The No. 17 MSU hockey team was the best team in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) on Thursday night.
After the Spartans’ 3-0 victory against No. 10 Nebraska-Omaha, the Spartans sat atop the CCHA standings for a night before No. 1 Miami regained the top spot with a weekend sweep against No. 4 Michigan.
With MSU’s early success, I’ve frequently been asked this question: What’s the difference between this season’s team and the squad that crashed and burned last year?
First off, MSU head coach Rick Comley implemented a new system for the team at the start of the season, and its impact has been drastic.
Not once last season did Comley mention system play during a press conference. But this year, it’s been brought up every time Comley speaks to the media.
“It’s not one player or one line; it’s the system,” Comley said of the team’s success. “The reason we are better offensively is because we are better defensively. And we are better defensively because of the system. The system is much better than any player we have in that locker room. That’s what they have to believe.”
The core of the system comes from a wedge the Spartans create in the neutral zone when opponents are breaking out of their defensive zone. The Spartans force opponents to take the puck to the outside, where MSU’s defensemen are waiting to force a turnover or dump in entrance into the offensive zone.
Offensively, the Spartans are using team speed to gain entry into the zone and create rushes.
And this has worked well because of the team’s balance.
All four lines have contributed and the goals have filtered through the lineup — only two of the team’s regular 12 starting forwards haven’t recorded goals yet this season.
Last season, if the Spartans’ top line struggled, it was all over for the team.
A lot of the success and balance in the lines this season comes from the chemistry each line has built with each other.
Last year, the lines were a constant jumble, and Comley constantly mixed things up to try to find something to click.
The stellar play of the freshman class has been the biggest surprise this season. But the rookies have to become adjusted to the way the college game is officiated.
In the past four games, three freshman have been whistled for game misconduct penalties for checking from behind.
And on Friday, six of the game’s first penalties were called on the Spartans, all of which were whistled on MSU freshmen.
“The game of hockey has changed dramatically,” Comley said. “There is no place for big hits along the boards anymore. If there are going to be big hits, it’s going to have to be open ice hits. If it’s loud and it’s hard, it’s (called) boarding or it’s something else. Every big hit along the boards has been called.”
Friday’s second period game-misconduct penalty to freshman forward Dean Chelios changed the complexion of the game and Nebraska-Omaha seized the momentum in the middle frame.
And two of the three goals scored on sophomore goaltender Drew Palmisano on Friday were soft, fluky goals — saves Palmisano usually makes look routine.
So this weekend really could have been another sweep for the Spartans, but instead the team took four of a possible six points.
“You’d love it to be perfect every night, but it’s not going to be,” Comley said. “At 7-2-1, if you can do that in your next 10, you’d be all smiles.”
“We have confidence, and players are stepping up that are younger guys.” junior forward Andrew Rowe said. “We have some very good potential to be an excellent team come the playoffs. It’s going to be a 180 from last year.”
November is a huge month for the Spartans, with home-and-home series against U-M and No. 9 Notre Dame on deck.
It’s been a drastic turnaround thus far, but let’s see how long the Spartans can stay headed in the right direction.