Michigan State Trying to Re-Establish Itself
A Last-Place Season, Injuries and Last Weekend's Sweep Have Taken a Toll
by Michael King/Staff Writer
As with every college hockey season, most teams experience injuries. Though the nature and extent of these injured players varies across teams, conferences, and seasons, its impact on the game is undeniable. Line continuities are disrupted. Freshmen and other young players realize opportunities to play consistently. Players acclimate to new line mates or pairings.
For Michigan State, injuries have clustered and deprived the team of several of its best players at this early stage of the season. The Spartans dropped its pair of road games at Massachusetts over the weekend, falling 3-1 and 5-2.
The quality of players lost has been partially offset by the team’s ability to integrate replacements during the last few weeks of the preseason. Though the start was not ideal, had these same injuries occurred later in the year, the impact would have been far greater.
Junior forward Matt Berry, who led the Spartans in scoring last year with 31 points, suffered a lower-body injury in the preseason. He is out 6-10 weeks. Sophomore defenseman John Draeger and redshirt sophomore goaltender Nate Phillips both injured the same part of the body and have similar timetables for return. All three required surgery.
The extended loss of Berry was significant from a scoring and leadership perspective. Draeger offers an offensive dimension from the blueline and a knack for shot-blocking (ranked third nationally in the statistic last year). The Minnesota Wild draftee also spent significant time on the top pairing last year as a freshman.
Smith, meanwhile, redshirted last year and appeared poised to provide competition to starter Jake Hildebrand in net.
The players will be out at least three more weeks – possibly longer. In addition, Tanner Sorenson – MSU’s second-leading scorer last year (13-8-21) – was suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules.
“Anytime you have guys out who mean that much to our team and our key to our success, it's difficult,” senior forward Greg Wolfe said after Friday’s loss.
Michigan State coach Tom Anastos refused to let missing players serve as a convenient excuse for his team’s 0-2 start to the season.
"We don't really talk about [injuries] or dwell on them,” he said. “We put the best lineup out there available to us. We're missing guys that can help our team. When they're ready to play and contribute, we'll deal with that."
But the uniqueness of the injury timing has helped the Spartans. Rather than work to assimilate different players into the line-up mid-way through conference play, for example, MSU was fortunate – relatively speaking – to utilize the preseason to establish some continuity.
Much of this responsibility falls to Wolfe, the captain. He acknowledged that establishing strong discipline and practice habits are critical in integrating younger players.
"The biggest thing is that everyone gets out there and continues to work hard,” he said after Friday’s loss. “We have some guys in the line-up who don't have any college experience. I thought they played pretty well for the first game."
On Saturday, the Spartans again did not achieve the intended result, primarily undone by five UMass power play goals through the first two periods.
The complete failure of the weekend’s special teams (62 percent penalty kill, six extra-man goals allowed), clouded the overall tangible progress made during the first two competitive games of 2013-14.
“We took too many penalties and our penalty kill was subpar,” Anastos said about Saturday’s effort. “But other parts of our game improved a lot from game one to game two. We certainly generated good scoring chances, where their goalie made some big saves at important times.”
“Ironically,” he added, “in most areas – other than special teams – I thought we played a much better game [Saturday]. If you just look at the score, it wouldn’t indicate that at all.”
The improvement is welcome, necessary. Further, progress must be attained. The schedule instantly becomes less friendly, as 2013 Frozen Four participant Massachusetts-Lowell and Boston University visit East Lansing this weekend. Fortunately for the Spartans, the team does not begin Big Ten play until the first week of December.
At that time, Berry and Draeger should be healthy and filling the need for experienced two-way players in the line-up. The remainder of non-conference play will involve MSU’s continued reliance on youth.
As suggested by the scorelines, the Spartans started six freshmen Friday and seven Saturday against the Minutemen.
"We try to give the younger guys as much confidence as we can,” Wolfe said. “I thought they did play with confidence tonight. After the first game of the year, we have to find our legs and keep battling."
Until the list of unhealthy scratches grows smaller, Wolfe’s primary responsibility will be to continue instilling this confidence. Then, the Spartans will have the challenging, yet desirable, task of introducing their key players to the line-up for the first time this year.