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Neil’s Notebook: Final GLI at The Joe Awaits Spartans

Dec. 28, 2016

By Neil Koepke staff writer

DETROIT – Three of the four teams in the 52nd Great Lakes Invitational have won the tournament championship over the last four years.

Michigan won it the last two seasons. Western Michigan skated off as the champion in 2013 and Michigan Tech reigned in 2012.

The only team not to experience the thrill of a GLI title during this time frame is Michigan State.

And the Spartans are eager to be the answer to a future trivia question:

Who won the last GLI title in the final season at Joe Louis Arena, one of the most famous hockey buildings in the United States and Canada?

For the answer to be Michigan State, the Spartans will have to play of their best games of the season and hope they’re good enough to produce victories over Western Michigan in the semifinals and Michigan Tech or Michigan in the final.

“This is definitely something I want to cross off my checklist in my four years here,’’ Spartans senior captain Joe Cox said of winning the GLI. “This is my last shot and the last shot at The Joe, which makes it even more memorable.’’

Michigan State begins its title quest against No. 16 Western Michigan in the second GLI semifinal at 7 p.m. on Thursday. In the first game, Michigan Tech (12-7-3, 11-3-2 WCHA) faces Michigan (7-8-1, 1-3 Big Ten) at 3:30 p.m. On Friday, the third-place game is at 3:30 p.m. with the title game set for 7 p.m.

The Spartans (4-9-1, 0-2) have lost their last three games and are 2-3-1 in their last five contests. Western Michigan (8-5-3, 4-5-1 NCHC) is 1-1-1 in its last three games and 2-2-1 in the last five.

“We have to be focused. We have a tendency where we lose focus for a few minutes at a time,’’ Cox said. “We have to keep our focus for a full 60 minutes. We have to compete.



“When our team is moving their feet and we’re working hard in the corners, we’re a tough team to beat.’’

Michigan State’s seniors are 2-3-1 in three Great Lakes Invitationals, with an appearance in the final in 2014, a 2-1 loss to Michigan after a 2-0 semifinal victory over Ferris State.

Three years ago, when Cox, Thomas Ebbing, Rhett Holland, Villiam Haag, JT Stenglein and Chris Knudson were freshman, the Spartans played in an outdoor GLI at Comerica Park. They tied Michigan Tech, 2-2, in a semifinal but lost their bid to play in the title game by losing to the Huskies in a shootout.

In the third-place game, MSU blanked Michigan, 3-0, to go 1-0-1 in the tournament but no trophy to bring home.

“It was really surreal. It goes by pretty fast,’’ Cox said of his first GLI experience. “One minute you’re there, and then it’s done. It was a lot to take in because it’s a tournament you hear a lot about as a kid and then you’re playing in it for Michigan State.

“It’s a great atmosphere, especially at Joe Louis. It’s a lot of fun.’’

Last season, Michigan State played two solid games and appeared on the verge of winning both, only to give up late leads and end up losing both contests in overtime.

The Spartans led Michigan Tech 2-0 eight minutes into the third period in their semifinal. The Huskies made it 2-1 at 8:33 and tied it 10 minutes later – at 18:44 – and won it 3-2 with 61 seconds left in overtime.

In the third-place game, Cox scored at 1:06 of the first period, and MSU maintained that lead until 15:45 of the third period when Northern Michigan tied it. In overtime, the Wildcats won it, 2-1, at 3:38.

Mason Appleton, MSU’s leading scorer as a sophomore, loved everything about his first GLI except for the late third periods and overtimes.

“I kind of took it all in last year. I had never played in front that many people before,’’ he said. “There was about 15,000 people there. We didn’t get the results we wanted but those were close games and we could have won both.

“The first time (at the GLI), it was new and really special, and know I’m more focused on the results that we want to get. We’re going down there to get two wins. We’ll take in the experience and everything that comes along with it, but we’re there to win the title.’’

Michigan State’s last GLI title came in 2009 with victories over Michigan Tech (10-1) and Rensselaer (6-1). Forward Brett Perlini was named tournament MVP.

The Spartans’ 2016 holiday break lasted seven days. The players returned to East Lansing on Monday for a late practice. They also practiced twice on Tuesday and again at Munn Arena on Wednesday morning.

Coach Tom Anastos believes his team can be much better in the second half of the season and hopes success in the GLI builds momentum and confidence for 2017.

“We’re trying to find a level of consistency. We know who we are but this is an opportunity to build momentum,’’ Anastos said. “I’m disappointed we didn’t find a level of consistency in those last three games, in particular.

“But I think our best hockey is ahead of us. And it’s time to come together and use this GLI as a platform to start the second half and find a good level of consistency.

“I liked how our Monday night practice went. The guys had good focus and Tuesday was good, too, so we’re off to a good start. We had energy, there were smiles on their faces, there was good focus and a good level of execution. I liked the freshness in the guys’ minds.’’

With MSU and Michigan coming into the GLI with losing records and Michigan Tech and Western Michigan five and three games above .500, respectively, the Huskies and Broncos are probably considered the favorites to meet for the last GLI championship.

“I really think all four teams can win this event,’’ Anastos said. “We’re going in focusing on Western Michigan to give ourselves a chance to get into the championship game.’’

NEW VIEW FOR MINNEY: Ed Minney has watched the last two Great Lakes Invitationals from the end of the Michigan State bench at Joe Louis Arena. This year, he’ll get a much better view of the action – from the goal crease.

Minney will make his GLI and Joe Louis Arena debut on Thursday as he starts against Western Michigan.

“It’s been a fun place to be the last couple of years, and I’m excited to play and ready for the full experience,’’ said Minney, a junior who spent the last two seasons as the backup to Jake Hildebrand. “It’s always a great atmosphere.

“It’s special because of the atmosphere and because it’s the last year of year of The Joe. It’s been a while since we won the GLI so that would be special to go in there and win it in the last year at JLA.’’

Minney, 20, a 6-foot-5, 197-pounder from Wind Gap, Pa., has started MSU’s last seven games. He’s 4-6-1 with a 3.25 goals-against average and a .887 saves percentage.

For the Spartans to win the GLI, Minney said they’ll have to play more like they did against North Dakota over Thanksgiving weekend than they did in the last three losses – two to Minnesota and one to Northeastern, Dec. 18.

“We need to put together a full 60-minute game, a complete game,’’ he said. “For the most part, we’ve been up and down with that. If we can put together a full game and be hard to play against, we can make it a two-way game.

“We got away from how we played against North Dakota and in the U-18 game. We’ve got to get back to tightening things up in the d-zone and still have that freedom on offense to get up the ice, make plays and score some goals.

“Western is a good team and they’re having a good season. They’re a good two-way team, but we are too, so that should make for a good game.’’

And for sure, one that’s better to watch from the crease than the bench.

SCOUTING THE BRONCOS: Western Michigan has already won as many games this season (8) as it did last year. The Broncos (8-5-1, 4-5-1) seem to bouncing back from tough times in 2015-16 when WMU finished 8-25-3 overall and in seventh place in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference with a 5-18-1 league record.

Western Michigan this year is 2-4 against three of the best teams in the nation – Denver, Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota – all on the road. In fact, the Broncos upset then-No. 1 UMD, 4-3, on Nov. 11.

Three weeks ago, WMU rebounded from a 5-1 loss at North Dakota and stunned the Fighting Hawks, 3-1, in the series finale.

“They’re a very good team. They’ve had a good first half and they’re playing with a lot of confidence,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said of the Broncos. “It’ll be a tough matchup for us.’’

Western Michigan is the highest-scoring team in the GLI, averaging 3.44 goals per game, which is tied for No. 8 in the nation.

The Broncos also boast three of the top four scorers among the Spartans, Wolverines and Huskies. Matheson Iacopelli, a sophomore right wing from Brownstown Twp., Mich., has 13 goals and four assists for 17 points. Last season, Iacopelli had one goal and seven points in 27 games as a freshman.

Freshman right wing Wade Allison has made a big impact with nine goals and five assists for 14 points. Senior defenseman Taylor Fleming has been a big part of the offense with 13 assists to rank third in Broncos’ team scoring.

WMU has two other forwards with four goals – sophomore Griffin Molino (4-7-11) and senior Sheldon Dries (4-6-10) – and junior defenseman Scott Moldenhauer has four goals and six assists for 10 points. The power play is converting on 21.8 percent (14th).

The Broncos have used three goaltenders this season with sophomore Trevor Gorsuch playing in 10 games, compiling a 4-3-2 record with a 3.07 goals-against average and a .894 saves percentage.

Freshman Ben Blacker has played in five games, is 3-0 with a 2.33 GAA and .918 saves percentage. Senior Collin Olson is 1-2-1 in four games, with a 2.88 GAA and .833 saves percentage.

After Olson replaced Gorsuch in the 5-1 loss at North Dakota, Dec. 9, Blacker played in the second game and made 33 saves, 21 in the third period in the 3-1 victory.

And yet Gorsuch was in goal in Western’s 4-3 win at Duluth on Nov. 11, making 21 saves, and he made 33 saves in a 2-0 loss to the Bulldogs in the series finale.

Defensively, WMU is allowing 2.94 goals a game (30th nationally) and its penalty killing is at 81.7 percent (39th).

Coach Andy Murray is in his sixth season at WMU and has an 89-89 record. Under Murray, the Broncos have one CCHA playoff title and have made one appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2012.

Michigan State holds a 64-32-9 edge in the all-time series with WMU which started with a 7-6 Spartans’ victory on Oct. 19, 1979, at Lawson Arena in Kalamazoo.

It’s been three years since the teams played each other. The Broncos swept MSU, 2-0 at Munn Arena, and 4-1 in Kalamazoo, in a non-conference on Nov. 22-23, 2013.

MSU is 1-3-1 vs. WMU in the last five meetings and 4-5-1 in the last 10. SCOUTING THE WOLVERINES: Michigan is feeling the impact of losing its five best players from last year Big Ten championship team to early departures and three other seniors who provided leadership and balance.

Without high-scoring forwards Kyle Connor, J.T. Compher and Tyler Motte, standout defenseman Zach Werenski and seniors Justin Selman and Boo Nieves, the Wolverines are having trouble scoring goals.

They’re averaging 2.69 goals per game (40th) and allowing 2.81 goals (24th). During a recent four-game stretch, Michigan was held to one goal in three games, all losses.

After getting swept at Penn State, 6-1, 5-1, on Dec. 1-2, U-M lost at home against Wisconsin,7-4, before salvaging a series split with a 4-1 win, its last outing before the holiday break.

Since Thanksgiving, the Wolverines are 2-4 and 4-6 in their last 10 games.

A pair of freshmen lead U-M in scoring. Will Lockwood has six goals and six assists for 12 points in 16 games, while Jake Slaker has four goals and seven assists for 11 points.

Tony Calderone, a junior forward, leads the team in goals with eight and is tied for third in team scoring with nine points. After Lockwood and Calderone, Michigan’s third-leading goal scorer is junior defenseman Sam Piazza, who has five goals and nine points.

The Wolverines will get some help up front with the return of sophomore forward Cooper Marody, who had 10 goals and 24 points last season. Marody missed the first semester of the season due to eligibility issues. He’ll make his season debut in the GLI.

U-M’s defense is fairly experienced with Piazza, senior Nolan De Jong and sophomores Nick Boka and Joe Cecconi. Two promising freshmen are also in the mix with Luke Martin and Griffin Luce. But Cecconi will miss the GLI because he made the U.S. Junior Team now competing in the World Junior Tournament in Toronto.

Meanwhile, Western Michigan isn’t the only team with a three-goalie system. Michigan has used three the first half of the season, including senior Zach Nagelvoort and freshmen Hayden Lavigne and Jack LaFontaine.

Lavigne has the most impressive numbers through the first 16 games. He has a 4-2 record, a 2.29 goals-against average and a .935 saves percentage. Nagelvoort is 2-2 with a 2.52 GAA and a .927 saves percentage. LaFontaine, drafted last June by the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes in the third round (75th overall), is 1-4-1, with a 3.13 GAA and .919 saves percentage.

In Michigan’s last six games (LSSU, Penn State, Wisconsin), each goaltender has started two games.

Three weeks ago, Lavigne started both games against Wisconsin. He got pulled after two periods in a 7-4 loss, but started the series finale, won by the Wolverines, 4-1.

U-M is facing Michigan Tech for the third time this season. The Wolverines won 4-3 and tied 2-2 against the Huskies in a non-conference series in Ann Arbor, Oct. 21-22.

SCOUTING THE HUSKIES: Michigan Tech started the season 0-4 and 1-5-2. Now, the Huskies are one of the hottest teams in college hockey, going 9-1-1 in their last 11 games, after a 3-2 overtime loss at Michigan State on Nov 4.

Michigan Tech, 12-7-5 overall and 11-3-2 in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, has played 15 road games – that’s more games than some teams have played overall.

The Huskies have played two games at Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State, Michigan, MSU, Alaska Anchorage, Alaska Fairbanks and Bowling Green and one game at Northern Michigan. They’re 7-6-2 on the road and 5-1-1 at home.

Michigan Tech has won three straight, including a 3-1, 2-1 sweep at Bowling Green on Dec. 9-10.

There’s a three-way tie for the Tech scoring lead with 12 points and three players have 11 points.

Forwards Jake Lucchini (7-5) and Joel L’Esperance (6-6) and defenseman Matt Roy (2-10) lead with 12 points, while defensemen Shane Hanna (5-6) and Mark Auk (2-9) and forward Alex Smith (4-7) are tied for fourth.

That’s three defensemen among the top six scorers which shows that a veteran defense is one Huskies’ strengths.

Another is freshman goaltender Angus Redmond, whose 1.40 goals-against average is the best in the nation. Redmond is 11-2-1 and has a stellar .937 saves percentage.

Redmond played in both games against Michigan State in November – a 3-2 overtime win by the Spartans and a decisive 5-1 victory by the Huskies. Redmond is a former junior teammate with MSU freshman left wing Taro Hirose with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the British Columbia Hockey League.

Coach Mel Pearson is in his sixth season at Michigan Tech and has a career record of 107-84-25. After three losing seasons, the 1980 MTU graduate guided his team to records of 29-10-2 in 2014-15 and 23-9-2 last year. The Huskies finished second in the WCHA in 2015 and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1981.

Last season, Tech won the coveted McNaughton Cup as the WCHA regular season champion, but it got upset in the WCHA Final Five by Ferris State and missed out on a NCAA tourney bid.

Michigan Tech is looking for its second GLI championship under Pearson after winning in 2012, ending a 31-year title drought. But the Huskies have been in the GLI Finals in three of the last four years.

GLI FAIRWELL TO JLA: Coach Tom Anastos has great memories of Joe Louis Arena and the GLI. He’s watched it as a fan as a young boy, he played in it as a Spartan, he watched as CCHA commissioner and he’s now coaching in it.

So, there will be some sentimentality by Anastos for The Joe, in its final season as the home of the Red Wings, the GLI, one more game against Michigan and the Big Ten Tournament.

“I started watching games there as kid and the GLI as I started playing myself, in the early years of the JLA,’’ Anastos said. “We’re looking forward to a new building but it would be nice to win the last one at The Joe for sure.’’

In Anastos’ four seasons (1981-85) as a player at MSU, the Spartans compiled a GLI record of 6-1-1 and won three championships. Michigan State defeated Michigan Tech in the finals for three straight years – 5-3 in 1982, 6-2 in 1983 and 7-0 in 1984.

“My most memorable game was the championship in 1984 against Michigan Tech, at a time when the Red Wings were struggling,’’ Anastos said. “But we had close to 22,000 people in that building, which at the time was the largest crowd to watch a hockey game in North America.

“There were people everywhere. Our program was on the rise and had lot of energy behind it. That stands out as one of the most memorable moments I had as a player.’’

The official attendance for that game, Dec. 29, 1984, was 21,576, but those that were there are convinced it was well over 22,000.

“It would have broken the fire code if they announced the actual number of people in the building,’’ Anastos said. “I remember being on the ice and looking up between plays one time and you couldn’t see the aisleways. People were sitting in the aisles all the way to top of the building. We had a lot of success down there. There are a lot of good memories.’’

In 1984, both Anastos and Kelly Miller, now a Spartans assistant coach, were named to the GLI All-Tournament team as seniors as MSU had five players on the six-man team.

GLI HISTORY: The Great Lakes Invitational started in 1965 at Olympia Stadium by Michigan Tech coach John MacInnes and Olympia general manager Lincoln Cavalieri in an effort to get more kids from the Detroit area playing hockey and maybe someday be in position to play college hockey.

The University of Toronto won the first GLI, defeating Michigan Tech, the tournament host. Michigan State and Michigan made their first appearance in 1966, and met in the finals, with the Wolverines winning 5-3.

After 14 years at Olympia, the GLI moved to Joe Louis Arena in 1979 with Michigan Tech winning in one of the most famous title games in the history of the tournament. Michigan tied the game with a dramatic game off a faceoff outside the blue line just before the buzzer to tie the game 4-4 and send the game into overtime. Finally, in the third 10-minute OT, the Huskies pulled out the victory on a goal by Mel Pearson, now the coach at Michigan Tech.

The Huskies have played in all 51 GLIs and have won 10 titles.

Michigan became a permanent participant in 1974 and the Wolverines have played in 46 GLIs, winning 17 championships. MSU did not play in the GLI from 1974-78, preferring to play a home series in late December.

But when Ron Mason took over as coach in 1979, the Spartans returned to playing in the GLI, becoming a tournament regular. MSU has played in 42 GLIs and 37 consecutive tournaments.

The Spartans have won 12 titles and have compiled a GLI record of 48-33-3, which includes 6-4 mark at Olympia and a 1-0-1 record at Comerica Park in 2012.

Michigan State is 26-14-2 all-time in GLI semifinal games, including 2-1-2 under Tom Anastos.

IN THE BIG TEN: Only two other conference teams are playing this week – Minnesota and Ohio State.

The No. 11 Gophers, who haven’t played since their sweep of the Spartans, Dec. 9-10, are hosting the Mariucci Classic on Friday and Saturday. Minnesota (9-5-2, 3-1) is matched up against Mercyhurst (7-9-1, 7-6-1) of Atlantic Hockey in one semifinal, while Massachusetts (4-12-2, 2-7-1) of Hockey East plays Alabama-Huntsville (7-11-2, 7-7-2) of the WCHA.

No. 9 Ohio State (9-2-4, 1-1) renews its rivalry with Miami with a New Year’s Eve home game against the RedHawks (4-8-5, 1-4-3 NCHC) on Friday. The teams played to a 1-1 tie in their previous meeting, Oct. 15, in Oxford, Ohio.

Meanwhile, No. 3 Penn State (13-1-1, 2-0 Big Ten) and Wisconsin (8-7-1, 1-1) are off this week and don’t play again until Jan. 6-7, when the Nittany Lions play at Ohio State and the Badgers host Michigan State. PSU will go 33 days between their last game, Dec. 2 and their first contest in January.

Penn State boasts the nation’s longest unbeaten streak – 13 games. Since losing to St. Lawrence, 6-3, on Oct. 7, the Nittany Lions are 12-0-1.

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