Friday, January 25, 2013

Michigan State Q-and-A with The Munn Minute


What: NCAA Men at Michigan State

Where: Munn Ice Arena, East Lansing, MI

When: Friday, January 25 at 7:05 p.m, Saturday, January 26 at 6:05 p.m.

Friday Coverage: Video: MSU ($); Audio: MSU (free)PSU ($), Stats: MSU (free)

Saturday Coverage: Television: Big Ten Network (check local listings); Video: MSU ($); Audio: MSU (free), PSU ($); Stats: MSU (free)

In lieu of the typical TYT pregame post, Michigan State blogger Matt Latham of The Munn Minute and I took turns answering questions for the inside angle on each other's teams. Here's my half of the deal, if you're interested:

Big Ten Hockey - Penn State Q&A with TYTBlog
MSU Drops Exhibition Contest, Q&A Part II with TYTBlog

Be sure to get TMM - the Michigan State blog officially endorsed by TYT and located at themunnminute.blogspot.com - on your reading list and follow it on Twitter (@TheMunnMinute) as well.

Now for the best look at 6-15-3 (5-12-1 CCHA) Michigan State you'll get anywhere. Thanks again to Matt for helping out!

TYT: First, obviously, tell us a little about your team this year. You made the NCAA tournament last year, but graduated nine seniors, including all three of your NHL picks at the time - plus Torey Krug signed with the Boston Bruins as well. So a bit of a rebuilding year?

TMM: From a fan standpoint, the first half of the season was about trying to figure out all the new players. I think we all thought this might be a bit of a "down" year, but I don't know if many of us were expecting the offense to struggle as much as it has. This hasn't been helped by injuries to guys like Dean Chelios and David Bondra. Not that we were expecting a ton of offense from either guy, but I think it's forced some players into unexpected roles. Plus losing a guy like Krug really has been noticeable on the power play. Krug was a special player.

The key to this team begins (and ends) in goal. Freshman Jake Hildebrand wasn't getting a ton of attention from recruiting sites or so-called experts, but the kid has delivered a superb season. Prior to this weekend, he had a sub-2.00 GAA and a .940 save percentage. Ferris got to him a little bit on Saturday, so the GAA is back over two (2.01) and his save percentage dipped to .937. It's a shame his record is what it is - 4-10-2, but he's only given up more than two goals in three of those 16 games, and he's been on the wrong end of three 1-0 games. I think his performance on Friday against Ferris State was one of the best in a Spartan uniform dating back to Jeff Lerg's 2007 national title performance or even back when Ryan Miller wore the green and white.

MSU forward Matt DeBlouw was a seventh-round pick of the Calgary Flames last June.

Up front, Matt Berry and Matt DeBlouw have been the scoring leaders. Berry has been struggling lately though (he hasn't scored a goal since the Great Lakes Invitational third place game against Michigan on December 29th). Brent Darnell and Tyler Sorenson have been slowly coming around. On the blueline will be a name every hockey fan should be familiar with - Chelios. Jake Chelios anchors the blueline this season, but his offense has been struggling a bit this year (only six points so far). Another defenseman to pay attention to would be John Draeger - who really seems to be improving and getting more comfortable out there

[Note: Berry will miss Friday's game after receiving a game disqualification against the U.S. National Team Development Program U18s on Tuesday.]

So basically, you should see some great goaltending and a team that has struggled to light the lamp on offense. This MSU team is bigger than in the past, and I feel they are better skaters too. The question I have is if Will Yanakeff will see time this weekend. I'm wondering if Hildebrand needs a break, but with the exhibition contest on Tuesday, Yanakeff might see time there giving Hildebrand a breather. Yanakeff is a strong goalie in his own right, though his numbers aren't quite as good as Hildebrand.

TYT: Despite the step back record-wise, you have a big win against current No. 7 Notre Dame, and you got a solid kick in on Michigan, which is still a ridiculously talented team despite their record, as well. I have to think those are encouraging signs that the team will bounce back in the next couple years. Is that how you guys are seeing the cycle of things?

TMM: Frustrating would be a way to put it. This team has been up and down all season, which I suppose you can expect playing 300 freshmen (ok, not that many, but a lot, and I have to keep with the Spartan theme). This last weekend was a kick in the gut, in my opinion. Ferris State is a solid team, and they know how to play their system, but I really feel like MSU needed some points after playing as well as they did against ND. MSU simply didn't look as sharp against Ferris State. The 7-2 win against Michigan seems like it was last season at this point, but we also have losses to Bowling Green (at the time they were in last), and now MSU sits in last place in the CCHA. I think they are better than that, but the effort has to be there each night with this team, because there is no room for error.

With that said, some of the little things under Coach Anastos have gotten better. The team does battle much better in the corners, they are winning more face-offs, and for awhile there the power play was actually one of the best in the country (pre-December). I think the recruiting has picked up, but the next two seasons are going to be very telling if the hiring of Coach Anastos was a positive or not. I would expect the team to bounce back and compete well in the Big Ten next year - if the players continue to train hard in the off season.

TYT: You mentioned Matt DeBlouw, one of your star freshmen, who of course was a teammate of our Mark Yanis with Muskegon in the USHL. Tell us a little more about him.

TMM: DeBlouw was one of those freshmen most Spartan fans had pegged as an immediate impact player, and he really hasn't disappointed. His skating ability, puck movement, and vision look really strong out there. At the same time, it seems like he can get caught up trying to make the sweet play (as anyone could) instead of trying for the garbage goal. He has a great shot, and with three points in his last three games, I think he might be heating up once again.

He's been up and down too though - once he finds that consistency, I think he'll be one of the best forwards in the Big Ten.

To an extent, the jury's still out on coach Tom Anastos, but early returns are positive.

TYT: Coach Anastos - what's the feeling on him there? I openly made fun of the hire at the time - I mean, who hires their conference's commissioner - especially after you guys flirted with Denver coach George Gwozdecky, but he's really turned my opinion 180 degrees, I think he's going to prove the right guy. I'd play for him if, you know, I had ability.

TMM: I'll be honest. I was a Danton Cole guy. Cole to me seemed like the perfect fit - a hard-nosed Spartan with a fire in his belly to win. Originally, I wasn't happy with the Coach Anastos hire to the point that I was almost upset. Cole seemed like a slam dunk, and I couldn't see a team hiring the league's commissioner (I mean - if the Red Wings hired Gary Bettman, I might become a Blackhawks fan).

I made some jokes about it too - I figured we'd get all the calls now that we have the guy who ran the CCHA behind our bench. I mean, he has the connections to the commissioner's office right? No more [Matt] Shegos [a CCHA referee and Michigan alumnus who is not particularly popular] screwing us over.

But in all seriousness, the first thing Coach Anastos did that sold me was his first meeting with the team - when he told the entire group "You are my guys, and I'm one of you." Coach Anastos understands hockey at Michigan State (helps playing here). The job Coach Anstos and Coach [Kelly] Miller did with this group was amazing, and it turned me around as well. We were back to respectability in the CCHA and nationally making the NCAA tournament. The team responded well - and they really looked like they were working their you-know-whats off to get playing time. That sold me. Even this season as they struggle, the team looks different than it did the last couple years under Coach [Rick] Comley. The recruiting looks like it's picking up, and I feel the future is very bright under Coach Anastos and Coach Miller.

I also think hiring Coach Miller as an assistant was a brilliant move. I know some Spartan fans that thought Miller would be a good head coach. Plus, Coach Anastos has done a great job bringing the student body and community back to the sport. The PR of the team has improved quite a bit, and now the stadium is filling up again. I'd have to check this, but I heard this weekend that Michigan State leads the CCHA in attendance.

Now just imagine when the thing gets turned around what will happen.

Chris Chelios headlines a group of well-known hockey dads with a stake in PSU-MSU.

TYT: Who would win in a game between the parents of our players? We have Ed Olczyk and Dave Jensen, who were both teammates with Chris Chelios on the 1984 Olympic team, and you also have Peter Bondra. I'm thinking edge to you guys, yours are Hall of Fame-level.

TMM: I'm too biased here as a Wings fan - Chelios hands down gives the all-pro Spartan squad the edge. I'm pretty sure Chris could still lace them up today - though Jake and Dean Chelios claim they can take him now.

TYT: From a PSU perspective, the Big Ten is all we know hockey-wise, so tell us a little about the MSU perspective, as a program that has to actually leave behind another conference, rivalries, etc. Excited for the future or bitter about it?

TMM: Oh, I'm excited, and I haven't made this a secret or anything. I LOVE the idea of Big Ten hockey. I used to love seeing Minnesota and Wisconsin over Thanksgiving. I won't miss staying up till 12 a.m. listening to the team play in Alaska, but I do hope MSU continues to try to schedule the Michigan schools and teams like Notre Dame and Miami. I've heard MSU is committed to playing all the Michigan schools now in non-conference games, so that includes teams like Michigan Tech - which would be fun to see.

But MSU has one main rival in hockey - Michigan. Notre Dame is up there too, but nothing gets either fan base going like a MSU-Michigan hockey game, and I often tell people who don't know much about it, to check it out. It can be more heated than anything you see in football or basketball. It helps the two teams usually are pretty good though (or at least have been over the last 20 years).

And I think if you look over the long term attendance figures, you'll see MSU fans show up for big name schools - even if they aren't big hockey schools. Ohio State draws well. Notre Dame always drew well. Wisconsin and Minnesota did well even though it was over a holiday break. I bet Penn State will too. And if MSU really fills their schedules with some of their CCHA brothers, then I think we'll have the best of both worlds.

TYT: What's your take on the Big Ten's recent struggles and your outlook for the future of the league?

TMM: Thank God for Minnesota. Wisconsin has been hit hard by early departures, and I think Michigan is finally learning that too, along with what it's like to try to play without a goalie. MSU is clearly in rebuilding mode, and Ohio State has forever been a sleeping giant. I can't see any of these schools staying down for long. Right now Minnesota looks like they'll be kings of the Big Ten for a little while. I fully expect the Big Ten schools to compete in the coming years on a national level. It could be a very tough league based on the history of the programs.

TYT: An obligatory PSU-MSU question: thoughts on the Land Grant Trophy. Should we move it over to hockey, or maybe try something new between the schools?

I think you said it best when you said it's like playing your twin brother. Neither school really has much ill-will towards one another, and I suppose that is a good thing right now. The football rivalry never really amounted to much of anything. The trophy itself, yeah, without a doubt the ugliest thing in sports. I'm not sure we can force something here hockey-wise. I fear if we do, we might outdo ourselves with the Land Grant Trophy part II. The rivalry would need to naturally develop. Let's face it, Minnesota and Wisconsin have each other and Michigan-Michigan State have each other as well. Those are two of the most historical rivalries in college hockey. I figure Penn State-Ohio State could be a good rivalry.

We'll have to see how competitive both teams are in the new conference. If both programs are playing for Big Ten titles, the rivalry will heat up. In the meantime, we can enjoy the Land Grant history and cheering for each other to kick some SEC butt in bowl games (once PSU becomes bowl eligible again - sorry).

But as I've said on my blog - I'm really looking forward to seeing Penn State this season. Because the potential is there for something. If anything maybe we can get a blog bet going - hijack in school colors or something for a week. Or maybe force the loser to display the Land Grant Trophy - large photo size.

Freshman Jake Hildebrand, formerly of the Cleveland Barons U18s, has stolen the goaltending job.

TYT: Prediction? Pain? I'm a little nervous with us coming off of a big win - this is actually our first time going back-to-back against major-conference teams.

TMM: Some MSU fans think it'd be embarrassing to lose to Penn State this season. I kindly point out to them that Penn State has beaten Ohio State, something Michigan State couldn't do at Munn. I fully expect Penn State to compete hard both nights, because if anything, this (I figure) is one of your bigger weekend series of the season (Wisconsin being the other). Your team will be fired up for this weekend, and MSU will need to be ready to go.

MSU hasn't won two straight games all year, and I'm not about to predict it until I see it happen. I figure this is a good weekend to begin a streak like that, but I don't expect it to be easy. I'm hoping that maybe the offense can finally get going a little bit this weekend. I think both teams are looking for consistency, and when they are, anything is possible.

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