Dec. 29, 2013
By Neil Koepke
DETROIT - If Michigan State's six-man defensive unit can play like it did on Saturday against No. 3 Michigan, the Spartans have a good chance to win their share of Big Ten games over the next three months.
There were plenty of reasons for MSU's stunning 3-0 victory over the Wolverines (10-4-2 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) in the third-place game of the Great Lakes Invitational at Comerica Park.
Goaltending was solid, puck possession was amazingly good and the Spartans' compete level was high on all levels.
Another major reason for MSU's biggest victory of the season was an efficient and consistent performance by a defensive group that includes Jake Chelios and Brock Krygier, RJ Boyd and Rhett Holland and John Draeger and Travis Walsh.
Moving the puck out of the Spartans' zone quickly and effectively has been an issue for most of this season. On Saturday, MSU's defense moved the puck out of danger more consistently, got it to the forwards quicker and avoided critical turnovers while shutting down a highly skilled team with a dangerous offense.
"Going into the GLI, you never know if you're going to play Michigan or not. We got that chance and our defense played the best game of the season,'' senior Jake Chelios said.
"It was what the rink gave us - it was to keep it simple. They're a skilled team and we kept their forwards away from the front of the net and as a team played a lot in their zone.''
MSU outshot Michigan, 40-29, something that doesn't happen too often.
In addition to keeping the Wolverines' offense check - they managed just 14 shots over the first two periods - the Spartan defense chipped in on offense with three assists - by Draeger on MSU's first goal by Thomas Ebbing; by Chelios on Matt Berry's power-play goal, which gave the Spartans a 2-0 lead early in the third period, and by Boyd on the last goal by Brett Darnell with 6:08 left.
Defensemen combined for eight shots on goal - four by Draeger, two by Chelios and one each by Boyd and Walsh.
"They all moved the puck pretty well and that's a good sign of progress. It's an area we have to get better in,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "We avoided the colossal mistake and that was good, even though we did give up a couple of odd-man rushes, but we were able to recover from it or get a big save.
"The defense played very well. They competed hard and were a little banged up. These guys played over injuries. They're pretty sore.''
The Spartans blocked 20 shots overall on Saturday. In the third period, Michigan had 29 shot attempts with seven blocked by MSU defensemen and forwards, 15 stopped by goalie Jake Hildebrand and seven off target.
"A couple of us in the locker room after the second period said that Michigan (trailing only 1-0 despite being outplayed after 40 minutes) would come out flying in the first five minutes of the third period,'' Boyd said. "We felt that if we weathered the storm, it was our game.
"We needed to be poised with the puck, keep then to the outside and shut them down as much as we could.''
It helped that MSU didn't take a penalty until 16:24 of the third period and U-M trailing by three goals. The Spartans had four power plays, nine shots on goal and they scored one goal.
Boyd wouldn't say that Saturday was his best game of the season, but he was happy with his play.
"I think I've played better. Everybody makes mistakes during games, but I think I played pretty solid,'' Boyd said. "And everyone else did, too.
"I think it was just using your partner and communicating really well. It's telling him what's going on as his back is turned. And we were able to have success moving the puck up to forwards.''
One night after the disappointment of tying Michigan Tech, 2-2, and losing the shootout, 2-1, to miss an opportunity to play in the GLI title game, the Spartans' outlook was much more upbeat.
So what will Boyd remember about a weekend of outdoor hockey in Detroit?
"Just sitting on the bench and taking everything in,'' he said. "It was pretty surreal. This my first time playing outside. You have to play like it's your last time in an event like this.''
Both Chelios and Boyd said playing Michigan anytime and anywhere is like playing in a championship game.
"It's a game you really want to win and you don't care what the game is called - it's our championship game,'' said Chelios, MSU's second-leading scorer with two goals and nine assists for 11 points in 17 games.
"The energy and emotion going into it has a championship feel.''
Boyd said the well-played, dominant win over Michigan should not only give the defense a major boost but the whole team should get a lift.
"Everybody has to go into practice with a good attitude, knowing we can compete with the top teams in the nation,'' he said.
POSTIVES ALL AROUND: Coach Tom Anastos said MSU's objective for the weekend at Comerica Park was to win a championship and take a step forward in getting better. The first goal wasn't accomplished. The second was achieved. And the experience of playing outdoors was one the Spartans will never forget.
"The outdoor conditions weren't as big of a factor as they were on Friday. This was closer to a more normal game,'' Anastos said. "All areas of our game were much better and we made progress.
"We had good goaltending, we played hard defensively and I liked that we were able to establish some offensive opportunities - both on the rush and on the power play. We scored two goals off the rush and one on the power play, where we moved the puck around pretty well.''
The Spartans outshot Michigan 17-5 in the second period and had several great chances to go up 2-0. But U-M goaltender Steve Racine kept his team in the game with excellent saves, keeping MSU from finishing.
"We did a good job forechecking. There was a lot that we liked tonight,'' Anastos said.
Berry's goal at 7:32 of the third period was a key turning point. It gave MSU some breathing room, momentum and put the Wolverines in a bigger hole.
ANOTHER GEM BY HILDY: Sophomore goaltender Jake Hildebrand didn't face as many shots Saturday as he did on Friday against Michigan Tech, but he made enough clutch saves to frustrate Michigan and earn his first shutout of the season and the third of his career.
He faced only 15 shots over the first two periods as MSU took a 1-0 lead, but things got busy in the third period as the Wolverines put 15 shots on goal - all stopped by Hildebrand in a 3-0 victory in the GLI third-place game.
On Friday, Hildebrand made 41 saves against MTU and kept his team from losing in a 2-2 tie, before losing 2-1 in the shootout.
"They might not have has as many shots but they had some quality chances, especially in the first period, and Hildy really saved us right there,'' junior forward Matt Berry said. "It could have been a completely different game if one had slipped by.
"It's definitely huge for him to keep goals off the board, and it gave us momentum, knowing we were leading the whole game.''
Hildebrand said his game isn't about making a lot of saves or only a few saves but making clutch saves, which he's done quite often this season.
"The boys sored 1 minute and 23 seconds into the game so that takes a lot of pressure off me,'' he said. "Most of the action was in their end so I was just trying to stay focused. They didn't have many shots so it was about timely saves. Coach talks about timely saves and I think that happened."
Hildebrand's last shutout came against Miami in a second-round CCHA playoff series last season. He made 34 saves in a 3-0 victory in the first game of a best-of-three series in Oxford, Ohio.
"Getting a shutout always feels good for a goaltender, but it was a result of how the team played tonight,'' Hildebrand said. "Guys are blocking shots and our penalty killing was good at the end. We played most of the game in their zone, so I think it was a team effort for the shutout, and getting it against Michigan makes it feel even better.''
Hildebrand has made nine consecutive starts, dating back the first game of the Western Michigan series on Nov. 22. He's given up 18 goals in his last nine games.
"He made some big saves and that's what our team needs - excellent goaltending, and he's capable,'' Anastos said. "We also need timely saves. I think it might have been at the end of the first period tonight, he made two huge saves.
"They didn't get a ton of shots through two periods but he saw a lot of shots in the third period and he stood tall. He handled rebounds well and was tracking the puck well. Our team plays with a lot of confidence in front of him.
"From a team and goaltender perspective, this was an important step forward in us becoming a better team.''
BERRY HITS A HOMER: Matt Berry's power-play goal in the third period gave MSU a 2-0 lead and Berry was able to have some fun with it, after scoring from the slot after receiving a perfect cross-ice pass from Jake Chelios.
After Berry fired the puck past U-M goaltender Steve Racine, Berry made like a baseball player and swing his stick like he was hitting a home run.
"(Michigan) did the field goal on our team a few years (at the Big Chill game in Ann Arbor in 2010),'' Berry said. "So, I thought about that when we were playing at Comerica Park, that I'd hit a home run if I scored.
"I actually thought about it on Friday (against Michigan Tech) when I scored, but I had too much adrenaline going and didn't think to do it.''
Berry's goals - both on power plays - were his first two goals of his season, which started late because of offseason surgery for a lower body injury. He's now appeared in five games.
Berry led the Spartans in scoring last season with 15 goals and 16 assists for 31 points.
IMPROVED ICE: Saturday's games were pushed back one hour to allow more time for the ice conditions to improve at Comerica Park. The sun was bright on Saturday morning and afternoon and that was impacting the ice, so the third-place game was set back to 4:30 p.m. and the championship game was pushed back to 8 p.m.
"We were at our team meal around noon when they told us that the game was being pushed back to 4:30, and I was happy to hear that,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "I was concerned because of the possibility of injury. There were some deep grooves in the ice on Friday.
"People think that when it's 40-44 degrees that the air temperature is an issue. But it's not. It's the sun beating down on the ice.
"The ice operators did an awesome job of preparing the ice. I came over early just to walk the rink, and they had the logos covered because the darkness attracts the heat (from the sun), and they had cones all over the ice and had one area packed in ice. The whole edge of the rink on the home plate side had piles of snow on it.
"It was all very strategic to make sure the ice was ready. The ice was really good. I was very relieved when our guys came off the ice after warm-ups and were talking about how good the ice was.''
The Spartans have next weekend off and will start a stretch of 18 consecutive games against five Big Ten teams in conference play. MSU plays at Ohio State, Jan. 10-11, and then returns home to host Penn State, Jan. 17-18.
The Spartans will play OSU, PSU, Michigan and Wisconsin four times and Minnesota twice at Minnesota. MSU and the Gophers played at Munn Arena, Dec. 6-7. The teams played to a 2-2 tie in the series opener, with MSU earning an extra point in the standings because of a 1-0 win in the shootout. The Gophers won the second game, 3-2.
BIG TEN UPDATE: Wisconsin swept Alabama-Huntsville, 5-0 and 3-2, in a nonconference series in Madison. Penn State defeated Robert Morris 3-2 in the semifinals and lost to Boston College, 8-2, in the championship game of the Three Rivers Classic in Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, Ohio State rallied from a 3-2 deficit on Saturday to defeat Mercyhurst, 6-3, in Columbus. The teams close out the nonconference series on Sunday night. Minnesota was idle.