EAST LANSING - What a difference a half a season has made. What a difference a new coaching staff has made. And what a difference a new philosophy, approach and attitude have made during the first part of the Michigan State hockey team's 2011-12 season.
In the course of a few short months, first-year head coach Tom Anastos has not only changed the culture but in doing so he has transformed a team that many thought was just made up of mediocre players into a squad that can compete with just about anybody in the nation.
So much so, that if you lived in an underground cave last season and never saw this team play until this season, you would think they finished near or at the top of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association standings and made it to the NCAA Tournament primed for a deep run.
And while you would be wrong, as the No. 14 ranked Spartans (10-5-1, 6-4-0 CCHA) prepare for the season's first meetings with archrival Michigan on Friday (7:35 p.m., Yost Ice Arena) and Saturday (6:35 p.m., Munn Ice Arena), you may not be wrong in characterizing this group as a top tier team in the conference and an eventual NCAA participant.
"We're still turning (the program around),'' Anastos warned. "This is not a hairpin turn. It takes a while and we've got a lot of work to do. But we're pleased to see the progress that we've seen. Have our goals changed since our start has been better than most expected? The truth is we set very ambitious goals whether we were capable of achieving those goals or not, they haven't changed because they were incredibly ambitious.''
Those goals, although not publicly revealed, don't seem so impossible to reach, even after last year's 10th-place finish. After sweeping a series against then-No. 5/6 Western Michigan on the road and winning and tying against-then No. 2/3 Minnesota - a team some analyst's pick to win a national title this season - this team is beginning to establish itself as one that will be tough to beat.
"I'd like to think the confidence is gaining. What I like is more of the subtleness of going into a Western (Michigan) where we were probably expected not to win at all and we performed pretty darn well. Our guys were excited (after that) and over a period of time that excitement has grown into a little bit to an expectation. Not a cockiness, not an overconfidence, but an expectation that we expect to go out and compete. Yet, at the same time remaining humble and knowing that we've got to go and really earn any success that we have.''
While facing the Wolverines last season may have been looked at with worry, trepidation and anxiety, this year's team, which had just six wins after 16 games last season should be looked at one that has a slight advantage going into its series with U-M.
So facing the Wolverines in a home-and-home series is this team's next big test as it moves forward in a season that has already been filled with a handful of pleasant surprises.
No matter what happens focus won't and shouldn't be a concern for the coaching staff as they prepared the team for this all-too important series. Because after this weekend's games, the Spartans won't play another hockey game until they meet Michigan Tech in the opening round of the annual Great Lakes Invitational on Dec. 29th.
"Having a rivalry game against your biggest rival is exciting for everybody. We're all fired up for it. It gives you a little extra jump in practice,'' Anastos said. "There's no question that the guys will look forward to playing. They're not going to look past playing this weekend. In fact, there's nothing to look forward to, other than a break after this weekend. So we know we have their attention and their focus.''
The Spartans, who have three lines that can score, are led by the trio of Lee Reimer, Greg Wolfe and Mike Merrifield.
While those three have combined for 49 points so far this season - Merrifield is the team's leading goal scorer with 8 - the Wolverines will not be able to key on that line if they want to slow the Spartans' offense because the line of Kevin Walrod, Brett Perlini and Matt Berry, along with Dean Chelios, Daultan Leveille and Brent Darnell, have proven to be just as dangerous in MSU efforts to score goals.
Last season, the Spartans had 10 players who finished the season with 10 or more points.
This season, just 16 games in, seven Spartans have provided 10 or more points, with two others at nine points and three more with seven points or more.
That means a lot more people are getting the job done. Something you need on any hockey team if you expect to compete for titles and championships.
"We know we're not the most talented team in college hockey,'' Anastos said. "That we're going to have to scratch and claw every week to have a little bit of success and even if we do that we're going to need really good goaltending, opportunistic scoring and all those sorts of things. So far, we've been gaining in so many ways and that's helping our confidence now. So now, we're starting to feel a little better about our ability to compete and we've demonstrated we can compete against good teams, and once you start to believe that, that gives you a chance to really do it. That's still evolving but I'm pleased with our progress.''
And that goaltending that Anastos is speaking of has been there. With a two goalie system shared by senior Drew Palmisano and sophomore Willie Yanakeff.
Anastos has done a good job playing the goalies off one another because Palmisano seems to perform better between the pipes when he is pushed by competition.
That has led to a 4-3-1 record and 2.73 goals against average for the senior goaltender, while Yanakeff has developed and gotten stronger with each start, earning a 6-2 mark, with a 2.26 GAA.
This weekend, expect Palmisano to play at Michigan, while Yanakeff defends home ice on Saturday.
From there, every player on the team has taken his game to another level. That rise in the level of play comes from the fact that Anastos and his staff have created an atmosphere where everyone's contributions are important to the overall success of the team. It's not an atmosphere where some are more important than others. It's an environment where every one is just as important as the other.
A example of that can be seen in the upgraded production of senior defenseman Matt Crandell, more known for his defensive strength on the blueline.
Last season, the Minnesota native finished with just six points. This season, 16 games in, he has 10 points. And last season, Walrod had just eight points in 28 games. This season, he has nine in 16.
And of course, when you look at what has become the Spartans top scoring line of Reimer, Wolfe and Merrifield, you are looking at three players who have considerably taken their games to a higher level.
Last season Reimer had just seven points. This year he has 20. Wolfe finished with 11 points last season and has 16, while Merrifield, who had just eight points in 2010-11 has 13.
"Coming into the season, we had no idea where goal scoring was going to come from but at this stage of the game we have tried to create a style of play that is permissible, we're accepting mistakes and we're trying to learn from mistakes and encourage guys to make good decisions, but we're not telling guys everything to do. We're trying to provide a structure. We're telling them, 'when we have the puck, go score a goal.' If we're up, we're not peeling back and trying to prevent the other team from scoring, we're trying to score another goal. So we're trying to give guys the freedom to go play and not be worried about making all kinds of mistakes and maybe as a result, some guys have scored some goals and that's helped their confidence. I think that's the key to playing in an offense, having confidence.''
That philosophy in an uptempo, non-surrendering approach has catapulted MSU into being a tough team to play.
Last season the Spartans sat back and defended their positions, hoping to counterpunch after an opponents mistakes. This season, MSU is taking it to the opponent with a strong forecheck mentality, forcing other team's to worry about what MSU will and can do instead of getting an opportunity to excel at what they do best.
And yes, there's been mistakes and decisions that have led to goals for the opponent but that has not been because the Spartans retreated and hoped for the best. With this year's team, mistakes of aggression have been more the norm and have allowed this group, more than not, the opportunity to showcase its talents instead of trying to just limit the opponent's strengths.
This season, MSU's aggressive and decisive approach has denied many of the teams it has played to get comfortable inside their own skins because now, those same teams that MSU backed down from have found themselves on the defensive in an effort to limit their own mistakes.
Entering its game against the Wolverines, MSU's upperclassmen are leading the way. The senior class has 57 points, the juniors 37, the sophomores 39 and the freshmen 19.
U-M, which is led by freshman Phil Di Giuseppe's eight goals and six assists, have three juniors and a sophomore among their top five scorers. The team's next five leading scorers consist of one senior, two juniors, a sophomore and a freshman.
U-M will be without Di Giuseppe on Saturday at Munn because he's is expected to leave and report to the Canadian Junior National team.
But, in what may turn out to be the most telling number during a weekend series in which U-M has recently gone 11-5, MSU is 8-1-1 in its last 10 games, while the Wolverines have struggled to a 2-7-1 mark.
Anastos is not buying the Wolverines recent fall from grace.
"We know we have a good opponent,'' he said. "I don't care how much they've won or lost of late. It doesn't matter. It's a rivalry series where it doesn't matter if they or we lost every game we played to date. The game will be contested from the drop of the first puck until the end of the game.
"I know they're going through a bit of a spell right now and if I was them at this stage of the game, I'd be saying, 'what a great opportunity for our team because we have a rivalry series where we can really set the table for our second half of the year.' So I anticipate that we'll have our hands full. They have lots of skill on their team much like when we played Minnesota. They go out and play to win.''
So while the emotion of the rivalry - the most games played in college hockey history at 284 meetings - will carry both teams only so far, expect the potential for offensive fireworks because the Wolverines are first in the league at 3.56 goals per game, with the Spartans coming in second at 3.50 goals a game.
"We talked with the players about being emotionally engaged in this series because it's necessary,'' Anastos said. "The emotional level raises significantly but, at the same time, you have to be able to control that emotion and have a certain level of discipline so you don't allow emotion to become a problem. Still, these are the kinds of games that as a player you remember most.''
As for his first trip to Yost on Friday night as MSU's head coach.
"I was booed as a commissioner and I'll probably be booed as a coach,'' Anastos said.