Spartans to host No. 11 Minnesota at Munn
After opening the season with an overall record of 4-6-1, MSU’s hockey team will commence Big Ten conference play when it hosts No. 11 Minnesota (7-5-2 overall) in a two-game series this Friday and Saturday.
Despite a 1-4-0 record in the month of October, the Spartans managed to reverse their fortunes and ended the month of November with a winning record of 3-2-1.
“I think there’s a lot of areas that have improved from where we started to where we are today,” head coach Tom Anastos said during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “I think our goaltending has gained some confidence and has gained experience most of all.”
Minnesota is fresh off a home loss to a No. 10 Ohio State last
“(The Golden Gophers) have depth on their team,” Anastos said. “They have skill on their team and it’s a new season that the Big Ten season is opening, so for us to be home, it’s going to be important that our compete
Anastos said this Minnesota team might arguably be as good of a team as any they’ve played this season, if not better.
“I think Denver is a real good team,” Anastos said. “Obviously, there were others. North Dakota was a good team. (I) thought (Michigan) Tech was a real good team, but I think Minnesota may be the best team that we’ll have seen so far in terms of their depth, their talent level.”
The Golden Gophers, led by leading scorer Tyler Sheehy, are statistically better than the Spartans in nearly all facets of the game.
Minnesota currently is No. 19 in the NCAA with 50 goals, while MSU is No. 56 with 27.
“They always have a real good power play and our penalty kill has been up and down,” Anastos said. “(It) started very slow, but it has gotten better, but needs to have a really big weekend to give us a chance because their power play is very dynamic.”
Senior forward Villiam Haag has played his best hockey in his career against Minnesota.
In 12 games against the Gophers, Haag has a total of six goals and three assists. His nine points against Minnesota are the most career points by an active Spartan against any Big Ten opponent.
“(Haag’s) play is very important to us,” Anastos said. “As a senior, players get a lot of ice time both in even strength and power play situations. He has had a level of success in the past against Minnesota, and I know my from own playing experience that always bowed well when you play against a team that you had success with.”
Haag said he doesn’t believe his strong play against the Gophers is just a coincidence.
“I know my abilities and I know I can compete with the best players in the country where we are, so I think playing against good teams makes me bring out the best out (of) me and you have to really play hard and play your best,” Haag said. “I think it’s a combination of you playing the best and that also brings out the best in me.”
In addition to Haag’s strong play against the Golden Gophers, senior forwards Joe Cox and Thomas Ebbing played two of their best games of the season against then-No. 5 North Dakota.
Cox scored the game-winning goal against the Fighting Hawks. Ebbing recorded an assist on the power play goal while preserving the victory with a pair of blocked shots in the closing minutes.
The following night, Cox and Ebbing teamed up to give the Spartans an early 1-0 lead over the Fighting Hawks on a penalty kill as Cox set up the scoring play to give Ebbing his first goal of the season.
Both Cox and Ebbing are currently on a season-long three game point streak.
“I think it’s really important especially going into conference play and being at a place where we can be confident with our play,” Cox said. “We’re putting up good goals and are playing sound defense and I mean, that’s just going to make us that much more competitive in an already tough league.”
Anastos said the two-game series against Minnesota will give the team a measurement of how they have progressed this season.
“It’s an important measuring stick to see how far we’ve gone from the start of the season to now,” Anastos said. “We know we’re not a finished product. We’re a work in process, and when you’re playing against a good team, you like to see how you measure up.”
Puck-drop for the series opener on Friday is set for 6:30 p.m. Saturday’s match is set for 8 p.m. and both games will be at Munn Ice Arena. Both matches will be broadcast on Big Ten Network.