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November 11, 2012

MSU's rout of Michigan raises expectations

EAST LANSING - Entering Saturday's game against No. 11/12 Michigan, there were no expectations about this year's Michigan State hockey team, especially high ones.

But after running the Wolverines out of Munn Ice Arena with a 7-2 shellacking on Saturday night - a day after falling to U-M 5-1 in Ann Arbor - both players and coaches were in agreement that this is how good MSU's hockey team and program can be going forward.

"I certainly think (that scoring seven goals) will help our confidence but it has also created a standard of expectation," said Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos, "because you can see some of the good things we did and now we can expect that and if we're not holding ourselves to that standard, we have to fix it because we've shown what we're capable. For our team, it will allow us to keep building, gaining experience and keep getting better.''

Players like upperclassman Anthony Hayes agreed

"Obviously, we just set a new standard for ourselves,'' said the senior alternate captain, who scored the Spartans' third goal. "We thought we played good against Lake State (last week) on Saturday night and now we have a whole new standard that we've set for ourselves. That each day we want to get better and prove to ourselves that we can play at that level. Now, it's going to be an expectation that we do it everyday in practice and that we do it every game.''

Energized by a hat trick from sophomore forward Matt Berry, who got the ball rolling with a goal just :34 seconds into the game, MSU (4-5-1, 3-3-0 CCHA) got off to a fast start for the first time this season and did their best impression of kicking a team when its down by scoring four first-period goals, en route to a goal total MSU hadn't tallied against the Wolverines (4-4-1, 2-3-1-0) since Nov. 3rd, 2006.

Back then, MSU rolled to a 7-4 win at home.

On Saturday, in front of a Munn Ice Arena all-time record crowd of 7,225, the Spartans looked like some of the dominant teams from the past with scoring touch, strong defense and an emotional level the opponent could not match.

It was an energy level - both on the bench and in the stands - that Anastos said he hadn't witnessed since his arrival last season.

"It's interesting," said the second-year coach. "I don't know if it's our team starting to come together a little bit or the crowd because I think they were electric and I think the players feed off of that. We always talk about that emotional level. I don't like to talk a lot on the bench and yet I feel like I've had to talk a fair bit to be encouraging as we gain experience. Saturday was probably the least I've talked in a year-and-half since I've been here because the players carried that.''

And much of it was provided by the play of the Spartans' line of Berry, sophomore Brent Darnell and freshman Matt DeBlouw, a draft pick of the NHL's Calgary Flames.

That trio had a hand in five of MSU's seven tallies and by game's end, when the student section had finishing chanting, "Warm up the Bus" with 9:21 left and "Back to Walmart" at the 6:15 mark, that entire line was named the game's three stars.

The crowd, sparked by the 'A-Team' student section, ended its serenade of the Wolverines with a "Little Sister'' chant with just under two minutes left.

That was part of an atmosphere that had not been generated in Munn since the days when former coach Ron Mason stood behind the bench, guiding teams that made Munn a tough place to play.

"There was an emotional level that I haven't seen in our team this season yet, but I think the atmosphere in this building had a lot to do with that, between the students and the size of the crowd,'' Anastos said.

Freshman goaltender Jake Hildebrand, a native of Pennsylvania, celebrated his first experience inside the MSU-U-M rivalry with a 40-save effort and his second win of the season.

As for Berry, who also scored at 10:42 of the first period and at 15:08 of the second, Anastos said it was a performance that was directly related to three very good days of practice leading up to MSU's series against the Wolverines.

"Matt Berry has a high-talent level, a high skill level and we're trying to get him to reach his potential and part of getting to his potential is to really push himself to work at a high level everyday,'' Anastos said. "This week in practice, he had the best week, maybe, of his season-and-a-half here. So what I'm hoping happens is that he correlates what he did all week to prepare to for the test on Friday and Saturday because he can perform at that level at a consistent basis.''

Berry's offensive outburst was one that U-M coach Red Berenson was cognizant of entering the game and said his team should have respected entering Saturday night.

"I know that Berry's their top offensive player and we need to respect that when he's on the ice,'' Berenson said. "(MSU) didn't have a good night last night and they were a little embarrassed. They came back tonight. They have pride and they had a great night. Your best players are supposed to be your best players and theirs were tonight.''

Which begs the question as to how do the Spartans repeat Saturday's performance on a more consistent basis?

As well as things went on Saturday, there are still a few major issues the Spartans must address before they can solidify there ranking as a 'good team.'

And much of that had to do with the fast start they were able to create on Saturday.

Already this season, MSU has proven itself to be a Saturday night team, usually after a Friday night loss that has left questions about its approach and intensity during the first night of a weekend series.

Other than the Niagara series, to open the season, in which MSU won and tied, MSU has opened its two-game series on Friday night with a loss, being outscored 9-3.

Saturday though has given rise to excellence, where MSU has outscored its opponents 17-5 in the last three weekends including Saturday's rout of Michigan.

"I can't account for the difference over the last four weeks between Friday and Saturday night but I think there's a lot of things tonight from last night,'' Anastos said. "One is (Friday night was) our first experience as a group, with so many young guys going in (to Michigan) to play. I think guys were tentative and uptight. Tonight I thought our guys were more relaxed. I thought we had more jump and I thought the atmosphere here had a huge impact on our team.''

So obviously, the secret is to find that formula that drives MSU's chemistry for success on Saturday night.

"I think it's pretty clear that we've been struggling in the first period, the first two periods really, so it's definitely a confidence booster to see us score early but we need to figure out a way to continue doing that,'' said junior captain Greg Wolfe, who chipped in an assist on Berry's second goal. "We'll have a lot of success if we can figure out how to start off a game with a goal or two in the first period because we can't wait until the third period.

"For some reason, we've been a Saturday team. We've come out with a lot better jump the second night . . . I really can't tell you why that is right now, we're trying to figure that out too but I can tell you we had the mentality to come out and outwork (Michigan) all night and I think that's the mentality we've got to have, every game the rest of the way.''


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