After coming off its final bye week of the season, the MSU hockey team, 5-15-2, 1-6-1 Big Ten, embarks on a six-straight weekend series slate beginning with the No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers, 13-8-1, 6-2 Big Ten, this weekend.
In MSU’s last series, the Spartans came away with a win and a draw against in-state rival University of Michigan, while the Badgers enter this weekend’s series on a three-game winning streak after a sweep of then-No. 8 Ohio State.
“They present challenges in many different ways,” head coach Tom Anastos said. “I think they have a lot of depth up front. They’ve been scoring with a lot of consistency. They’ve got the real talented, high-end players up front in particular, and their special teams have been pretty consistent.”
This marks the second series between these teams this season. The Spartans were swept in the first series as they were defeated 5-1 on the road on Jan. 6 before falling again to them 5-1 the next day.
“We’ve got to be a lot faster,” sophomore forward Mason Appleton said on how the team needs to improve for this weekend. “I thought we were slow both games there when we were (at Wisconsin) a couple weeks ago. So we’ve got to be hard on pucks, fast on pucks, winning races and then making plays with our feet.”
Anastos said the Spartans are entering Friday’s game with a few injuries, as junior goaltender Ed Minney and senior forward JT Stenglein are both “banged up.”
Stenglein has not been active since the first game in the Penn State series on Jan. 13, and Anastos said Minney was injured in the Spartans’ shootout loss to the Wolverines. He said their status for Friday is unknown.
Appleton continues to lead the Spartans in goals with nine and points with 19. He has logged a point in 14 of 22 games, including three of the last five. The Green Bay, Wis. native has recorded 13 points on the power play, which is second in the Big Ten.
The Badgers, who have won five of their last six games, are guided by sophomore Luke Kunin as he leads the Badgers in goals with 15 and points with 24, while junior Cameron Hughes has a team-high 15 assists on the season.
While the Spartans’ goaltender for Friday’s contest is unknown, the Badgers have been splitting the goalie position between freshman Jack Berry and sophomore Matt Jurusik. Berry leads the Badgers with 14 starts and has a .907 save average, and Jurusik has a .879 save average on 11 starts.
MSU looks to keep its impressive special teams performance alive against the Badgers, who are currently third in the Big Ten with a 21.8 percent success rate on the power play, and they lead in the penalty kill, killing 86.7 percent of opposing power plays.
The Spartans — although their season total has been dismal — have shown a recent increase on special teams. In each of the last five games, the Spartans have capitalized on the power play, coming away with a goal. The streak marks the first time the Spartans recorded a power-play goal in five-straight matchups since Feb. 2012 when MSU scored on the man-advantage in six-straight contests.
“They’re a really good team right now,” Appleton said. “They’ve been winning a lot of hockey games, and they beat us pretty bad both nights we were there. So, I think they’re going to see a completely different Michigan State, and we’re definitely going to be ready for them.”
Sophomore forward Zach Osburn said the bye week has given the team much needed rest and motivation.
“Well, as a team, we didn’t skate too much (during the bye week),” Osburn said. “So right now, we’re feeling pretty good, we’re feeling pretty rested up, and we’re just getting ready for another weekend of hockey against Wisconsin. I can speak for our whole team that we’re pretty excited about it coming off the couple of loses that we had before, but now they’re in our barn, and we’re going to be ready for them.”
The 5-foot-10 forward from Plymouth, Mich. added that the team has to be able to generate turnovers in order to succeed this weekend.
“We know that they've got some good forwards that can make plays, and they’ve got some skill up front that they’re really hard to play against in the offensive zone,” he said. "I think what we’re going to have to do is put pucks behind their defenseman and forecheck them to create turnovers for scoring chances.”
The Spartans will play the Badgers on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. at Munn Ice Arena. Both games can be stream online at BTN2GO.
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