Spartans enjoy Thanksgiving break, prepare for Buckeyes

By Stefan Kubus -

EAST LANSING – The Michigan State Spartans had a rare break during the Thanksgiving weekend, which meant more time to reflect on their previous weekend series with the Miami RedHawks.

While the first-place (16 points) RedHawks took both games in the CCHA standings (Friday’s game was decided in a shootout after a 2-2 tie), MSU head coach Tom Anastos was pleased with the way his club battled on the defensive side of the puck.

“I thought we did some good things,” Anastos said. “I thought our defense played real hard both nights. Our goaltending was very good. Our offense was erratic and that was against a good defensive team. I’m impressed with their team, but we’re going to take the positives that we saw in our team out of that and try to build on it.”

Although Michigan State shut down the Miami power play – led by Michigan natives and top-five D-1 scorers Austin Czarnik (Washington) and Riley Barber (Livonia) – on the weekend, senior forward and alternate captain Chris Forfar said, by far, it was the most dangerous power play he has seen through 12 games.

“Miami worked us pretty good,” Forfar said. “They’re creative, they’re skilled, tic-tac-toe plays, we got trapped a couple times… We did shut them down, but they always say, ‘Our best penalty-killer is our goaltender,” and [Jake Hildebrand] played outstanding both nights.”

Hildebrand, the freshman goaltender from Pennsylvania, holds an impressive 1.78 GAA and .944 save percentage, despite the modest 2-2-1 CCHA record beside his name. The goals-against and save percentage marks are good for fourth and third in the conference, respectively, which has earned him the respect of his new teammates.

“I don’t know how many strides he’s had to make,” Forfar said. “He came in as a good goaltender, got his opportunity to play, and made the most of the opportunity. He’s shown the entire nation what he can do.”

Hildebrand attributed his steady play to regular appearances between the pipes.

“It’s nice getting in there regularly, so you’re not just shell-shocked when you get in there,” Hildebrand said. “I think I’ve calmed my game down a little bit, just staying relaxed in the net, so I think that’s helped me a lot to develop my game.”

Meanwhile, atop the CCHA goaltending statistical categories is senior goaltender Brady Hjelle, with a staggering 0.62 GAA, .977 save percentage and a 3-1-1 record. Hjelle and the Ohio State Buckeyes come to East Lansing this weekend.

First Thanksgiving at home in a while

Given that the College Hockey Showcase is no longer in existence, the Spartans experienced a rare Thanksgiving break that gave players like Forfar and Hildebrand to make long-awaited visits home.

“I skated with my little brother’s team; he plays Midget Major with the Chicago Mission,” Forfar said. “I think the last time I was home was five years ago. It was nice to see the family, and my older brother who was deployed in Virginia with the Marines. He got to come home on leave, so it was nice to see him.”

“I got to go home for five full days,” Hildebrand said. “It’s been a while. I haven’t been home three years in a row, and then I got to go home this year so it was kind of special.”

Even the Spartans’ bench boss enjoyed what has become a family Thanksgiving tradition – a family open skate in the morning.

“It’s been a tradition since I opened my first rink and my kids really love it,” Anastos said. “I was surprised this year. They approached me and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to go skate aren’t we?’ and I’m thinking, ‘Really?’ but we did and we had a blast.”

Though he admitted it was beneficial to his slightly banged-up squad, the Thanksgiving break is one that – albeit pleasant for the team and its families – Anastos said he hopes to nix in future seasons.

“I prefer to be playing, definitely. We prefer to play consecutively, have the one break that you have during the holidays and manage that, as opposed to two.”

As they kick things back into gear, however, the Spartans have the opportunity to play a weekend series in front of their home crowd. The last time MSU took to the ice at Munn Ice Arena, a record crowd of 7,225 electrified the building as the Spartans routed rival Michigan, 7-2. The club is certainly hoping that energy can carry over to this weekend’s series against the 5-4-3 (4-2-2-1 CCHA) Buckeyes.

“If we want to get into the mix of things, we’ve got to start having some success, so these are important games,” Anastos said. “I think they’re a real good team. They’ve been under the radar early, but I picked them, myself, to be a team in the top-four of our league and I think they have a chance to do that. We have great respect for their team.”

The Buckeyes are currently sitting in a three-way tie for second place (Notre Dame and Ferris State) in the CCHA with 15 points, one behind the RedHawks. Historically, the Spartans hold a 84-26-8 advantage over Ohio State, including an outstanding 40-8-3 record in games played in East Lansing.

While Anastos didn’t correlate that home record against Ohio State to the Spartans dominating the Buckeyes in the past, the Spartans’ head coach said the East Lansing faithful undoubtedly provide a huge ‘seventh-man’ advantage.

“It’s nice to be home,” Anastos said. “Building off our last home game, we’re hoping to have a similar type of energy in our building to just keep things progressing.”

Notes: The annual MSU Student-Athlete food drive is being held this week. Fans are being asked to bring toiletries or non-perishable food items for donation to Saturday’s game. Donations will be collected at the main doors of Munn Ice Arena… Junior forward Lee Reimer will sit out Friday night’s game against OSU for receiving a DQ penalty last Saturday night against Miami…  Legendary Boston College head coach Jerry York (923 wins) has the chance to tie or surpass college hockey’s all-time wins leader and former MSU head coach Ron Mason (924 wins) this weekend in a home-and-home series against Boston University… MSU freshman forward Rhett Holland (out since Oct. 27 vs. LSSU) will undergo surgery tomorrow. It has already been announced that Holland is out for the season.