And so it begins. And it's not about to begin quietly or easily, as instead of opening the season with a couple of easy games against a patsy, the #1 ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers start their season with a tough matchup against the #16 Michigan State Spartans. Sparty brought a surging Minnesota squad back to reality at the end of November last year by taking three points from the Gophers in a series played in East Lansing. However, the Spartan squad that skates into Mariccui this weekend will be a much different- and younger- team than the one last season, as MSU lost nine seniors as well as defenseman Toney Krug, who turned pro after winning CCHA Player of the Year honors. The Gophers were #2 in the country last year when Sparty took them down, and you'd better believe their lofty preseason ranking isn't intimidating the Green and White one bit.
Second year head coach says MSU is looking forward to the challenge this weekend:
"What I like about playing a team like Minnesota, one that's considered a top team nationally, is it gives you a good measuring stick on where you are and where you need to get to,'' Anastos said. "That was the case in playing Boston College last year (a 5-2 loss in the opening game of the Icebreaker Tournament in Grand Forks, N.D.).
"We're going into a hostile environment this year in Minnesota with a very inexperienced group. We're excited about it.''
We've previewed the Gophers all week, so let's start with Michigan State. Check out a couple of excellent pieces from MSU's official athletics website on a season preview and weekend preview against the Gophers. For the Spartans, Anastos will trot out four first-year defenseman who will get a baptism by fire against Minnesota's experienced and skilled forwards: freshmen John Draeger (6-foot-1, 189 pounds), Rhett Holland (6-2, 213) and Travis Walsh (5-10, 180) and transfers RJ Boyd (6-1, 199), a sophomore, and Nickolas Gatt (6-2, 200), a junior. Draeger (a Minnesota native who played at Shattuck), Holland, and Boyd are all NHL draft picks, so while they lack experience they certainly don't lack talent. The only two returning D-men with D1 college experience are senior Matt Grassi and junior Jake Chelios (and yes, Jake's dad IS NHL hall of fame defenseman Chris Chelios), who had a strong sophomore campaign. A big help for their defense is that MSU should be very good in goal with junior Will Yanakeff. He played 19 of 28 games a season ago with a 13-8-1 record and .927 save% and 2.23 GAA, and was named to the 2012-13 preseason all-CCHA second team.
Up front the Green and White is led by junior captain Greg Wolfe, who had 10 goals and was the fifth highest scorer on the team with 26 points a season ago. Along with Wolfe, their top returning scorers are center Lee Reimer (9-21-30), sophomore Matt Berry (11-8-19), and senior Kevin Walrod (9-9-18). Jake's older brother Dean Chelios (8-7-15) is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury and could miss the entire season. Per the MSU athletics release "Freshmen looking to contribute up front include Matt DeBlouw, Ryan Keller, David Bondra and Michael Ferrantino, along with redshirt freshman Justin Hoomaian, who missed most of last season with an injury."
The Spartans were the second highest scoring team in the CCHA last season with 80 goals and are hoping for even better production from this group. Anastos likes to play a physical brand of hockey, and he knows the recipe for beating Minnesota in their barn with a young team won't be trying to skate with them, it'll be attacking and hitting them whenever they can. Despite their physical play, the Spartans know how to stay out the box as they were one of the least penalized teams in college hockey last season. And when they had to kill penalties they were very good at it as their 87% kill rate last season was tops in the CCHA and fourth best in the country. The power play? Um not so much, as they were below average stastically last season, and were 0-7 against Windsor in their exhibition tune up last weekend.
While MSU is young and developing, Minnesota is simply loaded. As we've been discussing all week, the U returns almost their entire team from a season ago when they won the WCHA regular season title and went all the way to the Frozen Four. Their top six defensemen return, and they add two elite prospects to that group as well, while up front the only losses were second line winger Jake Hansen and third line center and captain Taylor Mattson. The big loss came in goal where departed senior Kent Patterson signed in the offseason with the Colorado Avalanche after two stellar seasons in net for the Gophers, including last year when he was named first team all-WCHA. Looking to replace him are junior Michael Shirbrowski and freshman Adam Wilcox, and per the Minnesota Daily both guys will get a chance to prove themselves the first few weeks of the season:
“I think if you’d asked me today, more than likely we’d probably split the first three weekends and then head into November and see where we’re at,” (head coach Don) Lucia said this week. “I think it’s important to see your goaltenders at home. It’s important to see how they react on the road, and then if they both play well, they’ll continue to play.”
A goalie split doesn't inspire a lot of confidence, but Lucia clearly feels one guy hasn't asserted himself as the starter thus far in practice, and so his only option is to let them figure it out in games. With a deep and talented squad in front of whoever is in net, they shouldn't have to face a firing squad as they get settled in.
The esteemed Michael Russo talked with coach Lucia on Thursday about a variety of topics, including news that he's going to keep junior captain Zach Budish on the second line instead of the first because of how well it balances his top three lines:
When we looked at our team this year and who we felt the top four forwards were, we felt with Rau and Bjugstad and Haula and Budish. Well, if we can do it, it’d be nice to have two on two different lines rather than three on one. We could move [Nate] Condon up, but I liked the way Condon and [Travis] Boyd played together at the end of last year. It gives us a lot of comfort if we can spread the guys out a little bit with three lines that we can go into a game and really not worry which line’s out against who.
Sophomore Christian Isackson played very well on the top line in last weekend's exhibition win over Lethbridge notching a natural hat trick, and he'll start there tonight with Bjugstad and Rau:
So that’s why we’re trying Christian [Isackson] up there with [Bjugstad and Rau]. Obviously it worked well in that first game [with a hat trick], but he’s a guy that has to step forward and show us that he can play with those two. He’s got the skill. He can make some plays. He has to continue to learn to play at a pace and compete on pucks. He did a nice job of that in Game One, but now he’s got to continue to do that.”
Sam Warning will play with Haula and Budish on the second line, and Travis Boyd, Nate Condon and Seth Ambroz will make up the third line. Four wingers are competiting for two spots on the fourth line right now, so expect center Tom Serratore to be the only constant on that last group.
The other roster item to keep an eye on is the Gopher defensive pairings. Who plays together, who's on the power play, who gets penalty kill minutes, and will his top eight defensemen all see playing time this weekend, or does it get whittled down to six? A ton of talent back there, but still some questions on how it's all going to work and who is going to be left out.
MSU is a much tougher season opening opponent than Minnesota has faced in awhile, and they'll have to play well to win. But make no mistake, if the Gophers truly are the #1 team in the country like we believe, they need to pick up a couple of W's. Sparty proved capable of knocking off the highly ranked Gophers last year, and would love to do the same to open this season. It should be a great series, and will be fascinating to see if Minnesota can live up to the hype and make a statement to the college hockey world this weekend. Puck drop tonight at 6, Saturday night at 8, and both games are on TV on FSN and on the radio at 1500ESPN.