY Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - It wasn't Michigan State's worst game of the year. But it was frustrating nonetheless.
The Spartans on Saturday had all sorts of opportunities to create good offensive chances in the first and second periods, with three power plays in each period. But Ferris State's penalty killers and MSU's inability to find a way to get quality scoring chances doomed the Spartans' bid for a nonconference victory over the No. 4-ranked Bulldogs.
Michigan State had six power plays for 11 minutes of play and managed only three shots on goal as FSU claimed a 2-0 victory in front of an announced crowd of 5,737 at Munn Arena.
For 61 seconds in the second period, the Spartans held a 5-on-3 advantage but failed to threaten.
Five-on-five, MSU wasn't much better as it managed only 12 shots on goaltender C.J. Motte, who finished with 16 saves and earned his second shutout of the Spartans in the last two seasons. One of Motte's saves came when his team on a power play. It was the third time the Michigan State has been shut out this season.
"We're trying to find guys that are comfortable in that situation and we're limited in what we have available,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said of his team's power play. "They're a good penalty-killing team, but we didn't show enough poise and make good decisions with the puck. We were forcing it.''
The Spartans (5-9-1 overall, 0-1-1- Big Ten) were hampered on the power play and at even strength by the absence of center Lee Reimer and defenseman Travis Walsh, due to injuries. Forward Matt Berry, MSU's top scorer a year ago, is trying to get his conditioning back after missing training camp and the first eight games of the season due to a lower-body injury.
Reimer and Walsh are sidelined with upper-body injuries.
"Matt Berry is a capable power-play player but he's not game-ready enough to be out there because he can't log that much ice time,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "We're not deep enough to overcome those types of things. Reimer is an important guy, Walsh is out and so it's a struggle for us right now.
"The guys that are out there are trying the best they can. They're working at it. We're asking some people to do some things that maybe are outside their comfort zone.''
MSU managed just six shots on goal in the first period, three in the second and seven in the third. The Spartans created only two or three high-quality scoring chances and arguably two came late in the third period with FSU holding a 2-0 lead. Brett Darnell led the Spartans with five shots on goal, almost one-third of his team's shots that hit the net. Villiam Haag had three.
MSU had 24 shots blocked by Bulldog defenders and 17 shots were off target.
Despite the lack of offense, Anastos felt his team worked hard and didn't let their frustrations get to them.
"As ugly as the game looked from up top, I liked the way our guys stayed together. We didn't have guys going off on their own, outside of what we were trying to do,'' Anastos said. "Ferris plays a very patient game. They force you to go through them. It's a good defensive game and especially (effective) on the road.
"When they were able to get the lead, it makes it tougher because they don't have to get off their game and take chances.''
MSU gave up a goal off a turnover midway through the first period and a goal while shorthanded early in the second. But other than that, the Spartans didn't give up many scoring chances all night.
Goalie Jake Hildebrand made 20 saves and his teammates blocked 25 shots. "For us, it was a matter of scoring that first goal, to maybe open things up, get the crowd into the game and build some momentum,'' Anastos said.
"Despite our inability to do that, I still liked how our team stayed together. You saw it right down to the end, when we stayed together and tried to create some good chances, with our goalie pulled.
"We've played two teams in the top four in the country (No. 1 Minnesota and No. 4 FSU, and we're getting better. We didn't get the results we wanted but I think we're getting better.''
One area in which the Spartans can raise their level is execution. Sometimes, MSU has trouble putting more than two good passes together. Sometimes, they make better plays. Consistency is a major goal as this team approaches the 2014 part of the season.
"Where we can better is our execution of the little plays,'' Anastos said. "Our execution can improve a great deal. It's about simple plays in moving the puck up the ice. We need to make those plays in advancing it up the ice.''
Ferris State (14-2-3 overall, 10-0-2) boosted its unbeaten streak to 15 games (12-0-3). The Bulldogs haven't lost since Oct. 18 -- 3-2 against St. Lawrence at home. FSU was 2-2 at that point and has been on a tear ever since.
"They're really aggressive on the penalty kill,'' said MSU captain and senior right wing Greg Wolfe, who played center on Saturday. They get to the puck quick and when it stops, they have three guys right on top of you and a fourth waiting for the puck to come loose.
"It's hard. You can't send five guys down low. They won more battles. With all that congestion, it's kind of hard to get the puck out with control and make the play to the guy at the point.
"They block everything. That team is probably one of the best in the country at doing that. That's why they're as good as they are. Every single guy is committed to getting in front of shots. They have a good goaltender, and the shots that do get through, he blocks, and has good rebound control.''
As hard as they tried, the Spartans could not establish a strong forecheck in the Bulldogs' zone or effectively carry the puck into the FSU end. Rarely did MSU have an odd-man rush. Rarely did it get a forward open in the dangerous scoring areas. "It was frustrating. We would dump the puck in and their first man back would rim the puck around (the boards), and so you couldn't sustain control,'' Wolfe said. "When we did get the puck, they're good at plugging the lanes. That's the way they play and they're successful.''
UP NEXT: After a week-and-a-half break for Christmas, the Spartans will reassemble on Christmas night for an evening practice, then head to Detroit afterward for the Great Lakes Invitational at Comerica Park in Detroit.
The Spartans play Michigan Tech at 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 27, followed by Michigan and Western Michigan at 7 p.m. The third-place game is at 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 28, with the championship game set for at 7 p.m.
The Spartans will be the first team to practice on the outdoor ice at Comerica Park. They'll be on the ice at 9 a.m. on Dec. 26.
The Huskies (6-9-5), are coming off a 3-2 loss and 4-4 tie against Bowling Green on Friday and Saturday in Houghton.
Michigan Tech swept MSU, 3-0, 3-2 in overtime in a non-conference series on Nov. 8-9 in Houghton.
"We know they're a pretty gritty team but I thought in our second game up there, that was a pretty good game for us,'' Wolfe said of the Huskies. "I think we figured it out.
"There will be a lot of excitement in Detroit. We have a lot of guys who grew up in Michigan watching the GLI, so there won't be any need for extra incentive to play in those games.''
Anastos said the break will allow both Walsh and Reimer to recover from their injuries and be ready to go for the GLI. That will add to the depth on both the blue line and up front, and for sure with special teams.
"We're pretty banged up right now,'' Anastos said. "We need to get healthy and the break will help.''
After the GLI, the Spartans will get more time off. They won't play on Jan. 3-4, but will return to resume Big Ten play with a series at Ohio State, Jan. 10-11. A week later, Jan. 17-18, MSU plays its next home games with a two-game series against Penn State.
15 DOWN, 20 TO GO: Michigan State still isn't at the halfway point of the season, but it's pretty close. Two nonconference and 18 Big Ten games remain on the regular-season schedule.
Despite going 0-2-1 over the last two weekends against previously-No. 1 Minnesota and No. 4 Ferris State, the coaches and players believe the team is making progress. "We've gained a ton of experience so far,'' Wolfe said. "Our freshmen have stepped up and they're contributing every night. We're going through some injures, but it's good to have a break and they'll come back after Christmas and be ready to go.
"Experience is the best thing for us. We're taking steps toward finding that identity and getting better. Obviously, we didn't like the result tonight but we're seeing things evolve.
"It's a process when you have this many young players - freshmen and sophomores.'' There's still two-and-a-half months left in the Big Ten's regular season, before the conference tournament in St. Paul, Minn., and Anastos expects the experiences of the first half to benefit the team in the weeks ahead.
"We have to be patient and allow guys to improve and grow in experience and confidence,'' Anastos said.
IN THE BIG TEN: The only other Big Ten team in action over the weekend was Wisconsin, and the Badgers completed a sweep of Colorado College on Saturday with a 4-3 victory in overtime. Wisconsin trailed 2-0 after one period, took a 3-2 lead in the second, only to see the Tigers tie it late in the third period. The Badgers won it just 1:41 into overtime on a goal by Tyler Barnes.
On Friday, Wisconsin topped Colorado College, 4-1.
Michigan, which tied Ferris State 2-2 on Thursday, resumes play in the GLI. Wisconsin plays host to Alabama-Huntsville, Dec. 27-28, and Mercyhurst visits Ohio State, Dec. 28-29.
Penn State plays Robert Morris in the Three Rivers Classic at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh on Dec. 27. The Nittany Lions play either Boston College or Bowling Green in the championship or third-place game on Dec. 28.
Minnesota plays its next game against Colgate on Jan. 3 in the first round of the Mariucci Classic in Minneapolis. The Gophers will meet Ferris State or Rensselaer in the finals or third-place game on Jan. 4.
All six Big Ten teams resume conference play the second weekend in January. In addition to MSU visiting Ohio State, Michigan is at Wisconsin on Jan. 10-11 while Minnesota is at Penn State, Jan. 12-13.