MSU hockey set to take on New Hampshire in weekend series
Head coach Tom Anastos opened up his press conference with a smile on Tuesday. His enthusiastic grin expressed his itch to take the ice again. The Spartan team (2-3-1) after battling injuries early on in the season is fresh off a much needed bye week, but the road only gets more daunting from here.
“We’re anxious to get back at it,” Anastos said. “You never want to have a break in your season necessarily, but it came at a good time given the injuries we’re wrestling with.”
New Hampshire (3-2-1) will travel to Munn Ice Arena this week for a Friday-Saturday series with the Spartans. Both games begin at 7:05 p.m. The Wildcats, perennial contenders in the Hockey East Conference, last faced the Spartans Nov. 7 and Nov. 8 of 2014, when the two teams split the weekend series. However, UNH might be the Spartans' toughest opponent to date as they boast two of the nation's top five point-getters.
“They’ve gotten off to a pretty good offensive start,” Anastos said. “Play with a lot of skill, a lot of speed very good transition, which will present challenges for us.”
The Spartans will also have to play sound defense in front of senior goaltender Jake Hildebrand as UNH averages 4.5 goals per game. However, the Spartans have one of the best shot blocking teams in the country, averaging 16.33 blocks per game and good for sixth in the nation.
On the flip side, UNH has conceded an average of 3.3 a game, something an offense on the brink of a scoring breakthrough can take advantage of. This bodes well for the Spartans, who are tough to beat when scoring three goals during a game. MSU is 53-9-6 under Anastos when scoring at least three goals.
On special teams, the Spartans are lagging on one side but flying high on the other. The Spartans have killed off 25 of 26 opponent power plays, ranking its penalty kill sixth in the nation.
However, the Spartans can’t seem to make ends meet on the power play, only converting on four of its 34 opportunities. UNH averages 11.3 minutes per game shorthanded, meaning MSU will have opportunities for the power play to click. Thus far the Spartans have been unable to find a power play grouping that works. With injuries to key players, the power play woes may continue.
A bright spot for the Spartans' six games in has been the play of junior forward JT Stenglein. Stenglein leads the team in points with seven in six games. Stenglein now has three multi-point nights.
“I think he’s starting to grasp what we’ve asked him to do to translate his game from where he was in junior hockey to here,” Anastos said of Stenglein’s rise. “He’s working harder at that than he ever has.”
The unsung hero of MSU might be freshman forward Mason Appleton. Appleton has produced five points in the six games he’s played. Besides producing at a high level for a freshman at MSU, Appleton ranks top 10 nationally among freshmen in assists.
“He’s a smart player, he makes players around him better,” Anastos said. “I’ve been impressed so far with his compete level on the ice. We’re pleased with how he’s progressing. I think as he gains experience over a period of time he’s just gonna get better and better and better.”
Outside of the numbers, a few things to keep an eye on during this weekend’s series come down to the styles of play.
“Out east it seems that there’s a little bit smaller teams that like to get up and down the ice,” captain Michael Ferrantino said. “A lot of them play on big surfaces, they’re really skilled and skate really well. We’ll have to bring our legs and be ready to go.”
With speed to burn, the Spartans will need to keep the skates moving and be watchful of stretch passes. Speed benefits teams, but even more so through the neutral zone. If MSU is to counterattack the speed of the Wildcats, it will need to be physical and avoid its recent trend of pesky turnovers in and around the blue lines.
“We have to get in there way and kind of bump them when we can,” Ferrantino said. “Make sure more than anything we’re right in their time and space not giving them a chance to make a play.”