It’s no secret that the problem plaguing the MSU hockey team for most of the season has been an inability to score in the first two periods. But not being able to score at all, as was the case on Friday against Bowling Green, is another problem altogether.
Facing experienced senior goaltender Andrew Hammond, the Spartans (2-4-1 overall, 1-2-0 CCHA) were shutout for the first time of the season in a 1-0 affair Friday at Munn Ice Arena.
Yet after a hard-fought game, which saw the Spartans outshoot Bowling Green 29-25, head coach Tom Anastos heaped praise on the play of the Falcons for their defensive strategy in a back-and-forth in-conference battle.
“There were things that we were contending with all week, (but) I’m going to give Bowling Green the credit; I thought they played a very patient road game that was difficult to play against their team,” Anastos said. “Early, they were just dumping pucks out of their zone and not allowing you to establish a forecheck and creating races in the neutral zone.
“When they got opportunities, they did a good job forechecking and played well around their goaltender.”
It was a difficult week of practice for the Spartans, due in part to at least seven players – not including the ones lost to injuries – missing time with flu-like symptoms. Anastos said the team held an optional practice during the week as he had several players experiencing headaches, fever and sore throats, among other symptoms.
The effects perhaps were most noticeable early in the game, as the Spartans came out somewhat sluggish and were outshot in the first period 9-5.
“It’s not typical this time of year where you have an optional practice Monday and you have half your team here Tuesday and a little more back on Wednesday,” he said. “We were changing our practices by the hour based on, ‘OK, so-and-so just called and he’s not feeling well.’ And that’s just how it goes. I don’t want to use that as an excuse; it’s just the way it goes.”
Bowling Green jumped on top midway through the first period courtesy of defenseman Connor Kucera. With the team in the attacking zone, forward Adam Berkle found Kucera, who collected the puck near the blue line and fired a shot past freshman goalie Jake Hildebrand.
The goal marks Kucera’s first tally of the season and it was sturdy enough to put the Falcons on top for the rest of the game.
However, the loss didn’t come without chances for Spartans’ offense.
Outside of leading the shots category, the Spartans had five power play opportunities in the game, including a 5-on-3 advantage in the third period, which the team was unable to convert.
“The goalie stood on his head and was playing well; we just couldn’t get anything past him,” freshman defenseman John Draeger said. “We gotta crash the net more and get some second chances because everything on the first opportunity, he was making the save on. We just gotta do a better job on that.”
The loss snaps an eight-game unbeaten streak for MSU over the Falcons. Before Friday’s game, the last loss to Bowling Green came on Feb. 21, 2009, where the Spartans were shutout 4-0 in Bowling Green, Ohio.
To get an opportunity to take the second game from the Falcons, junior forward and team captain Greg Wolfe said the Spartans need to be more aggressive and find more opportunities in front of the net. The Spartans return to action in the back half of a home-and-home series at 7:05 p.m. Saturday against Bowling Green.
“The biggest thing for us is getting pucks to the net and just crashing like crazy and putting a lot of pressure on them,” Wolfe said. “Just get (Hammond) off his game and feel that pressure so he’s not handling the puck as well. … Once we get that pressure on net, he might start fumbling the puck and leaving it around the crease for guys to hopefully get there and put it in.”
Following the game, Anastos said the team will be without several of its key freshman for an extended period of time.
Defenseman Rhett Holland likely will miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury, while forward Ryan Keller will miss several weeks with an unspecified upper body injury. In the case of Holland, Anastos said he will have surgery to repair a damaged shoulder, which happened in an Oct. 26 game against Lake Superior State.
Anastos said although there had been talk about Holland playing with the injury, it’s best for his wellness and confidence that he sit out the season.
“I played with (a similar injury); it was the most miserable year of my hockey life,” Anastos said. “He’s a physical player and that’s a hard way to play. I told him, ‘Let’s look long term, let’s look big picture.’ I’d love to have him out there because he gives a real physical presence, but I think the best thing to do for his health and his confidence and long term well-being is to go take care of it and use time on our side to get it fixed.”
Since taking the head coaching role last season, Anastos often has invited a fellow MSU coach to join him and his staff on the bench. On Friday, that distinction went to MSU’s head baseball coach Jake Boss Jr.
However, Boss, who coached the baseball program to its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1979 in the spring, is no stranger to MSU’s bench. Following his team’s Big Ten championship run in 2011, Boss joined Anastos on the bench last season and was among the first specials guests to spend the game in that capacity.
Anastos said Boss was excited for the opportunity to return to the bench at Munn Ice Arena.
“He just sat there and took it all in,” Anastos said. “I know he was excited about joining us. You’d have to ask Jake; he was very excited to come on again. … It kind of got back to me that he would love to do it again. We actually had someone else scheduled for tonight and that had to change, so he was excited about doing it.
“I told him, even if it’s not Halloween; he had to dress like Don Cherry. And he kind of did.”