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PREVIEW: MSU hockey weathers finals week, takes on Northeastern as part of sports tripleheader

December 15, 2016
The Spartans celebrate after scoring a goal during the second period in the game against Minnesota on Dec. 9, 2016 at Munn Ice Arena. The Spartans were defeated by the Gophers, 4-2.
The Spartans celebrate after scoring a goal during the second period in the game against Minnesota on Dec. 9, 2016 at Munn Ice Arena. The Spartans were defeated by the Gophers, 4-2.

On Sunday, the MSU hockey team (4-8-1, 0-2 Big Ten) will play its final game before taking nine days off for the Christmas break when the team takes on Northeastern University (5-7-4, 1-6-2 Hockey East) at Munn Ice Arena.

The game is a part of a three-sport tripleheader as the two schools will also play each other in men’s and women’s basketball.

The Huskies are making their first trip to Munn Ice Arena for the first time since 1983. The Spartans faced the Huskies last year on the road for the first time between the two schools in 19 seasons.

“(The Huskies) will be a very difficult challenge for us,” head coach Tom Anastos said during his weekly press conference Tuesday. “They’re a hard team to play against. They play fast and we’re used to that. That’s what we’ve seen the whole first half of the season, but it doesn’t get any easier, that’s for sure.”

Anastos said he isn’t fooled by the Huskies’ record because of their ability to turn a season around.

“Last year it was this time of the year, from a record standpoint, (the Huskies) were really struggling,” Anastos said. “They beat us 2-1 (last December) and they went on a run and had a great second half (of the season), and I think their team (is) better than it was at that time last year.”

For the Spartans to come away with a win Sunday, Anastos said they must play at a high pace and generate more offensive scoring chances.

The head coach also mentioned his team must fix the mistakes it committed during last year’s 2-1 road loss to the Huskies in order to pick up the victory.

“We have to be able to manage the puck better, possess the puck better and create more pressure whether it’s coming up the ice on our rushes in transition or offensive zone play against Northeastern,” Anastos said.

Because his players were taking exams, Anastos said he tweaked the practice schedule to give his players a reasonable amount of time to focus on their schoolwork, but said the main focus once all his players have completed their exams is Northeastern.

“Obviously, we have finals week this week,” Anastos said. “It’ll be an unusual or it’ll be a different kind of week of preparation, but come the end of the week, we've got to focus on just playing hockey and ending the first half (of the season) playing well and going into the break that we have and getting ready for the (Great Lakes Invitational)."

Despite the minimized length of practice time this week, Anastos still feels there is enough time to effectively prepare for the Huskies.

“I think preparation-wise, there’s enough time to get ready to play," Anastos said. "But it’s all going to get backloaded because the majority of guys’ tests are early in the week, and we want them to have all the time they need to get prepared for those."

Anastos is still uncertain of the status of junior defenseman Carson Gatt. Anastos said he won’t know more about Gatt, who has missed the last two games because of a lower body injury, until later in the week. He said Gatt skated at his own pace on Monday.

The Huskies — who have a 0-4-2 record when on the road this season — have dropped three of their last four games and have lost 10 letterwinners from last year’s team that won the Hockey East Tournament.

Northeastern is led by senior forward Zach Aston-Reese, who currently is leading the Huskies in goals with 11. Reese, along with forwards Dylan Sikura and Adam Gaudette, have all accumulated more than 20 points so far this season.

Statistically, the Huskies lead the Spartans in most areas of the game.

Having played three more games than the Spartans, the Huskies have scored 19 more goals than MSU. Their 50 goals this season places them at No. 30 in the NCAA. The Spartans rank at No. 57 in the country.

The Huskies have been efficient when shorthanded this season. Currently killing 86.9 percent of penalties called against them, they rank in the top 10 of the NCAA. The Spartans, killing just 73.3 percent, are ranked No. 60

The Huskies share a similar opponent this season in the Spartans' last foe, Minnesota. The Huskies earned a home win over the Golden Gophers, 6-4, last month. The Spartans failed to beat their Big Ten rivals last weekend as they were swept in both games, 4-2.

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The Spartans do, however, have a better faceoff percentage than the Huskies. The Spartans win 47.3 percent of their faceoffs while the Huskies win 45.5 percent.

Senior forwards Joe Cox and Thomas Ebbing will look to extend their season-long point streak to six games on Sunday. Ebbing’s five consecutive game point streak is the longest of his career.

Cox said getting a win on Sunday will be big for the Spartans heading into the break.

“I think it’s pretty big,” Cox said. “Obviously we didn’t have the weekend that we wanted to last (week), and it’ll just be good for they guys to get a win going into the break and then going into the GLI.”

He said for the Spartans to win, they must be fast and physical.

“I would say just playing fast, stay on them hard, throw the body, make it uncomfortable for them to play in our arena,” Cox said. “I think that’s something we didn't do that well against Minnesota when they came here, so I think that’s kind of what we've got to pick up with intensity a little bit and kind of outplay them with physical and speed.”

Junior goaltender Ed Minney also said recording a win this weekend will be huge for the team.

“I think it’s big for our confidence,” said Minney. “Overall, obviously, we came off a great week at North Dakota. We had a good weekend against (USA Hockey National Team Development Program), and to come in there and get swept like that (against Minnesota), we know we’re a better team than that, and I feel like a win here will give us some confidence going into break and come back and get ready for the GLI.”

He said it’s always fun to be a part of the three-sport tripleheader, but added that they must be ready to play the whole game in order to win.

“(A tripleheader is) always a fun thing to be a part of," Minney said. "But I feel like we’re going to have to play a full 60 minutes and play a team game and work hard the whole 60 minutes if we want to get the results we want."

Puck-drop for Sunday’s game is slated for 3 p.m. and the game can be streamed on BTN Plus.  

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