Friday, March 23, 2012

Icers fall to Union in NCAA Tournament, but future is bright

(Box score here, radio highlights/photos here)

One year ago to the day, Tom Anastos was introduced as Michigan State's sixth head hockey coach in the program's 70-year history.

It was an unprecedented move. The conference commissioner taking what looked like a lesser role as a head coach. Some thought it was Anastos abandoning the sinking CCHA ship with an eye for an executive role with the Big Ten and its new hockey conference. I didn't believe that, but I didn't know what to think.

One year later, MSU made its first NCAA Tournament appearance in four years, and although it ended in a 3-1 loss to No. 1 seed Union, the program clearly is back on the road to where it belongs, and the future is bright.

Dean Chelios was ejected midway through the first after a checking-from-behind penalty. Union couldn't score in the first four minutes of the powerplay and then committed a penalty of its own. However, Union took a 1-0 lead not long after when the Dutchmen got a 2-on-1. MSU took away the pass, but Max Novak beat Will Yanakeff on the short side.

Before the period ended, MSU thought it had tied the game. Brock Shelgren whacked a puck out of midair amid a scramble and put his hands in the air, but the official signaled no goal. When they went to the replay, it was clear the puck had crossed the goal line. However, a Union player had knocked the net up a few inches. After an very, very long replay look, it was ruled no goal.

In the NHL, it would have been a a goal, but the NCAA rule book says a goal is disallowed "if the goal cage has been moved or dislodged. The goal frame is considered to be displaced if any portion of the goal frame is not in its proper position (e.g., frame must be completely flat on the ice surface, goal posts must be in proper place and affixed securely in place with its pegs)."

It was a really unlucky break for MSU. It didn't seem totally clear if the puck had gone in before the net was dislodged (the replay was really hard to see), but the officials took as much time as they could to look at it. The NCAA had actually talked about changing that rule, but has yet to do so. (The Munn Minute has a more-detailed look at the play).

In the second period, the Spartans had another bad break. After the puck slid across the Union goal line, the Dutchmen took the puck the other way, Yanakeff mishandled a rebound and Union took a 2-0 lead 3:20 into the period. The play had been even up to that point, but Union had gotten the breaks. After extending the lead, Union carried the play for most of the remainder of the period, and the Spartans couldn't get much going on offense. The game was slipping away. The only way they were going to get back in the game was with a break. And it came.

The MSU defense mishandled a puck on a powerplay and Union went in on Yanakeff on a 3-on-0. But the Union player couldn't handle the pass across and a few seconds later, Matt Berry ripped a shot through a screen, off the post and in and MSU had cut the deficit in half with less than a minute to go in the third.

In the third period, both teams had good chances. Toward the end, MSU was getting ready to pull the goalie and make one final charge, but Greg Wolfe's stick got caught in a Union player and he was whistled for a hooking penalty. Less than 20 seconds later, Union got a 2-on-1 and ripped a shot past Yanakeff, sealing the game and ending MSU's season.

Again, it was a fantastic season, even if it ended in the first round. After winning the national championship in 2007 and falling in the second round in 2008, MSU finished second-last in the CCHA in two of the next three seasons. Many thought this would be the first MSU senior class to never make an NCAA Tournament since 1981. But the Spartans stood toe-to-toe with the top teams in the country all season, finished fifth in the CCHA and ended up earning the final at-large spot in the NCAA Tournament. Finally, a step forward for a program that had taken too many steps backward in recent seasons.

When Anastos took the reins, he told the team he wasn't worried about recruiting and winning with "his" players. He wanted to win right now. Mission accomplished. Looking ahead, MSU graduates its largest senior class since 1977-78, but a lot of the scoring actually comes back. Yanakeff will be the undisputed No. 1 goalie.

The problem is that MSU loses three top defensemen, and possibly four if Torey Krug gets picked up by an NHL team, which is likely. Given that his stock likely wouldn't improve that much by staying, I wouldn't be surprised if he leaves if an NHL team comes calling. The Spartans have had a lot of their top players leave early in recent seasons, but that's how college hockey goes.

MSU has been recruiting pretty well, but some of the better recruits won't be coming for a few years (via Munn Minute). However, some transfers are coming in: R.J. Boyd from Sacred Heart (who is a Florida Panthers draft pick) and Nick Gatt from Alabama-Huntsville are both defensemen, and should be suitable replacements on the blue line.

It's a new era for MSU hockey, and the future is bright. One of the most successful programs in college hockey history is on its way back to being part of the nation's elite.

No comments:

Post a Comment