By Stefan Kubus -
EAST LANSING – Just as Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday, he reiterated tonight following the Spartans’ 3-2 come-from-behind win over Niagara (Atlantic Hockey) that his club would have to earn every inch on the ice.
“We knew coming into this that we’d have to scratch and claw for everything we got, and that was the case,” Anastos said.
Friday night’s home opener for the Michigan State Spartans looked bleak, down 2-0 after two frames to the Purple Eagles. Anastos said that when he headed into the locker room he told his players to worry about the first goal, taking things shift by shift.
“I thought the energy was pretty good,” Anastos said. “I think sometimes there’s anxiety, and anxiety can take that out of you because you’re pressing… We’re coming off a tough weekend.”
However, the Spartans let it be known early that Friday night’s home opener would be played at an incredibly quick pace.
Two early minor penalties – a tripping minor to senior alternate captain Matt Grassi and an interference infraction to senior forward Kevin Walrod – put a small fork in those plans, but Michigan State held strong, killing off both.
Though they went 0-for-2 with the man-advantage in the first, the power plays allowed Niagara back into the game. The Purple Eagles struck first late in the first frame, as sophomore Jeff Hannan redirected a pass from the corner in traffic past Spartan senior netminder Will Yanakeff for the 1-0 lead.
While MSU responded well to start the second period after the late first-period Niagara goal, the Spartans’ penalty woes would continue to slow their momentum. Sophomore RJ Boyd headed to the penalty box for roughing with 6:35 remaining in the 2nd period, but the Spartans’ penalty kill held strong to kill it off.
Niagara would light the lamp once more late in the second on a bizarre miscue in front of the Spartans’ goal. With just two minutes to go in the second stanza, Boyd attempted to play a loose puck out of the air in front of Yanakeff just outside the crease, but the puck bounced off of Boyd’s shaft as he swung at it. The puck then floated past a fooled Yanakeff for a 2-0 Niagara lead. Hannan would get credit for the goal, his second of the evening for Niagara.
Shots through two periods saw the Purple Eagles lead the Spartans, 20-16. The Spartans’ bench boss said his club was getting good chances, but just not the favorable bounces.
“I thought it might not be one of those nights that we’d get any puck luck in front of the net because we had some good scoring chances in front of the net,” Anastos said. “On some of them, the goalie was making some really nice saves, the puck wasn’t bouncing to the right spot, or we’d miss the net.”
Junior defenseman Jake Chelios said that Anastos kept the team calm before the final frame, but also let them know it was time to pick up their game.
“He never really gets us too excited, so that was good,” Chelios said. “He did tell us that it was time to start going, though. He said we needed to start getting shots through. We moved the forecheck a little lighter to maybe sit back and let them make a couple mistakes, but not too much. He kept us calm and focused.”
Things certainly turned the Spartans’ way in the third period. The Purple Eagles would head to the sin bin six times in the third period, setting up multiple MSU power plays. With stable, smart puck movement, the Spartans’ momentum would eventually buy them goals. In fact, the Spartans came raging back in dramatic fashion, potting three goals in 5:49.
With 11:32 left in the final stanza, Chelios snuck in the high slot and took a pass from sophomore Tanner Sorenson coming around the net and roofed the puck over Niagara netminder Carsen Chubak – who made a total of 33 saves on the night.
“We just got it down low and were working it pretty good,” Chelios said. “Tanner held onto it, made a really nice play through the defenseman’s legs, gave me an open shot. I kind of just waited on it and knew I had to get it through, and I put it upstairs.”
Just under three minutes later, Sorenson bust out of the center ice face-off circle down the right side of the Niagara zone, let a a shot go that landed in between Chubak’s legs. Crashing the net hard, junior Lee Reimer stuffed home the rebound to tie things at two.
“I picked it up off the draw, and Reimer was yelling, ‘I’m going to the net!’ so I kind of just threw one in there low and it popped under the goalie,” Sorenson said of the play. “He didn’t know where it was and Reimer just came in and speared it in. It was a good play by him; he was yelling and kept driving to the net.”
Three quick penalties following the Reimer goal set up a rare 4-on-3 power play for the Spartans. Yet another Niagara penalty led to an MSU 5-on-3 and an excellent chance for freshman Matt DeBlouw to put his squad up. Sophomore Matt Berry zoomed around the Niagara goal and niftily fed DeBlouw on the far side for a one-timer that the Chesterfield native couldn’t lift high enough, as Chubak made the save to keep things tied.
DeBlouw and Berry would connect shortly after, though, with a little help from their junior captain, Greg Wolfe. This time, for a Spartans’ go-ahead marker. On the power play, DeBlouw – playing the point – dished a pass from the right circle directly across to Wolfe in his wheelhouse. Wolfe launched a laser on net that Berry tipped home for a 3-2 lead.
The lead would hold, as the Spartans tightened up defensively in the neutral and defensive zones. Although they had been outshot 20-16 through two periods, the Spartans’ electric third period saw them outshoot the Purple Eagles 20-4, for a total of 36-24 in favor of MSU.
The Spartans face off against the Purple Eagles in the second game of the home-opening series Saturday night at 7:05 p.m. Anastos said that although he doesn’t know much about Niagara, he was impressed with their work ethic and goaltending. He expects the same sort of effort in the second game, too.
“I’d like to stay out of the penalty box, that’s for sure,” Anastos said. “I’d like to compete hard for the full 60 minutes. I thought early, we weren’t moving the puck around all that well in our own zone. And I think we settled down and got a little better. I think sometimes guys press a little bit. They had certain expectations and they press. For whatever reason, we got that goal and it seemed to settle things goal. I wish it would have come a little earlier. I expect their team will give another really good effort. I thought their goalie played really well tonight.”
Notes: Friday’s game opened only the second series between these two teams all time. The first, back in 2002, saw the Spartans and Purple Eagles split… Niagara went 0-5 on the PP… Niagara iced two Michigan-born players in Kevin Albers (Lake Orion) and Ryan Rashid (Farmington Hills) – both held pointless, though Rashid had a team-high four shots… Three stars of the night: Tanner Sorenson (1st – two assists, plus-two), Matt Berry (2nd – one goal, team-high six shots), Jeff Hannan – NIA – (3rd – two goals)