The Bitter End for MSU Hockey

Michigan State’s improbable season came to a sour end Friday night at Joe Louis Arena after a 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines.

Senior Matt Berry tallied the only goal for the Spartans, who managed 27 shots on UM goalie Steve Racine. Solid play by the Wolverines in their defensive end crippled Michigan State’s offense and limited the Spartans to very few quality scoring chances all night.

“We needed to have a lot more than we did in that game,” sophomore Joe Cox said. “You saw by the shots, we just didn’t get enough pucks to the net. We didn’t get enough guys going to the net even before that. They have such great offensive power, our defense couldn’t keep up to it.”

At the other end, junior Jake Hildebrand played to his billing, making 45 saves despite giving up four goals. The Wolverines hurled 93 total shot attempts toward Hildebrand’s net and the fortress just could not hold any longer.

“We gave up shots too easy and you can’t rely on your goaltender to make that many saves on a consistent basis,” Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos said.

Michigan was able to not only impose its will on offense, but it was able to get results last night unlike when the two teams met a week ago. The Wolverines had 92 total shot attempts at Yost Ice Arena that night.

“I thought where we had trouble the most was in our own zone down low,” Anastos said. “I didn’t think we were able to shut them down. They were able to build some momentum down there and when you’re in your zone for a while and you can’t shut plays down and all of a sudden you get it out, the tendency is just to get a line change. You can never really build any momentum.”

The Michigan pressure was such that the Spartans were outshot 24-8 in the first period alone, with many of Michigan State’s shots coming from the outside.

“They came out and they outworked us a lot of the game and we just couldn’t find a way to get a lot in front of the goalie and a lot of pucks to the net,” Berry said.

With Berry in the sin bin serving a minor for tripping with just under seven minutes left in the first period, Michigan’s lethal power play went to work and sophomore Michael Downing threw a shot toward the net that deflected off of MSU defenseman John Draeger by Hildebrand’s left side and found its way into the back of the net.

The goal was Downing’s sixth of the season and first since the Hockey City Classic at Soldier Field.

Part of Michigan’s strong offense is fueled by contributions on the back end. The six defensemen that dressed have combined for 24 goals and 61 assists in 36 games compared to three goals and 29 assists combined from the six Spartan defensemen.

“The positive in the first period is that we got out of it with only a one-goal deficit, and I told our guys that there were forty minutes to play,” Anastos said. “We’re still in the game, although they were carrying the play.”

The Spartans found their legs for a good stretch in the second period and junior Ryan Keller had an early breakaway, but Racine came up with a blocker save. All the hard work culminated in a power play after Michigan senior Travis Lynch took an elbowing minor.

After a full 1:38 of offensive pressure, Berry took the puck in the left corner and drove the net and managed to get the puck behind Racine to tie the game at one for his 12th goal of the season and last in a Spartan sweater.

The momentum immediately swung in Michigan State’s favor and the Spartans nearly took a lead, but minutes later a turnover took the wind right out of their sails.

Mackenzie MacEachern made an anonymous pass near the blue line, allowing the Wolverines to go up ice on a 2-on-1 and J.T. Compher came down the right side and fired a shot that beat Hildebrand over his left shoulder for his 12th of the season.

“One of the reasons why our goals-against has been so low all season long is we’ve given up very few odd man rushes, very few, and we gave up just too many,” Anastos said. “We didn’t take care of the puck.”

The wheels slowly fell of the train after that for Michigan State. Back-to-back penalties just minutes after Compher’s goal put the Spartans behind the eight ball again.

“That’s the nature of the beast when you’re a step behind is you start to take pokes or slashes or trips and you don’t draw penalties,” Anastos said. “They had a step on us all night long and the result and the quality of the game is what it was.”

Despite killing both penalties, the Spartans were not able to capitalize on that momentum heading into the final period and their offensive woes continued.

Michigan junior Cristoval “Boo” Nieves delivered the dagger in the hearts of the Spartans 9:14 into the third period, after the puck pinballed around the Michigan State net.

Hildebrand, without a stick, had to dive to his right to try and get a blocker on the puck but it slid just under his stretched out arm to put Michigan in firm command of the game.

Just 4:26 later, Alex Kile put an emphatic exclamation point on the night with a dazzling toe drag around Draeger near the left faceoff dot and beat Hildebrand to his glove side to make it 4-1.

The Spartans would not come close to cutting the deficit and their season came to an abrupt end at the hands of their bitter rivals.

“I don’t think we were as tenacious on the puck as we were (last) Saturday and we just didn’t play Michigan State hockey,” Cox said. “You saw Michigan State hockey (last) Saturday a little bit and we came out with a W and (last night) you just didn’t see it.”

The Wolverines will now play their third game in three days as they take on Minnesota tonight with a bid for the NCAA Tournament on the line.

For the Spartans, the offseason begins after a terrific season.

“I thought we had a lot more to give, a lot further to go, but now it’s just time to rebuild and come back next year as a stronger team,” Cox said.

Photo: Brian Bobal/Impact Sports