This weekend begins the stretch run for the Michigan State hockey team as they look to climb out of a 5-13-2 hole they have dug themselves and look to have a respectable league finish. At this point their NCAA hopes rely solely on winning two to three games in March at the league tournament, so every series until then is working on their game to be in the best position possible to make that happen. The climb begins this weekend with the toughest test in the league, the 8th ranked Michigan Wolverines (11-3-3). The series begins tonight at Munn Arena and will conclude with the Wolverines hosting the Spartans at Yost tomorrow night.
The Wolverines are better than the Spartans in every statistical category except the penalty kill, as the Wolverines have for the first time in a few seasons allowed less goals per game than the Spartans. Michigan is once again led by their offensive talent, speed and finishing ability as they score 4.35 goals per game which is the 3rd best average nationally. Freshman Kyle Connor (1st Rd.-Winnipeg Jets 2015) leads the team in scoring with 12 goals and 13 assists and has filled in admirably for the loss of last year's super freshman Dylan Larkin. Connor was recently a terrible snub for the United States World Junior Championships roster and he utilized that energy to put up 5 goals against Minnesota the weekend after the rosters were announced.
Connor will be the most dangerous forward for the Spartans to watch, but the list of concerns for the Spartans is not short. Junior J.T. Compher (2nd Rd.-Buffalo Sabres 2013) and senior Boo Nieves (2nd Rd.-New York Rangers 2012) have always played their best games against the Spartans so they will be people to watch this weekend closely. Junior Tyler Motte (4th Rd.-Chicago Blackhawks 2013) is tied with Connor scoring 12 goals on the season thus far and he could be dangerous matching up against the Spartans lower lines this weekend as the Spartans look to focus on Connor.
Over the past few seasons the Wolverines downfall has been poor defensive play and that play not being supported by strong goaltending. It is the biggest, if not sole reason, the Wolverines have not been in the NCAA Tournament since the 2012 season. This year has been no different but has shown some signs of a change, as the Wolverines allowed just 4 goals in two games at the Great Lakes Invitational with a depleted blue line. Michigan may have found their goaltender in Steve Racine who made 62 saves at the GLI after not playing net for more than a month. The Spartans may see both Racine and Zach Nagelvoort (4th Rd.-Edmonton Oilers 2014) this weekend but I would expect Racine between the pipes to begin the series on Friday night.
The Wolverines will bolster their blue line depth this weekend as both Zach Werenski (World Junior Championships) and Michael Downing (Suspension) return to the lineup. Werenski, an 8th overall selection of the Columbus Blue Jackets, leads all Wolverines defenseman with 12 points and had a stellar performance at the World Junior Championships as the captain of team USA. Downing is a defeneseman with a strong physical game that will make life difficult for the Spartans forwards and look for him to stand guys up at the blue line before they enter the zone. The defense is still the weak point for Michigan so if Michigan State wants to win a game this weekend they will need to capitalize on turnovers and finish their chances.
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Don’t feel bad for me. I feel bad for the results we’re getting for our players," Anastos said Tuesday. "That’s the foremost thing on my mind. I’m worried most about those guys, and I want them to have success. We’re all trying to push through this together.
That quote comes from an article by the great Chris Solari at the LSJ. The title of the article "Clock Ticking for Anastos as MSU hockey struggles" tells the story and is truly something if Solari is starting to talk about the clock ticking. He has been incredibly patient and even keeled with the Anastos tenure.
3 Keys to MSU Success
- Puck luck- OK maybe this isn't the number one, most important thing this weekend but if the Spartans are going to beat Michigan they need the bounces to go their way more than Michigan. The Wolverines can beat the Spartans with some bad bounces going against them. That is not the case for the Spatrtans. A fluke goal, a bad call going against the Wolverines, a zamboni breaking down with the Spartans leading. Whatever it is the Spartans need some good mojo to beat the Wolverines this weekend.
- Road Game attitude- Yes the Spartans play at Munn on Friday night but MIchigan brings a loud contingent when Michigan State has good teams. I expect Munn to feel like a neutral game more than a true home game this weekend and the Spartans need to come with an edge like they are playing in a hostile environment both games.
- Jake Hildebrand- Hildy deserved better than 2 overtime losses at the GLI. He seems to have found his game again and he will be the MVP if the Spartans win this weekend.