Before the game Saturday night, Tom Anastos entered the locker room, looked around at the players and slapped the Big Ten standings on the video board showing the team what was at stake. Three hours later, after a grueling and hard-fought 3-2 win that got the Spartans back to .500 on the season, he entered the same locker room and handed the game puck to Mackenzie MacEachern.
MacEachern, who notched his first collegiate hat trick in the game, walked across the locker room and passed the puck to Joe Cox and let Cox lead the fight song.
Cox was the head of a shot-blocking monster that was the Spartan defense last night. Michigan State (12-12-2, 6-4-2-2 in the Big Ten) blocked 25 Penn State shots in the game, five of the hardest were blocked by Cox.
“That display of tenacity, courage, commitment, I don’t know what else you want to call it, was unbelievable,” Anastos said. “The whole team was standing and cheering, and not just once. Those are the kinds of things he brings to the table. That was a heck of a way to start the game.”
The Spartans took two penalties in the first half of the first period and Cox took charge, sacrificing his body in front of slapshot after slapshot, no matter how much it hurt. One shot in particular, from Penn State sharp-shooter Casey Bailey got him right in a spot that made every man in the jam-packed crowd cringe.
“What can you say about the guy,” captain Michael Ferrantino said of Cox. “You don’t see anything like that in movies really. He’s sitting there and that’s not anybody winding up; it’s Casey Bailey. He’s got an absolute bomb. He just lays down and takes it, but that got us all going. He does that and everyone’s looking around hey what can I do.”
Cox talked about how he felt after the big win.
“Physically, worn down, but mentally I couldn’t be any higher,” Cox said. “To come and get six points from Penn State, it’s awesome. Blocking shots, to me, although it’s going to hurt, it’s part of the reason why I play.”
Cox also said that “the win makes some of the pain go away.”
In goal, Jake Hildebrand was strong again turning aside 40 of the 42 shots he faced, giving him 68 saves on 70 shots for the weekend.
“He made big saves like he did last night,” Anastos said. “I thought there was more pressure on him tonight than there was last night. Last night we didn’t give up as many good quality, or tough, chances that we did tonight and in both cases Hildy stood up when we needed him to to make the big save.”
Not to be overlooked was MacEachern’s hat trick, which gave him four goals on the weekend. The last Spartan to record a hat trick was Matt Berry on Nov. 10, 2012 in a 7-2 win over Michigan.
After the game, MacEachern said Berry called his hat trick in the third period. Ironically, Berry got the primary assist on MacEachern’s third goal, his second powerplay goal of the game, which put the Spartans up 3-1 with just over 10 minutes left.
“It’s cool to get the hat trick, but it’s definitely not about me,” MacEachern said. “I wouldn’t have been able to get those three goals if it wasn’t for the team. Joe Cox blocking those shots gave me some energy out there to go out there and do everything I could to help the team.”
Once the Spartans killed the pair of penalties to open the game, their offense went right to work. After cycling the puck around the offensive zone, Ron Boyd threw the puck off the end boards that perfectly careened off the back of the net and right into the slot, where MacEachern was charging and MacEachern buried a shot top shelf to Penn State goalie Matthew Skoff’s blocker side. Skoff made 26 saves on the night for Penn State (15-9-4, 7-4-1-0 in the Big Ten)
The Spartans had more shot blocks (12) than they did shots on goal in the first period (8). Cox had four blocks in the period on his own.
The Michigan State lead held until Penn State earned a powerplay when Josh Jacobs went to the sin bin for high-sticking. Connor Varley ripped a slapshot from the center of the blueline that beat Hildebrand high to the blocker.
The goal snapped a 164:45 home shutout streak for Hildebrand.
Just under six minutes later, Penn State took two penalties 1:03 apart by Bailey and Varley to give the Spartans a 57-second 5-on-3.
The Spartan powerplay, which had been quiet over the previous three games, came to life as a shot from Matt DeBlouw was stopped by Skoff but the rebound popped right to the stick of MacEachern off to Skoff’s left, and he put it home to give Michigan State the lead again.
The Spartans were fortunate to be up heading into the second intermission. The Nittany Lions outshot them 21-12 and carried the play for a good portion of the time.
“There were parts of that period where that was definitely happening for a couple reasons,” Anastos said. “We used a lot of energy by a few guys in that first period killing penalties. I thought they had some momentum going, we needed to weather the storm. It became a one-period weekend. I told the guys, forget about what we’ve accomplished to date, doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we’ve got to go and win this period.”
And they did just that. The Spartans outshot Penn State 9-6 in the third period, which does not happen often against the Nittany Lions, especially when they are trailing.
After MacEachern team-leading 10th goal made it 3-1, Bailey cut the Spartan lead in half with 2:24 left on the clock with his 20th goal of the season.
A furious attack by Penn State would not be able to tie the game in the dying seconds, and the Spartans came out with their second series sweep in four weeks, in front of 6,444 faithful at Munn Arena.
With the sweep, the Spartans put themselves right into the thick of the race for the first two spots in the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan State is now tied with Penn State for third in the conference with 22 points. Both are just two points behind Michigan and Minnesota, who are tied for first with 24 points.
Michigan State still has two games against Minnesota and Michigan, so the potential is there to make a run to the top of the standings. The Spartans have four games against a struggling Wisconsin team as well.
“We definitely have a lot of confidence moving forward,” MacEachern said. “I think our schedule sets us up perfect to give us a chance to finish in the top two spots and get that bye in the big ten tournament. Everyone’s really excited about the upcoming eight games.”
His coach echoed some of that.
“It’s satisfying to see that the confidence is growing, that the team is coming together,” Anastos said. “We knew there was an opportunity to do that, we still have plenty of work to do, but at least we’ve climbed our way into the conversation right now. Now what’s important is for this group to enjoy a successful weekend, and yet put that behind us starting tomorrow and look ahead.”
The Spartans hit the road for their first series against Wisconsin (3-19-4, 1-9-2-2 in the Big Ten) starting Friday night.
Brian Bobal is the host of Behind the Mask for Impact Sports
Photo: Scott Wasserman/Impact Sports