Hockey season plagued with mixed performances
In front of 20,027 fans at Joe Louis Arena, University of Michigan forward Dexter Dancs had the game on his stick. All by himself in front of the net, he hesitated, slowing his pace. Dancs was milliseconds away from getting a shot past MSU senior goaltender Jake Hildebrand, but MSU freshman forward Mason Appleton had something else in mind.
Dancs' hesitation gave Appleton the inches he needed to preserve MSU’s (7-19-2) diamond in the rough. Appleton shot off the bench in full force, galloping with each thrust of his leg, and flew down the ice toward his own zone.
Throwing his body at the ice, Appleton dove and swatted the puck off Dancs’ stick, sending the puck out of the zone and shifting the momentum of the game in MSU’s favor. Moments later, junior forward Joe Cox, who had done everything for his team this game but play goalie, found the puck on his stick all alone. He cut to his backhand and just as he tried to release the shot, U-M defenseman Joseph Cecconi chopped Cox’s arm.
A minute and one second later on the ensuing power play, MSU junior forward Villiam Haag slipped into the top of the slot, faked a shot, drew a U-M defender to him and slid the puck to senior forward Matt DeBlouw, who anticipated the one-time opportunity.
DeBlouw blasted the puck off the post and in behind U-M goaltender Steve Racine to score MSU an upset of No. 6 U-M.
The Spartans celebrated as if they they had won an NCAA title, piling on top of each other on the boards adjacent to the Spartan bench. But they still had won a trophy: a 50-pound metal trophy called The Iron D. MSU laid claim to the newly inaugurated trophy in the hotly contested Duel in the D matchup.
That harrowing effort was followed up with a 4-1 loss at the hands of U-M on Saturday. The Iron D might be the only trophy the MSU hockey team will have to show for their losing season.
“Sure it feels great to win it, you know it’s nice, but you've got to finish the deal," MSU senior captain and forward Michael Ferrantino said after the loss Saturday. "It’s a two-game weekend, not one game.”
For every MSU victory this season, with the exception of three games, the following game has been a loss.
“It doesn’t really matter, you play a sport for a reason,” Cox said about inconsistencies this season. “You got to come here with a lot of energy every game. Guys on this team come from leagues where they play 60-plus games a year and we only play around 35. We can’t really have that excuse, being tired. I mean, you’re here for a reason, you’re here to play two games a weekend. We've just got to be better effort wise.”
The year started with promise. A team that finished second in the Big Ten last season and returned four of its top five point getters was expected to contend again for the Big Ten.
Behind All-American goaltender Hildebrand and a stoic defense that allowed only 2.3 goals a game, MSU was thought to be poised for a run that would bring the program back to it’s former standing.
“With the whole turning the program around we talked about since I’ve been here, that’s one of the biggest things we need to do to make sure that people know Michigan State hockey is back,” Hildebrand said before the start of the season.
MSU hockey was a powerhouse from 1982-2008, earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament 23 times in that 26-year span. The tournament was almost a guarantee for MSU, earning eight trips to the Frozen Four and two national titles. The program was even more successful off the national stage, amassing 12 Great Lakes Invitational titles, seven CCHA regular season titles and 11 CCHA Tournament Championships.
During that 26-year span, somewhere along the line, hockey tickets were in high demand by and Munn Ice Arena was electric. Now, the program has fallen from that standing and Munn's volume lacks flare.
Returning the program to its former glory was the goal for the Spartans, but they’ve fallen short as they are ranked No. 46, according to the PairWise rankings. As the NCAA Division I hockey tournament is reserved for 16 teams, this would put MSU 30 spots out of a playoff berth.
Following up their best performance of the season with a three-goal loss on home ice was a hard pill to swallow for head coach Tom Anastos. He said he wondered why only some players were playing hard enough to win games.
“I really thought we had things addressed, we expected a push,” Anastos said Saturday. “We just didn’t have enough guys going. On the other hand there were guys going, but it’s not enough. It’s a team game. You got to have way more guys going and that’s what frustrates me a little bit. Not a little bit, a lot.”
A win over U-M at a venue like Joe Louis Arena is undoubtedly the bright spot in the otherwise disappointing season, but it’s not the win that matters to Anastos. He doesn’t want his team to settle for a win.
“I am angry," Anastos said. "I don't want people to get complacent for easy reasons. You’re scratching your head saying you’re coming off a good win last night on a good effort against a real good team in a great environment and then you come home in another great environment and you want to make sure you lay it on the line out there. ... We’re constantly looking at how we prepare ourselves. What changed between last night and today when we dropped the puck? Each individual person has to get themselves ready to play and not expect, 'hey, last night we got a win.' OK, that’s old news, today’s a new day and we have to learn that.”
Even with the up and down results, Anastos won’t take moral victories.
“I don’t know if the way our season’s gone that some guys can get easily satisfied, I don’t,” Anastos said. “I don’t want any easy satisfaction in our dressing room, that’s not what we want here. How can you be complacent? Are we expecting a good win on Friday and we’re not eager to try and complete the weekend?”
The win over U-M will serve as the performance MSU will measure itself with, and should be the rule not the exception. But the win in the grand scheme of the season is just that, a win.