The 2015-16 hockey season begins tonight for the Michigan State Spartans in Portland, Maine in the annual Ice Breaker Tournament that marks the beginning of the college hockey season. Tonight the Spartans will take on the host Maine Black Bears from Hockey East, before taking on Lake Superior State of the WCHA Saturday afternoon. As mentioned in the season preview posted earlier this week, the Spartans need a strong out of conference showing before conference play begins to help their cause in ending the NCAA Tournament appearance drought.
The Ice Breaker Tournament presents a strong possibility for the Spartans to get a weekend sweep and build confidence before taking on preseason #5 Denver next weekend. Let's take a closer look at this weekend's opponents for the Spartans.
Friday October 9-Maine Black Bears
8:00 PM. No TV, 1240 WJIM Radio/Spartan Sports Network
The Maine Black Bears regressed drastically in Red Gendron's second season in Orono last year. The Black Bears finished 10th in Hockey East, losing to Vermont in the 1st round of the league playoffs, eight games under .500. It was a defensive struggle last season for the Black Bears as they gave up 127 goals, 9th most in college hockey, while they scored 108 goals. Returning goaltenders Matt Morris and Sean Romeo each gave up around 3.00 goals against per game and the Black Bears will be looking for someone to take the reins this season to climb out of the bottom of Hockey East.
As noted by the 108 goals scored last season, 25 goals more than the Spartans' 83, Maine was able to generate some offense last season. Devin Shore was the team leader in points, with 35 in 39 games, but he is now using his talents with the Dallas Stars organization. Maine still returns four forwards who put up more than 20 points last season, with Blaine Brown and Nolan Vessey each scoing double digit goals. Vessey, a sophomore and Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick, is someone the Spartans will be keying on this weekend.
Maine will bring plenty of size and strength to the game on Friday, with only one defenseman listed under 6 feet tall. This tidbit from the season preview by the Bangor Daily News will illustrate the size the Black Bears are bringing this weekend:
Seven of the nine freshmen are age 20 or older and seven stand at least 6-2, which should help the Black Bears win more puck battles.
The Spartans should look to utilize speed and skill to get open ice tonight, as they will struggle if this game is played along the boards. Jake Hildebrand will be counted on once again tonight, especially since offense usually takes a while to get going early in the season. Hildebrand has been a slow starter the last couple of seasons for Michigan State but he will need to be the star of the game Friday night in order for MSU to win.
Bonus tearjerker moment: MSU senior defenseman Travis Walsh, grandson of Ron Mason, grew up a Maine and MSU fan. That is because Travis' father Shawn Walsh built Maine into a powerhouse program in the 90's, winning two national titles, and sadly died at the age of 46 due to complications from kidney cancer. Travis got married this off-season in Maine and talked about how this game will be emotional with the Bangor Daily News this week.
Prediction: Michigan State wins a close one due to Jake Hildebrand outplaying the Maine goaltender, even though he sees more shots on net. MSU 4-2 with an empty net goal.
Saturday October 10- Lake Superior State Lakers
4:30 PM. No TV, 730 WVFN Radio/Spartan Sports Network
The Spartans will actually take on Lake Superior State three times this season, with the Lakers coming to Munn Arena for a series October 22-23. The Lakers are coached by former Spartan Damon Whitten (1997-2001) who began his coaching career working as the film and video coordinator for Michigan State. Whitten after stints as an assistant coach at Wayne State, Alaska Anchorage, and Michigan Tech finished his first head coaching season last year at LSSU.
The Lakers struggled to score in Whitten's first season behind the bench in the Sault, scoring only 60 goals in 38 games, good for the 2nd lowest amount in the country. It wasn't just a case of bad puck luck, or a lack of finishing for the Lakers, it was a possession problem. Goaltender Gordon Defiel saw the most shots against in all of college hockey, and he made the most saves in the country as well. Defiel was just a freshman last season, so talk about a welcome to the big time, feeling like you have to stand on your head all season.
The Lakers are a young team, they dressed 11 freshman Sunday in their exhibition loss to the US National Development Team. In fact there are just four seniors on the entire roster for the Lakers, so the Spartans should look to exploit the inexperience of the Lakers on Saturday. Bryce Schmitt, one of the seniors, is the returning leading scorer for the Lakers as he put up 15 points last season. The Spartans defense and Jake Hildebrand should be able to shut down the Lakers and dominate play early in the season. If the Spartans are to be a tournament team this is a type of game they really need to win.
Prediction: MSU chokes down the young Lakers offensively and finds a way to beat Defiel 3-0.