Dec. 28, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
DETROIT - The Christmas break is over. It's back on the ice and back to work for a Michigan State hockey team eager for a much-improved second half of the season.
The first step and challenge is the 49th annual Great Lakes Invitational on Friday and Saturday at Joe Louis Arena.
For five Spartan seniors, the memories of their first GLI are still vivid.
In December, 2009, when Chris Forfar, Anthony Hayes, Kevin Walrod, Dean Chelios and Matt Grassi were freshmen, MSU stormed through the tournament field, routing Michigan Tech, 10-1, in the semifinals and dominating Rensselaer, 6-1, in the final, en route to the Spartans' 12th GLI championship.
"It was great to hoist the banner and win something right away as a freshman,'' Walrod said.
Now, the last GLI is at hand for Forfar, Hayes, Grassi and Walrod, and they'd like to go out as they started - with another title.
For Chelios, who's been sidelined all season with a shoulder injury, he's expected to return next year for a fifth season.
The Spartans (5-10-2 overall, 4-8-1-0 CCHA) open the GLI against No. 7/8 Western Michigan (11-4-1, 8-3-1-1) at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. In the second semifinal, Michigan (6-9-2, 4-7-2-2) faces Michigan Tech (4-10-3, 3-8-3 WCHA) at 7 p.m.
The winners meet for the GLI championship at 7 p.m. on Sunday. The third-place game is at 3:30 p.m.
The Spartans have won three titles in the last 10 years. They've been in the finals in three of the last four seasons and seven of the past 10 tournaments.
"We make it a priority. I think it's important for us to perform well for a variety of reasons,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said of the GLI. "It's the launch of the second half of our season, it's on a big stage that gets lots of attention throughout the state and, because of the history, people pay attention to it across the country.''
Anastos played in four GLIs as a Spartan right wing from 1981-85. As a freshman, the Spartans lost to Michigan Tech in the semifinals and then tied Michigan 4-4 in the third-place game - the only tie in tournament history.
"I remember the three GLIs that we won and I'm disappointed we didn't win the first one,'' Anastos said. "A lot of kids at very young ages go to this tournament, just like I did.''
MSU's seniors came close to making it two championships in three seasons a year ago. The Spartans held a 2-1 lead over Michigan late in the third period of the title game. But a penalty and 6-on-4 edge for the Wolverines, with their goaltender pulled for an extra attacker, led to U-M tying the game with 50 seconds left.
The Wolverines then won it 11 minutes into overtime, 3-2.
"We had a pretty good tournament but let it slip away in the last minute,'' Walrod said. "As a sophomore, we were a little inexperienced and had been struggling and didn't even make it to the finals.''
While Forfar, Chelios and Grassi played in the two victories in 2009 - and each collected points - Hayes missed the two games because of an injury and Walrod also watched from the stands because of an illness.
The Spartans were supposed to play this year's GLI outside at Comerica Park, as part of the NHL's Winter Classic, with the Red Wings playing host to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium on Jan. 1.
But with the NHL and its players involved a long labor dispute, the Winter Classic and all its side festivities were cancelled, and the GLI moved back to Joe Louis Arena. The dates of the tourney also changed - from Thursday and Friday to Saturday and Sunday.
With the players already scheduled to return to campus on Christmas, the Spartans actually got more practice time in preparation for the tournament.
"This is the first time we've come back on Christmas Day,'' Walrod said. "We just had a meat-and-potatoes practice that night, to get the turkey out of us, and then got back to working on our systems and skill plays on Wednesday.
"We'll practice again Thursday in Macomb, with a meet-and-greet with fans, and then skate on Saturday morning at Joe Louis. We just want to get a little better each day and be ready to go.''
The Spartans got a steady diet of playing top 10 teams in the first half of the season with series against Minnesota, Michigan, Miami and Notre Dame. Western Michigan, the only team in the GLI with a winning record and the obvious favorite, is MSU's next elite-level challenge.
The Broncos have a great size and skill on defense, a standout goaltender in sophomore Frank Slubowski, and a speedy, creative group of forwards which has delivered timely goals.
"They play an up-tempo style, defend well, get good goaltending and their defense is solid,'' Anastos said. "A lot of their offense comes from their defense. They're similar to last year's team which won the (CCHA playoff) championship and maybe they're even better.
"We'll have to be at our best to beat them.''
Three defensemen are among WMU's top eight scorers - juniors Dennis Brown (0-9-9) and Dan DeKeyser (2-6-8) and sophomore Garrett Haar (3-3-6).
Senior forward Dane Walters leads the Broncos in scoring with seven goals and six assists for 13 points. Chase Balisy, a junior, is second with six goals and five assists for 11 points. Freshman Kenny Morrison (4-6) and junior Shane Berschbach (2-7) are next with 10 and nine points, respectively.
Slubowski has started all 16 games for WMU, and has a 1.98 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage. The Spartans swept WMU last season in Kalamazoo in November, but Slubowski did not play in either game. That was before he took over the starting job, and led WMU to a share of second place in the CCHA, a league title and a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Walrod and WMU sophomore forward David Killip are from the Kelowa, British Columbia, area, and the Spartan left wing learned a little about the Broncos from Killip.
"From what I know, their coach - Andy Murray - is a demanding coach and runs high-tempo practices. They're a hard-working team, that has some big guys on defense and plays physical,'' Walrod said. "They present a lot of threats all over the ice.
"It'll be a challenge, but coming off a win against Ferris State (two weeks ago), it gives us some confidence. Western is coming off a loss at Michigan and they'll be hungry. But we'll be hungry, too.''
The Spartans ended a six-game winless streak on Dec. 15 with a 3-1 win over the Bulldogs. The Broncos, after beating Michigan, 4-1, in the series opener, got shut out by the Wolverines, 2-0, in their last outing on Dec. 15. The lost ended a six-game winning streak.
GETTING HEALTHY: Junior center Lee Reimer missed MSU's last two games and freshman forward Ryan Keller has not played in the last four contests, both due to upper body injuries. But the two week break has allowed both players to recover and they've been cleared to play in the GLI. Keller was injured against Ohio State on Nov. 30, while Reimer was hurt at Notre Dame on Dec. 7.
LOCAL FLAVOR: David Johnstone shares the Husky scoring lead with forward Alex Petan. Both players have four goals and nine assists for 13 points.
David Johnstone has 10 points in his last eight games, after starting the season with just three points in seven contests. His brother, Jacob Johnstone, has three assists in eight games.
The Huskies started the season at 2-1 but since their upset win over then-No. 1 Minnesota on Oct. 19, MTU is 2-9-3 and is winless in its last seven games (0-4-3).
Tech's best player and top goal-scorer - sophomore forward Blake Pietila - is in Russia with the U.S. team playing in the World Junior Championships. Pietila, who's from Brighton, has 10 goals and two assists for 12 points.
GLI POTPOURRI: The Spartans, who have played in 38 of the 47 Great Lakes Invitationals, have a tourney record of 46-29-1. They've won 12 titles, second only to Michigan's 15. MSU has played in 25 championship games, finishing runner-up 13 times. ... The team with the most victories in the GLI, other than regulars MSU, U-M and Michigan Tech, is Boston University with 6. The Terriers have a 6-4 record in five appearances. .... North Dakota has the most tourney titles, not counting the big three, with two. UND has a 5-1 record and the second-best winning percentage (.833) behind undefeated the University of Toronto (2-0). Toronto won the first GLI in 1965, beating Boston University and Michigan Tech at Olympia Stadium, the tournament home until 1979. ... Michigan Tech won nine titles in the first 16 years of the GLI, but it hasn't skated off as the champion since 1980. .... Western has been in the GLI two times, winning in 1986 and going 0-2 in 1977. ... 13 Spartans have been selected as the GLI most valuable player. They include Bill Watt (1968), Tom Ross (1973), Dale Krentz (1982), Dan McFall (1983), Bob Essensa (1984), Don McSween (1985), Mike Weaver (1997), Mike Gresl (1998), Shawn Horcoff (1999), Ryan Miller (2000), Jim Slater (2004), Bryan Lerg (2006) and Brett Perlini (2009).